WASHINGTON - Dennis Ross got back in the driver’s seat, yet three years later the peace is still missing.
Ross, a veteran of four failed presidential pushes for Middle East peace, announced Thursday that he would be leaving his post as US President Barack Obama’s top Middle East strategist by the end of the year and rejoining the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Ross leaves with a mixed record in the two areas where he was most focused: Iran's nuclear program and advancing Israeli-Arab peace. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is stalled, if not sliding backwards with the Palestinian statehood campaign and the absence of negotiations. At the same time, the Obama administration has persuaded reluctant nations to sign onto enhanced Iran sanctions.
Ross’ return to the Middle East fray, when candidate Obama tapped him to be a top campaign adviser in the summer of 2008, seemed extraordinary for a man whose comprehensive 2004 tome on his earlier efforts, “The Missing Peace,” focused mainly on his disappointments with a peace process beset by seemingly intractable challenges.
Yet by 2009, Ross was guiding not only the latest iteration of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, he was helping to shape the Obama administration’s policy of building international support for isolating Iran.
Ross “has played a critical role in our efforts to apply unprecedented pressure on the Iranian government, support democratic transitions in the region, and deepen our security relationship with Israel while pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said in a statement on Ross’ planned departure.
Both Ross and the White House cited his desire to spend more time with his family as the reason.
"When Dennis originally joined the Administration, he made it clear that given commitments to his family, he would remain for only two years," Carney said. "In light of the developments in the broader Middle East, the President appreciates his extending that by nearly a year and looks forward to being able to draw on his council periodically going forward."
Ross, in his own statement, said his return to "private life" came with mixed feelings.
"Obviously, there is still work to do but I promised my wife I would return to government for only two years and we both agreed it is time to act on my promise," he said.
The twin challenges of Iran and Arab-Israeli peace finally took their toll, say those who know Ross. But the bromides about family appear to be true. Weeks before the announcement, acquaintances say, Ross was displaying an unusual curiosity about other people’s grandchildren -- as a pretext for describing the joys of his own recent assumption of the title “grandfather.”
“What you see is what you get,” said Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who for years worked alongside Ross as a Middle East negotiator. “After two and a half years and an enormous amount of work with all kinds of family considerations to boot, Dennis probably reached the conclusion that enough is enough.”
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director who was at the luncheon Thursday where Ross first announced his departure, said that above all Ross was tired. “It was wear and tear,” he said.
The likelihood that Ross, 62, quit simply because he was exhausted didn’t stop the cries of speculative vindication emerging from commentators on the left and the right.
The narrative on the right has been that Ross has served as Obama’s “beard,” making policies conservatives have deemed hostile to Israel more palatable for the president’s Jewish supporters.
“Now that facade will be removed, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Ross tired of that role and tired of defending a president whose feelings about Israel were as cold as Ross’s are warm,” Elliott Abrams, who served as a deputy national security adviser in the administration of George W. Bush, told a Washington Post blogger. “This is going to hurt the White House in the Jewish community, because they have no substitute for Ross and no one with his credibility with most Jewish organizations.”
In fact, Ross chafed at the notion that he was fronting for Obama and has been known to snap -- publicly and privately -- at anyone who suggested it. He has defended the president as genuinely committed to achieving a peace that guarantees Israel’s security and to containing Iran.
“For President Obama, our commitment to Israel’s security is not an
empty slogan,” Ross told the ADL in May 2010. “It is real, it serves the
cause of peace and stability in the region, and it is something that is
On the left, a common complaint has been that Ross, who out of
government has not been shy about his pro-Israel proclivities, was a
force who frustrated what might otherwise have been Obama’s
“From my own experiences in the West Bank, talking to Palestinian
leaders and negotiators, he has the trust of many in the Israeli
leadership, but it's the inverse with Palestinians, with Arabs and with”
Middle East policy analysts in Washington, said Matthew Duss, who
directs the Middle East program at the Center for American Progress.
The notion that Ross pulled Obama toward Israel gets the relationship
backwards, said Miller, explaining that presidents set policy and
staffers carry it out. “The president is his own best or worst adviser,”
Ross, who embraced observant Judaism in adulthood, has gravitated toward
the pro-Israel community. The Washington Institute, which he directed
in the mid-2000s, shares board members with the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee. And Ross notably announced his departure Thursday to a
Washington meeting of board members of the Jewish People Policy
Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank launched by the Jewish Agency
for Israel. Ross had served as the think tank's chairman from its
founding until he stepped down to join the Obama administration.
In a rare statement, AIPAC praised Ross’ service: "In his tireless
pursuit of Middle East peace, Ambassador Ross has maintained a deep
understanding of the strategic value of the U.S.-Israel relationship and
has worked vigorously to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Yet Ross also bucks the conventions of Washington’s pro-Israel
community. He led a counterattack in 2008 on critics of Robert Malley, a
former Clinton administration colleague who angered some pro-Israel
activists by suggesting engaging with Hamas and arguing that Israel bore
significant responsibility for the failure of the 2000 Camp David
Summit. Ross also caught flak from some Washington Institute board
members in 2003 for hosting a delegation of Fatah officials as tensions
unleashed by the Second Intifada continued to run high.
Ross’ relationship with Israel and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was
complex. Throughout his career -- launched as a midlevel negotiator in
the Reagan administration -- Ross has advised his superiors to be
sensitive to Israel’s security anxieties and to go the extra mile to
assure its leaders of American support. Ross, insiders say, was
especially reluctant in recent years to criticize Israel for building in
east Jerusalem, telling colleagues that pressure on the matter would
scare Israelis away from making other concessions.
On the other hand, Ross never made any secret of his distaste for
Netanyahu. “The Missing Peace” depicts Netanyahu, in his first term from
1996-1999, as an oafish, hubristic ditherer and a prevaricator prone to
offend a president -- Bill Clinton -- who otherwise was enamored of
Ross in the book describes the aftermath of Clinton storming out of a
room after Netanyahu casually suggested to Yasser Arafat that he
assassinate an inconvenient Palestinian associate. Netanyahu, Ross
recalls, "was sitting alone, obviously stunned, and feeling he was the
victim, asking me 'Why is Israel treated this way, why am I treated this
way? What have I done to deserve this?' (I was struck by his belief
that he and Israel were one and the same, and that he was the innocent
victim of mistreatment.)"
And though Ross was at times perceived by some Obama administration
colleagues to be protecting Netanyahu, he could also lash out. Insiders
say Ross was furious at the Netanyahu government over an announcement of
new building in east Jerusalem during an official visit by US Vice
President Joe Biden in May 2010. They say Ross’ anger over the
embarrassment of the vice president helped fuel the Obama
administration’s fiery backlash.
Ross’ frustration on such occasions was borne from his view that
advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace would help build a coalition against
Iran to force it stand to down from its suspected nuclear weapons
program. “One way that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by
exploiting the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” he
told the ADL in 2010.
While the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems as moribund as when
Ross last left it in 2000, Iran’s isolation might be counted as Ross’
success. International sanctions are tighter than ever, and the
International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, this week
leaked a report making its strongest case ever that Iran is likely
building a nuclear weapons capability. The White House’s effort to
persuade IAEA member nations of Iran’s dangers was, in part, behind its
shift in tone from previously cautious statements.
“His legacy is going to be the unprecedented sanctions the United States
imposed on Iran, which he worked tirelessly on,” Alan Solow, a former
chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations and a prominent Obama backer, told JTA.