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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Dennis Ross has yet to receive his expected appointment as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's point man on Iran, but he has already become embroiled in a conflict in the Middle East - not between Iran and Israel, and not between Israel and the Palestinians for old times' sake, but between Kadima and the Likud.
Both parties intend to feature quotes from Ross in their campaigns to paint a picture of how Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu would get along with new US President Barack Obama should Netanyahu return to the Prime Minister's Office.
The campaigns will also include quotes from other Obama administration officials such as Clinton, incoming national security adviser James Jones and new Mideast mediator George Mitchell. But the differences in quotes from Ross are the most stark.
"Bibi rarely seemed to know how to act on his ideas - how to present them, to whom, and even when to do so," Ross wrote about Netanyahu in a quote from his book, The Missing Peace, that was distributed by Kadima. "Translating an idea into action seemed beyond his grasp. It was not lack of intelligence... it was the lack of judgment... but there was something more: Often he would come up with ideas simply to get himself out of a jam."
In another quote from Kadima, Ross said that Netanyahu, "believing that his policy of talking tough but not doing anything was working - squandered what I delivered."
The Likud, by contrast, focused on Ross quotes that were policy-oriented and not personal. They distributed interviews with Ross and articles he wrote in which he regretted not insisting upon reciprocity with the Palestinians as Netanyahu had advised him.
"Rather than trying to resolve issues like Jerusalem and refugees, we would have focused on expanding the scope of Palestinian independence from Israeli control, developing and investing in the Palestinian economy, and expanding the connections between the Israeli and Palestinian societies," Ross wrote in The Wall Street Journal in June 2007, sounding very much like Netanyahu's current "economic peace" diplomatic plan.
"Pushing for an objective that is demonstrably not achievable now is not going to enhance our already shaky position in the Middle East," Ross added in criticism of what later became known as the Annapolis peace process. "This administration does not need one more far-reaching, transformational objective in the Middle East that would quickly be revealed as hollow."
Netanyahu called Ross to thank him after the article was published.
Likud officials said they hoped Kadima would continue to portray Netanyahu as someone who would have a difficult relationship with the Obama administration, because they believe this would help Netanyahu win more support among the public.
"Kadima's criticism makes it look like Netanyahu will be able to maintain Israel's interests better than her," a Likud official said. "I hope they spend a lot of time on this line because the Israeli public thinks Netanyahu will handle the US much better than Livni."
Both Kadima and Labor have already started warning that Netanyahu would have an adversarial relationship with Obama.
"Whoever thinks that it will be easy for Israel with Netanyahu as prime minister is wrong," Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog told Army Radio on Friday. "It will be hard because it seems that Netanyahu's policies will be in direct contrast with those of Obama."
A source close to Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said she believed Obama's election was an opportunity for Israel to join him in pushing the diplomatic process with the Palestinians forward and creating a coalition of Mideast moderates. But she believed this would only happen if she won the election on February 10 and not Netanyahu.
Livni intends to maximize her public appearances this week to try to come from behind in the polls. Two polls published on Friday found that the gap between Kadima and Labor was four seats. Livni has scheduled three or four photo-opportunities a day for the next week to remain as visible as possible.
Kadima and the other parties will also reach out to voters through their televised campaign commercials, which begin on Tuesday, 14 days before the election. Kadima will use its ads to reveal more about Livni and to sharpen the differences between her and Netanyahu.
The Likud unveiled a negative ad on Saturday night that accuses Livni of making zero accomplishments in her 10 years in the Knesset and in the many cabinet positions she has held. Likud strategists said that most of their ads would be positive, but they would produce more negative ads if Kadima harshly attacked Netanyahu.
"When the polls are good, there is no reason to go negative, but if they attack us personally, we will fight her back," a Likud official said. "There is no shortage of negative things to say about Livni. She has failed at everything. We will portray her as having no principles."
One party the Likud does not intend to attack is Israel Beiteinu.
Likud candidate former IDF chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon did criticize Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman at a cultural event on Saturday.
But a party spokesman said Ya'alon was speaking for himself.
The Likud believes attacking Israel Beiteinu would harm the Likud's chances of winning Russian immigrant voters. While Netanyahu is reportedly upset that Lieberman has not ruled out joining a Livni-led government, party officials said they were confident that Lieberman would be part of a government that Netanyahu will form.