White House advisor defends Obama peace talks stance

Dennis Ross says US president’s call for negotiations based along 1967 lines has been welcomed by European leaders.

dennis ross_311 reuters (photo credit: Gary Cameron / Reuters)
dennis ross_311 reuters
(photo credit: Gary Cameron / Reuters)
WASHINGTON – A top White House adviser defended US President Barack Obama’s controversial posture on peace talks Friday, arguing that his approach was paying off by garnering European support.
Dennis Ross, a senior adviser to Obama on the Middle East, told Jewish newspapers that the president’s call for Israeli- Palestinian negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines, with agreed land swaps, has been welcomed by European leaders during this past week of international meetings surrounding the G8 summit of world powers.
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“The character of discussions with the Europeans has clearly improved for the better,” he said of talks held this week.
“They have been endorsing what the president had to say.”
He explained that one of the reasons Obama “became convinced” that it was necessary to lay out this basis for talks was that it would give the US leverage with the Europeans so they wouldn’t support a unilateral declaration of statehood that the Palestinians are seeking at the UN in September.
“It’s important for us to be able to use with the Europeans in particular, the fact that there is a credible alternative – there is an alternative basis on which to pursue the negotiation,” he said. “It gives us an ability with the Europeans to say this is not the right way to go. You should be opposing any effort to go to the UN.”
Ross denied that he had advised against Obama’s policy, which was hammered out leading up to his major address on the changes sweeping the Middle East two weeks ago.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quick to push back against that approach when he visited Washington the day after Obama’s speech.
Asked for the US response to Netanyahu’s own speech before Congress – where in addition to rejecting a deal on the 1967 lines, the prime minister spelled out positions on a unified Jerusalem, and no right of return for Palestinian refugees, promptly dismissed by Ramallah – Ross pointed noted, “he also talked about making painful compromises, so I think you have to take the whole speech, and not just focus on parts of it.”
In an off-the-record call with Jewish leaders Thursday, Ross made a similar point about Netanyahu, but also rejected the Israeli charge that the decision to include the 1967 language in Obama’s speech came without warming.
Ross said the prospect of the US endorsing that position had been raised as a possibility as long ago as last fall, so the concept that it was suddenly sprung “doesn’t fit history,” according to participants, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
They said that he did note that the decision to include the reference hadn’t been made with Israeli agreement, but that sometimes judgments need to be made, and these “judgments are never simple.”
Ross also warned that the Europeans don’t always believe Netanyahu is “serious” about making peace, and see the United States as the Israeli leader’s enabler, Jewish leaders on the call said.
In that conversation as well, Ross defended Obama’s approach, saying doing nothing would have led to a drastically deteriorating situation when it came to heading off a unilateral declaration of statehood, and that it also helped rally international support for standing firm on Hamas after it signed an agreement to join a unity government with Fatah on May 4.
Ross was joined on both calls by Steve Simon, senior National Security Council adviser on the Middle East and North Africa, who spoke more broadly about changes in the region.
He said the urgency of making progress between Israelis and Palestinians had increased in the wake of the Arab uprisings across the Middle East, as governments now would be displaying more populist tendencies and have to be more responsive to public opinion – much of it hostile to Israel – since it was no longer enough to sign an agreement with one leader.
Simon pointed to the threat posed by the Nakba Day demonstrations on Israel’s borders, and stressed Palestinians, and Arabs around the region, would have to feel that there was progress, or Israel could face “cruel choices,” according to those on the call.
Asked to explain America’s response to Libya, where the US has used military force on behalf of protesters – and Syria, where the US has stayed out of the fray – Simon said the two situations were fundamentally different, and that military force wasn’t being considered in Syria.
“There aren’t the civil war conditions obtained in Libya that triggered military intervention to be seen in Syria,” Simon said, pointing also to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s use of heavy weaponry against civilians and his declaration that he would hunt down opposition members “like rats.”
“Gaddafi’s regime really did make war against the opposition there,” he said. “It was a scenario in which military intervention really was unavoidable and for which there was a strong international consensus.”
Simon added that those conditions didn’t apply in Syria’s case and “we don’t see them developing certainly in the near future.”
Simon recently took over for Daniel Shapiro, who on Thursday was confirmed as the next US ambassador to Israel.