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Dennis Ross explains Middle East strategy of President Obama

Dennis RossIT wasn’t exactly damage control, since Dennis Ross, special assistant to President Obama and an acknowledged Middle East expert, didn’t backtrack or make apologies for Obama’s controversial speech on the Middle East last month.

And it wasn’t exactly spin, since Ross engaged in no distortion or manipulation of words.

Ross himself, in a May 27 conference call with members of the American Jewish press, including the Intermountain Jewish News, preferred to call it “providing context” for his boss’s statements.

It was clear, however, that Ross’s mission in talking to Jewish media was to smooth feathers ruffled by the president’s suggestion that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations be based on the 1967 pre-war border, an idea that triggered reactions ranging from outspoken outrage to carefully worded caution among American Jewish leaders and organizations.

Although Obama himself calmed the fears of some American Jews when he spoke to AIPAC three days after his May 19 speech, Ross insisted that the president’s overall context is crucial to understanding his approach to peace.

“If you take a look at what the president was saying when it comes to peace, the context was an unshakeable, ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” Ross said. “He was very clear in making it plain that this is not about words but it’s about deeds.”

Such deeds include preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge and enhancing its defensive capabilities, especially against Hamas rockets, as exemplified by the early installation of the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Ross also called “unprecedented” the current level of cooperation and dialogue between US and Israeli security establishments.

“The fundamentals of the relationship as it relates to security — which sometimes seem to be lost — have never been as strong as they are right now and that’s, I think, a real source of pride to the president,” Ross told reporters.

“And it creates the context in which he approaches the question of peace.”

Obama is trying to present an outcome-based “credible basis” for peace talks in which both Israelis and Palestinians can have some degree of confidence in ultimate success, Ross explained, and in which the legitimate needs of both parties can be largely realized.

Echoing Obama’s comments to AIPAC, Ross emphasized that the president was not trying to pre-impose 1967 borders on any final settlement.

The basis of pre-Six Day War borders and mutually agreed land swaps “means the two sides negotiate, taking into account the realities of the last 44 years, the demographic realities and the needs of each side,” Ross said.

“It means you have a border that’s different from the one that was set on June 4, 1967.”

It also means, he added, that “security elements have to be robust and that the provisions have to be robust enough to ensure that there can’t be a reemergence of terror. There cannot be infiltration of weapons and there has to be effective border security arrangements.”

Obama has no intention to broker any Israeli-Palestinian agreement that leaves “Israel vulnerable or unable to defend itself by itself,” Ross insisted.

“Our commitment to Israel is going to be enduring and is unshakeable — as he [Obama] said, ironclad.”

These are, Ross emphasized, not only Obama’s views but his own. Responding to a reporter’s question, he firmly denied media reports that he had disagreed with the president over the use of “1967” to describe a basis for border negotiations.

“I have no idea where those reports come from,” Ross said. “I’m not going to comment on what our internal discussions are, but those reports are certainly not based on fact.”

MOVING into easier, or at least less controversial, territory, Ross touted Obama’s stated determination to oppose efforts to delegitimize Israel — “We have done it on a daily basis; we will continue to do it” — and his commitment never to “impose” a peace deal on the Israelis, “because that’s simply something that cannot ever work. We see negotiations as the only way to resolve this conflict.”

That principle, Ross stressed, extends to the stated ambitions of the Palestinian Authority to seek a unilateral declaration of statehood this coming September at the UN.

“The idea that you have a resolution in New York that is built around recognition of statehood is not the way to resolve this conflict,” he said.

“It moves toward unilateralism. The road to resolution of this conflict is through mutuality, not through unilateralism. It will inevitably be based on the kind of terms that will make it harder to ever get back to negotiations.”

In fact, Ross added, the PA’s threat of such a unilateral declaration was a major impetus behind Obama’s decision to address Israeli-Palestinian peace in his recent speeches.

It was “to show that there is an alternative to what the Palestinians may be contemplating. It’s important for us to be able to fuse with the Europeans in particular the fact that there is a credible alternative.”

European leaders have been pushing for a clear declaration of principles, outlying a pathway to Israeli-Palestinian peace, as an alternative to unilateral declaration, and Obama is trying to achieve that, Ross said.

“He’s identifying a basis for negotiations that he considers to be a credible basis, that gives all sides the reason to believe that in fact negotiations could succeed.

“But he also understands that it’s quite legitimate for Israel to question going into negotiations at a time when you have a reconciliation agreement with a group like Hamas, that rejects Israel’s basic right to exist.”

Palestinian decisions concerning the new Fatah-Hamas reconciliation will be crucial in determining the feasibility of negotiations, Ross said.

“It’s up to the Palestinians in the weeks and months ahead to answer that question, explicitly. Are they prepared to be negotiating with Israel in a way that leaves no doubt about recognizing Israel’s right to exist and having that be an essential part of any process that approaches peace?”

WHEN asked by the IJN whether the Obama administration has identified any threshold by which to determine whether military action should be taken against Syria — currently in the throes of civil unrest that many are comparing to Libya — Ross deflected the question to his colleague, Steve Simon, senior director for the Middle East and North Africa for the National Security Council.

“The situations in Syria and Libya differ in some important ways,” Simon said.

“There isn’t at this point a civil war in Syria. There are things going on that are highly objectionable and for which the US and our European allies have sanctioned Syria and have imposed sanctions on specific individuals associated with the regime, including Bashar al Assad.”

Simon did not provide criteria by which to differentiate civil war and popular uprising, other than to cite the fact that Libya’s Qadaffi “used heavy weapons to kill men, women and children” and his threats to “hunt opposition members down like rats.”

How those actions substantively differ from the policies of Syria’s Assad – whose forces are reported to have killed some 1,000 protesters in recent weeks — was left unexplained.

Simon did, however, defend the administration’s handling of Syria.

“The US and its allies have delivered clear requirements to Assad as to what he needs to do to get out from under sanctions and, in fact, continue as the leader in Syria.

“What the president has said was essentially that Assad has to lead a democratic transformation of Syria or leave.

“He’s been told specifically that he has to let in UN investigative teams to look at the violence that has taken place there.

“He needs to establish a dialogue with opposition groups and most importantly he needs to stop shooting at his own citizens.”

Until there is substantial international consensus on taking military action against Syria, Simon said, and until the situation there more closely resembles “civil war,” there is little prospect for such action to take place.

“The idea of military force in this setting hasn’t been considered,” he said. “There is no consensus for it in the international community. There aren’t the civil war type conditions that obtained in Libya . . . and we don’t see them developing, certainly in the near future.”

Simon’s comments on May 27, however, came only a couple of days before reports were filed from Syria that civilians have begun engaging Syrian military and police forces with military-style weapons.

In light of those developments, the administration might have to reconsider its approach.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com


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