Obama’s Peace Tack Contrasts With Key Aide, Friend of Israel
By Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, May 21, 2011
WASHINGTON — Five days ago, during a closed-door meeting with a group of Middle East experts, administration officials, and journalists, King Abdullah II of Jordan gave his assessment of how Arabs view the debate within the Obama administration over how far to push Israel on concessions for peace with the Palestinians.
From the State Department, “we get good responses,” the Jordanian king said, according to several people who were in the room. And from the Pentagon, too. “But not from the White House, and we know the reason why is because of Dennis Ross” — President Obama’s chief Middle East adviser.
Mr. Ross, King Abdullah concluded, “is giving wrong advice to the White House.”
By almost all accounts, Dennis B. Ross — Middle East envoy to three presidents, well-known architect of incremental and painstaking diplomacy in the Middle East that eschews game-changing plays — is Israel’s friend in the Obama White House and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in town.
His strategy sometimes contrasts sharply with that of a president who has bold instincts and a willingness to elevate the plight of the Palestinians to a status equal to that of the Israelis.
But now, as the president is embarking on a course that, once again, puts him at odds with Israel’s conservative prime minister, the question is how much of a split the president is willing to make not only with the Israeli leader, but with his own hand-picked Middle East adviser.
The White House would not say where Mr. Ross, 62, stood on the president’s announcement on Thursday that Israel’s pre-1967 borders — adjusted to account for Israeli security needs and Jewish settlements in the West Bank — should form the basis for a negotiated settlement. Mr. Ross did not respond to requests for comment for this article. His friends and associates say he has long believed that peace negotiations will succeed only if the United States closely coordinates its efforts with the Israelis.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel reacted sharply to the president’s proposal, the reality is that the course Mr. Obama outlined Thursday was much more modest than what some of his advisers initially advocated.
During the administration’s debates over the past several months, Mr. Ross made clear that he was opposed to having Mr. Obama push Israel by putting forth a comprehensive American plan for a peace deal with the Palestinians, according to officials involved in the debate.
George J. Mitchell, who was Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, backed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, argued in favor of a comprehensive American proposal that would include borders, security and the fate of Jerusalem and refugees. But Mr. Ross balked, administration officials said, arguing that it was unwise for the United States to look as if it were publicly breaking with Israel.
Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s backers in the United States view Mr. Ross as a key to holding at bay what they see as pro-Palestinian sympathies expressed by Mr. Mitchell; Mr. Obama’s first national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones; and even the president himself.
“Starting with Mitchell and Jones, there was a preponderance of advisers who were more in tune with the Palestinian narrative than the Israeli narrative,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a friend of Mr. Ross. “Dennis balanced that.”
Mr. Ross is the most senior member of a coterie of American diplomats who have advised presidents stretching back to Ronald Reagan. Unlike many of his colleagues, Mr. Ross has thrived in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Dennis is viewed as the éminence grise, a sort of Rasputin who casts a spell over secretaries of state and presidents,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who has worked with him over several administrations and says he is an admirer. “But in the end, it’s the president who makes the ultimate decisions.”
Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, said: “Dennis brings to the discussion a recognition of the vital importance of peace to the parties, but also to the United States. He’s in many ways dedicated much of his professional life to getting there.”
Mr. Ross initially began his tenure in the Obama administration as a senior Iran policy maker at the State Department. But in the summer of 2009, just a few months into his job at State, Mr. Ross moved to the White House, where he kept his Iran portfolio and eventually assumed a broader role that has allowed him to take part in developing Mr. Obama’s response to the upheavals in the Arab world.
His move came as the White House and Mr. Netanyahu were in a standoff over settlement construction. Over time, administration officials say, Mr. Ross took more of a role over Arab-Israeli policy. In September 2009, Mr. Obama abandoned his insistence on a settlement freeze in the face of Israeli recalcitrance.
“If Dennis Ross was in the inner circle in the early days, this administration would not have made that colossal settlements error,” Mr. Foxman said. “He would have said, ‘Don’t go there.’ ”
Once at the White House, Mr. Ross became invaluable, administration officials said, because of his close relationship not only with Mr. Netanyahu, but with the Israeli prime minister’s top peace negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho.
Mr. Ross demonstrated his growing influence last October, when the administration was pressing Mr. Netanyahu to agree to a three-month extension of his moratorium on settlement construction. Mr. Netanyahu balked.
So Mr. Ross devised a generous package of incentives for Israel that included 20 American fighter jets, other security guarantees, and an American pledge to oppose United Nations resolutions on Palestinian statehood. Many Middle East analysts expressed surprise that the administration would offer so much to Israel in return for a one-time, 90-day extension of a freeze.
In the end, Mr. Obama abandoned the effort, concluding that even if Mr. Netanyahu persuaded his cabinet to go along with the extension, it was unlikely to produce the kind of progress in talks that the United States hoped for. Direct talks between Mr. Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, soon petered out, and Mr. Abbas made plans to go to the United Nations in September for a vote on Palestinian statehood.
In April, Mr. Mitchell, who, one Arab official said, often held up the specter of Mr. Ross to the Palestinians as an example of whom they would end up with if he left, sent Mr. Obama a letter of resignation. By some accounts, one reason was his inability to see eye to eye with Mr. Ross.
“Mitchell wanted something broader and more forward-leaning, and Dennis seems to be taking a more traditional stance,” said David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who has written about the National Security Council.
But, Mr. Rothkopf said, Mr. Obama must now take into account the emerging realities in the Arab world, including a new populism brought by the democratic movement that may make even governments that were not hostile to Israel, like Egypt and Jordan, more insistent on pushing the case of the Palestinians.
“Experience can be helpful, but it can also be an impediment to viewing things in a new way,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 21, 2011, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Man in Middle: Obama Adviser Defends Israel.