Washington Babylon — January 14, 2009, 8:48 am

Obama’s Middle East Dealmaker

Dennis Ross, Barack Obama’s proposed new Middle East guru/envoy, has gotten generally fawning coverage from the press. In Newsweek,, Michael Hersh wrote: “One man who will probably be running ahead of the pack is Dennis Ross, the longtime Mideast peace envoy who suffered through the rise and fall of the Oslo process in the ’90s—working for both the first President Bush and Bill Clinton—before writing a thick, largely ignored book on the experience. He spent most of the past decade at the policy wonk’s version of purgatory, a think tank. Now Ross is back in a new, more powerful role that offers substantial evidence that Obama intends to treat the problems of Mideast peace as all of a piece, from Gaza to Tehran to Syria.”

Not everyone is so enamored of Ross, however. Here’s what a veteran Middle East expert, with long military experience and who is well known in senior government circles, had to say when I asked for his assessment:

The basic problem is that Ross failed twice as lead envoy for Arab-Israeli peacemaking. His legacy includes the disastrous Hebron protocol, the failed, poorly prepared Camp David meeting, and the unchecked expansion of illegal Israeli settlements. He was a problematic honest broker because he test drove U.S. initiatives with the Israelis, and would be likely to do so in the future. He is disdained by moderate Palestinians, precisely the people that the U.S. would like as interlocutors. By his own admission, see his comments in the NYT Mag in article that marked his exit from the job, he conducted himself to protect Israel’s interests. He conveniently assumes that Israel’s interests coincide with those of the USA, which is sometimes true, but sometimes not true at all. No doubt, the reentry of Ross would be heartily celebrated in Israeli policy circles that oppose a two-state solution, but I don’t find that encouraging. In his recent comments he has expressed skepticism that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is now possible, so it would be odd if Obama allowed him to get within a mile of his expressed intent to move early towards a settlement.

As for Ross being named as some sort of super regional envoy whose portfolio includes Iran, I find that less than optimal as well. He is directly linked to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which has been spewing forth literally hundreds of op-eds, policy papers, interviews, policy briefs, lectures, etc. advocating military intervention against Iran. His connection to WINEP would seem to make him a curious choice for an administration intent on exploring a dialogue with Iran.

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