15 January 2011

Pro-Israel control of Obama’s Middle East Policy

I usually regard as Ronnie Barker-type news (“No nuclear bombs fell on Scotland again last night”) all commentary to the effect that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) is a creature of the pre-eminent pro-Israel lobbying organisation the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), that senior US foreign policy adviser Dennis Ross is a member of the AIPAC crowd, and that he once served as WINEP chief.

After all, the Wikipedia entry on WINEP tells us here how in 1985 AIPAC “helped” to bring WINEP into being. The deal as I understand it was that AIPAC, as a lobbying organisation, was not entitled to tax deductibility of donations, so AIPAC decided to set up an “independent” think tank which would qualify for tax deductibility, would do deep intellectual “research” of the right kind, and enable the AIPAC crowd to sail under a different flag when it suited them to do so.  The idea was that WINEP would disseminate the AIPAC line, but in a way that disguised its AIPAC origins.

In March 2009, in Hillary's envoy: not everyone is cheering, I commented on the bizarre appointment of Dennis Ross as Hillary Clinton’s special adviser on Iran, and followed up with a post in May 2009 – Iran: Hillary’s envoy (contd.) – in which I noted the perception by an Orthodox Jew who had served as US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, who commented that the perception was that in Middle East peace negotiations:

The perception always was that Dennis started from the Israeli bottom line, that he listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it to the Arabs.

Further posts included Dennis Ross on the move?, noting rumours that he was moving to the White House, and Making U.S. Iran policy, an extended analysis of the dysfunctional way in which the US Administration was approaching Iran, and Dennis Ross’s role in that.

Andrew Sullivan addressed this theme in March 2010 in a post Dennis Ross Bats for Netanyahu on The Atlantic’s blog The Daily Dish.

So the links between AIPAC, WINEP and Dennis Ross, and the fact that Dennis Ross is unashamedly an advocate for Israel within the highest circles of US foreign policy making, are not news.

Nevertheless, some important posts on this subject have gone up in the last couple of days.  In a 14 January post on TPMCafé, AIPAC's Man, Dennis Ross, Now In Charge of Middle East, MJ Rosenberg, in discussing “why the Obama administration’s policy on Israel-Palestine is such an epic fail”, points to a well informed piece by Nathan Guttman in the US Jewish online journal Forward which catalogues how Dennis Ross has edged out the official US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell as the dominant player on the Middle East peace issue. In Guttman’s piece, Latest Chapter in Mideast Tenison is Dennis Ross vs. George Mitchell, he says:

Ross’s increased involvement in the Middle East peace process became apparent when the administration engaged in talks with Israel over extending the moratorium on settlement expansion. Ross, according to American and Israeli officials, was the driving force behind the idea of offering Israel a generous package of assurances — both defense-related and diplomatic — in return for three extra months of a freeze on the expansion of settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Even though Israel ultimately turned down the offer, the episode reinserted Ross as a key player not only on broader strategic Middle East issues, but also on the nitty-gritty of the peace process.

Later in the piece Guttman says:

Ross’s involvement in the peace process increased when the administration sought to ease its troubled relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and with the Jewish community. A longtime Middle East hand, Ross, who is widely liked and trusted by Israelis, was sent to assure Jerusalem that the Obama administration was committed to Israel’s security and wellbeing. He also publicly addressed Jewish audiences at several events.

Ross’s history as a veteran peace negotiator under successive presidents from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush gives him a record of experience in the region that few can match. But critics counter that this experience reflects a record of U.S. failure in the region, particularly with regard to the Oslo process that collapsed under his long-term role as its chief negotiator and strategist on the U.S. side.

Nevertheless, Ross’ strong ties to Israel now make him indispensable to the administration. Those ties include his previous role as head of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank founded by the Jewish Agency for Israel. His son, Gabe, is also married to an Israeli. These factors, together with Ross’s strong personal sense of Jewish identity, have gained him a reputation of being pro-Israeli.

Finally, there is this priceless quote from Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League:

“Dennis is the closest thing you’ll find to a melitz yosher, as far as Israel is concerned,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, who used the ancient Hebrew term for “advocate.”

Further background on the origins of WINEP and its links with AIPAC may be seen in a 12 April 2010 item by MJ Rosenberg, this time writing for The Huffington Post. In Does PBS Know That “The Washington Institute” Was Founded by AIPAC?, Rosenberg gives an insider’s view of the history and takes issue with PBS and other media wheeling out WINEP commentators as though they were not part of the Israel lobby.

In Game, set and match to Mr Netanyahu of 24 September 2009 I commented that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must be laughing all the way home at the outcome of the meetings on Middle East Peace sponsored by President Obama, and went on to say

One of the big losers out of all of this is President Obama. This is a strategic defeat for him, not a tactical withdrawal. He talked tough to the Israelis, they didn’t budge, and he blinked. So forget about all the brave talk of moving to “final status” negotiations. Mr Netanyahu will turn up for the talks in the second half of October, but he knows that he simply has to insist on unacceptable parameters for the final status and the talks will go nowhere. The Israelis are quite comfortable with the status quo; it is the Palestinians who are desperate for change.

I saw this as a comprehensive victory for Netanyahu at the time, but the more I look at the history of this, the more I am convinced that the Americans were never seriously in the game.

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