The announcement this week that Dennis Ross, chief White House adviser on Middle East policy, plans to step down next month is confirmation – in case anyone still held out hope to the contrary – that President Obama is done focusing on the peace process at least through next year’s elections.
The writing on the wall, already sketched out in May with the resignation of Mideast envoy George Mitchell, is in stark contrast to the spirit in which Mr. Obama boldly launched his Middle East peace initiative in the initial hours of his presidency.
In remarks on his decision, Mr. Ross said that he had promised his wife when he joined the new administration in 2009 that he would serve in this latest public capacity for only two years. Ross served in four administrations before Obama’s, including as President Clinton’s chief Mideast negotiator.
But a number of Middle East specialists said the decision was not a surprise, given the dim prospects for any meaningful diplomatic push regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a presidential campaign year.
Ross has been known as a force for a “continuity” in US policy that refrains from putting any pressure on America’s ally Israel. Given that, some say Ross can leave knowing that Obama’s days of making demands of Israel – as he did over settlements early in his presidency – aren’t likely to return next year during the campaign.
“He can step down confident he’s not going to miss any action,” says Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation in Washington. “And confident as well that he’s left behind a situation that is not going to wander from a standpoint he’s comfortable with.”
Ross was also a key adviser on the administration’s Iran policy – an area that, unlike the Mideast peace portfolio, may be heating up. A new report out of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency this week offers evidence that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon.
But administration officials insisted that Ross’s decision to step down did not suggest any disagreement with Obama over how to address the Iranian nuclear issue. White House spokesman Jay Carney described Ross as “very much a part and an architect of the sanctions regime and efforts to pressure and isolate Iran.”
Some critics of the two-decade-old peace process say that Ross’s departure may simply be the death rattle of a policy that has failed to deliver either peace and security for Israel or an independent state for Palestinians.
Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University in New York, calls Ross a central figure in a “disastrous approach” that favored interminable negotiations over dealmaking. If prospects for a two-state solution are dimming, he says, at least part of the blame should be assigned to Ross.
“Of all the people who have hammered nails into the possibilities of a two-state solution, Dennis Ross has perhaps hammered in more than anyone else,” Professor Khalidi says. Over the two decades of the peace process, he notes, the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank has nearly tripled, from 200,000 to almost 600,000.
Ross kept close ties to a number of Israeli leaders and helped forge heightened US-Israel military cooperation in recent years. He also alienated Palestinian leaders with repeated visits this summer to dissuade them from pursuing statehood through the UN Security Council – a bid that the Palestinians made in September but that appears to be going nowhere.
Ross is also aware that prospects for the comprehensive Mideast peace he has pursued through five administrations are not getting any brighter. In recent months he warned Israelis, Palestinians, and members of the American Jewish community that the longer a settlement is put off, the harder it gets to reach one.
Ross plans to return to his desk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.