The announcement that Dennis Ross is leaving his post creates a serious problem for the Obama administration.
Ross has spent decades working on the “peace process” and knew almost every influential Israeli and Palestinian official. He also knew almost every influential American Jewish leader. The former pattern of acquaintances has not enabled Ross to get anywhere in the Middle East due mostly to errors made by President Obama and his initial Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Once they posited that a total Israeli construction freeze, including in Jerusalem, was a necessary precondition for negotiations, the possibility of talks was gone. The Palestinians could henceforth accept no less, but no Israeli leader could offer such a freeze.
There have been many other errors, and both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been saying off the record for about two years that they did not understand what the White House was up to. The good personal relations that president Bush maintained with top Israeli and Palestinian officials were lost. And it seems clear now that there will be no progress in the “peace process” next year–a year in which there will be an American election, very likely an Israeli election, and even possibly a Palestinian election (though history suggests betting against that one).
But with the diplomacy frozen, Ross’s departure is not a diplomatic problem for the White House; it is instead a problem for the Obama re-election campaign. For Ross was the only official in whom most American Jewish leaders had confidence. As most of them are Democrats who have long accepted Ross’s faith in the “peace process,” they viewed his role as the assurance that a steady, experienced, pro-Israel hand was on or near the tiller. When the White House did something that clearly harmed U.S.-Israel relations (such as the recent Sarkozy-Obama exchange on how difficult it is to deal with Prime Minister Netanyahu, where Sarkozy called Netanyahu a liar and Obama appeared to agree), or made foolish demands of Israel (such as the 100 percent construction freeze), and when the tone of the relationship clearly became far worse than it had been under Clinton or Bush, Jewish leaders comforted themselves that Dennis was still there. He was the person to whom they reached out, or who reached out to them and comforted them; he explained that things were not so bad really and that the President really cared about all this and had the warmest concern about Israel.
No one else in this administration can now fill that role, as the President enters an election year with a powerful need to maintain the 78 percent support he had last time in the Jewish community. Thus the political problem. While as noted Ross’s departure does not in itself create a diplomatic problem, it does highlight once again the degree to which this administration has mismanaged affairs in the region. It has lost the confidence of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and more broadly of Arab leaders, all of whom believe that American influence in the region is declining. It has presided over three years in which Israelis and Palestinians have not even been sitting together at the table, which would have calmed nerves even if it produced little or no progress. And it does not seem to know where to go next. The dates the Quartet has suggested for the Israelis and Palestinians to move forward–territorial proposals in January, and a final agreement by the end of 2012–seem designed to get everyone through the Christmas/New Year’s holidays and the round of 2012 elections. I don’t know why Mr. Ross is leaving and leaving now, but with the diplomatic situation that grim, who can blame him? And who can blame him if he has tired of being the facade of wonderful Obama-Israel relations behind which the actual political and diplomatic relationship steadily became colder and more distant.