Addict (drugaddict) wrote,

Mid East

This is a very valuable analysis of this delicate but critically important subject by long-time TIME Magazine Middle East Bureau Chief Scott Macleod.  It's posted on Scott's personal blog, and therefore represents his private opinions, not those of Time, Inc.  The article contains reminders of important historical events to support what might otherwise be dismissed as subjective personal opinion.  I found it extremely informative and persuasive, and strongly recommend that you friends, whom I know to be keenly interested in the subject, take the time to read it carefully.

Obama Mideast Watch: Ross vs. Kurtzer

  Middle East watchers are trying to follow a behind the scenes contest for
Barack Obama's ear when it comes to the region. The winner could become
the incoming administration's single most influential advisor on the
area--perhaps Obama's Middle East czar. Obama has properly emphasized that
as president he will set the policy, and his subordinates will be tasked
with implementing it. Yet his choice of Middle East guru-- a special
envoy, or whatever the title may be-- will be an important signal of his
inclinations. And given the complexities of the Middle East, and the
complex intersection of those complexities with American politics
nowadays, it's hard to exaggerate the influence such a position could have
as the question of war and peace hangs in the balance in Israel,
Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran.

Judging from press reports such as here, here and here, the contest
includes among others two Obama campaign advisors with very different
perspectives: Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton's Arab-Israeli negotiator, and
Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. Ross and
Kurtzer are both Jewish; during the campaign, they sought to rally
American Jewish voters wary of indications that Obama was lukewarm toward
Israel. Each has influential supporters in the Beltway's foreign policy

  My take is that Ross would be a significant disappointment, Kurtzer an
excellent choice. The contest, in fact, is more a tussle between two
approaches to Middle East policy making than between individuals. The
selection of a Dennis Ross would represent the past, which is to say the
failure of U.S. policy in the region; Kurtzer would represent a change--a
subtle change perhaps, but change nonetheless--given his frank
acknowledgment of what has gone wrong with U.S. policy and a common sense
prescription for getting it right.

  Ross' s deep personal role in past failed policy ought to be enough to
disqualify him from any supremo role. You can read an exhaustive,
self-serving account of Ross's statecraft in his 815-page memoir, The
Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace but
here's my critical, very abbreviated version. He's already held the job of
chief U.S. Middle East envoy for 12 years, through the Bush 41 and Clinton
administrations, and wasn't very good at it. After the landmark Madrid
peace conference, he and his bosses proved unable to coax Israelis and
Palestinians toward an agreement; the Norwegians stepped in and secretly
mediated the Oslo Accords between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993.
By then, Ross's task was to implement the Oslo framework agreement, which
envisioned a comprehensive and final peace deal by 1999. But Ross should
take a large part of the responsibility for the mismanagement of the
subsequent negotiations, which gradually dissolved into another
Palestinian intifada, the worst spasm of violence in the conflict in 50
years, and the rise of the anti-negotiations Islamist Hamas group against
Arafat's party.

  Certainly, Arafat, Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and Rabin's assassin,
as well as Bill Clinton and other U.S. officials, deserve their
proportional share of the blame. Yet, Ross's insistence on putting all the
fault on Yasser Arafat--blaming himself and the Clinton administration
only for trusting the Palestinian too much--is a testimony that is either
disingenuous or breathtakingly self-absorbed. His palpable one-sidedness
is why he remains completely distrusted by the Arabs he has negotiated
with. Arabs always expected an American tilt toward Israel because of the
strong U.S.-Israeli relationship; from bitter experience, they regard Ross
as far too biased to be acceptable or successful as the "honest broker"
for ending the conflict. "For far too long, many American officials
involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as
Israel's attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the
expense of successful peace negotiations," Ross's longtime former deputy,
Aaron David Miller, wrote in a devastating critique in the Washington Post
in 2005.

  Ross's past errors could be forgiven if they were not so deeply rooted in
the flawed American policy for the Middle East that Ross has so helped
perpetuate. Put simply, the failed U.S. approach holds that Israel's
military dominance gives it ultimate leverage in negotiations, and that
the U.S. should not use its considerable influence to pressure Israel too
much on key issues like Israel's occupation of Arab territories,
activities of Jewish settlers, rights of Palestinian refugees and future
sovereignty over Jerusalem. Locked in this outlook, Ross proved too
tolerant of Israeli overreaching, too ambivalent about the rights and
legitimate interests of Palestinians and too tone deaf to the impending
collapse of the peace process with all its grave consequences. As Aaron
David Miller wrote of U.S. diplomacy on Ross's watch: "Far too often,
particularly when it came to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, our departure
point was not what was needed to reach an agreement acceptable to both
sides but what would pass with only one -- Israel."

  American policy has also more or less held that holding peace
negotiations is effectively conditional on the cessation of violence and
threats of violence against Israel. Accordingly, Ross seems to suggest in
his recent writings that the U.S. confront and defeat Iran's growing power
and ambitions in the Middle East--including Tehran's support for Hamas and
Hizballah--before seriously tackling the vexing core issues of the
Israeli-Palestinian dispute again. Ross's thinking echoes the failed
neo-conservative logic that says reforming the Middle East will bring
peace instead of the other way around. That's an approach sure to keep
professional peace negotiators like Ross in business for ever--endlessly
negotiating rather than actually achieving peace. When it comes to Iran,
the U.S. has fought yet failed to extinguish the Islamic revolution in a
winner-take-all strategy for 30 years, with the result that Iran has
repeatedly won strategic gains all over the Middle East-- at the expense
of both Israel and the U.S.

  Kurtzer, in contrast, has recognized and written about the failure of
U.S. policy over the years. He understands that brokering Arab-Israeli
peace should be a signal priority, that U.S. peacemaking is not solely to
assist allies but is the pursuit of America's own national strategic
interests, that peace is a key to achieving other crucial goals like
defeating Islamic radicalism, that Israel's strategic advantage doesn't
remove the necessity of fulfilling Palestinian needs and that ultimately
to be successful the U.S. must engage in demonstrably even-handed

  In their 2008 book, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership
in the Middle East, Kurtzer and co-author Scott Lasensky cite America's
"alarming pattern of mismanaged diplomacy" in the region since the end of
the Cold War. "Flaws in U.S. diplomacy stretching back to the Clinton
administration have contributed to the worst crisis in Arab-Israeli
relations in a generation," they write. "This devastating failure has hurt
U.S. interests and damaged our ability to gain cooperation from allies and
key regional players. At the popular level, it has weakened the U.S.
position in the region and on the world stage. It has also jeopardized our
long-term investment in Arab-Israeli peace."

  Make no mistake, Kurtzer-Lasensky warn, "Arab-Israeli peacemaking is
crucial to our own national security interests." They argue that the lack
of peace has undermined the U.S. effort to combat Islamic radicalism and
terrorism and to promote democracy and stability in the Arab world. At the
same time, they say, America's commitment to Israel's security and
well-being "is best served by moving toward, rather than away from, a
comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement."

  Kurtzer-Lasensky are particularly dismissive of the Bush administration's
tragic neglect of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. But they are
nonetheless damning of the Clinton administration's Ross-managed approach
to Israeli-Palestinian talks, which they say was "hands off" for two years
even after Oslo. "Early inaction by the president and his team, together
with the administration's failure to hold Israelis and Palestinians
accountable to the agreements they signed, were to have far-reaching
consequences for the peace process and U.S. policy."

  As for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit that Ross blames on
Arafat, Kurtzer-Lasensky find fault all around. They say that Clinton's
summit was "ill-conceived" and constituted the "most glaring failure" of
Clinton's last-ditch diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. They describe
a policy-making process that was "too insular and inhibited the
development of U.S. positions on the core issues... the United States was
unprepared, and our negotiators scrambled at the last minute to put
together U.S. positions on complex issues such as Jerusalem and borders."

  Kurtzer-Lasensky write that their Institute of Peace study group was
repeatedly told that, at the Camp David summit, "the United States gave
the Palestinians proposals that originated with Israel. In the words of a
senior U.S. policymaker, the Clinton team allowed itself to be manipulated
and relinquished too much control over U.S. policy." The book quotes a
former Clinton official saying, "when it came to dealing with Jerusalem,
there's some very embarrassing episodes that betrayed our lack of
knowledge or bias." After the talks collapsed, Kurtzer-Lasensky write,
"Clinton acceded to Barak's request to blame Arafat publicly...because of
Barak's domestic political needs."

  A problem with such a reflexively pro-Israel approach, as
Kurtzer-Lasensky indicate elsewhere, is that a strong third-party
mediating role is essential in order to overcome the Israeli strategic
superiority that puts Palestinians at a negotiating disadvantage and
therefore makes them warier of deal making. "Power dynamics in the
Israeli-Palestininan conflict are deeply unbalanced," they explain.
"Israel is an established sovereign state with a robust, thriving economy
and a world-class military; Palestinians remain under occupation, bereft
of effective public institutions, highly dependent on international
economic assistance, lacking basic security, and incapable of providing
the full measure of security to which Israelis are entitled... Left on
their own, the parties cannot address the deep, structural impediments to

  In Kurtzer-Lasensky's conclusion, they emphasize the importance of being
seen as an honest broker if the U.S. is to achieve success in the Middle
East. "The next president will need to ensure that the manner in which we
conduct our diplomacy results in the peoples of the region sharing this
perception." That's Statecraft 101, but it's been tragically lacking in
the U.S.'s Middle East diplomacy.

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