The incomplete legacy of Dennis Ross

A top Obama Middle East adviser significantly damaged the Israel/Palestine peace process.

Dennis Ross with Ehud Barak
Ross resigned from Obama’s administration for ‘family reasons’, having made sure that the peace process is dead [EPA]

Washington DC – For anyone hopeful of Arab-Israeli peace, the news from East Jerusalem in the early spring of 1994 was alarming. Notwithstanding the euphoria surrounding the signing of the Oslo Accords just a few months before, a dark underlying reality was beginning to reassert itself in ex-Mandatory Palestine, as extremists on both sides were stepping up efforts to disrupt the negotiating process.

More disturbing yet were fundamental indications of bad faith on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Following a brief pause, construction on occupied land was again increasing, particularly in the arc of Israeli settlements ringing East Jerusalem, which had just been given “preferential development status”. New facts on the ground were underscored by aggressive public statements, particularly from Minister of Housing and Construction Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Deputy Defence Minister Mordechai Gur, indicating that, far from attenuating settlement activity, the Oslo process was motivating the Israelis to redouble efforts to seal off East Jerusalem from the Palestinian hinterland through a cordon sanitaire of roads and housing blocs, to ensure the holy city’s ultimate status as the “eternal and indivisible capital” of Israel.

It didn’t require much genius to anticipate the effect this might have on what was supposed to be a reenergised peace process. And yet, unsurprisingly, the reaction within the US government to these developments was distinctly muted. Then as now, even implied criticism of Israel was not the road to career advancement, whether for the most senior politician in the land, or the most lowly bureaucrat.

One such lowly bureaucrat, an unknown intelligence officer serving as Middle East adviser to the US Undersecretary of State, apparently hadn’t got the word. In an act of characteristic political cluelessness of the sort seemingly sure to condemn him to perpetual obscurity, he dispatched a humble note to his boss. Given the importance of the settlement issue and the apparent confusion surrounding it, he suggested, why not commission the Intelligence Community to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate on what was happening in East Jerusalem? An NIE, the most elevated and authoritative analysis provided by the US government, would get to the bottom of what was happening and assess for senior administration officials the long-term impact it might have both on the peace process and on US national security.

I was that obscure intelligence officer. Having fully expected to be rebuffed, I was all the more surprised when I received a positive response from my boss:  “Good idea,” he said. “Go ahead.”

It would be hard to do justice to the eager incredulity of the various working-level Levantine intelligence analysts suddenly given the task of actually writing such a piece. It was as though they had been released from their shackles. Within the US government, some are enthusiastic, and others are merely grudgingly compliant, but all those involved in Israeli policy who value their careers are expected to contribute to, or acquiesce in, a conspiracy of silence.

Alas, the analysts’ liberation was not at hand. Things that are too good to be true never are. Within 48 hours, reality appeared in the form of a note from the Undersecretary’s PA. Ambassador Dennis Ross, head of the peace process negotiating team, would be paying a call on my boss, and although I would normally be expected to participate in such a meeting, Ross had pointedly requested that I be excluded. I didn’t have to wait long for the next shoe to drop. Within minutes of Ambassador Ross’s emergence from the Undersecretary’s office, wearing what I took to be a rather self-satisfied smile, I got the formal summons.

“I just had a chat with Dennis,” my boss said. “Right now is a very sensitive time in the peace process. The Israelis would certainly know we were doing an NIE on this issue, and Dennis says that wouldn’t be helpful. You’ll have to call this off.” “Unhelpful for whom?” I thought, “and unhelpful for what?” There was nothing in my boss’ tone, however, which invited further dialogue.

As history will attest, there is danger in raising false hopes among the oppressed. Outraged at this turn of events, I journeyed back across the Potomac to lobby the National Intelligence Council to undertake an NIE on East Jerusalem settlements on its own account. Without over-elaborating the point, let us just say that I found a lack of enthusiasm for delivering unwanted truths regarding Israel to policymakers in defiance of the stated objections of Dennis Ross.

There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.

For a former public servant, the vignette described here, though hardly unique nor particularly significant, was a profoundly disillusioning personal experience; for Ross, it was just another successful day at the office. During his eight years as chief architect of the peace process under Bill Clinton, Dennis was not so much a cause as a symptom of the deep, disqualifying political dysfunction at the heart of US policymaking in the Middle East. Without the dysfunction, you would not have had a Ross to exploit it.  

And now, we are told, Dennis is leaving, after nearly three years in the Obama administration. His increasing prominence over those three years is a mark and a measure of Obama’s growing disappointment and failure. For an administration which started with such elevated goals in the Middle East, it has come to this: Instead of engaging Iran constructively, as it had hoped, it has devolved instead to a sterile, sanctions-based stalemate, with scant international support, strongly shaped by Ross, who advocates an Israel-centric posture against the Islamic Republic. And instead of exerting judicious pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to achieve the two-state breakthrough which US interests would dictate, Obama has had to cave instead to the overwhelming political influence of Binyamin Netanyahu, and has looked to Ross as his shield against a pro-Israel lobby which would otherwise turn against him, and may yet do so.

It is easy to vilify Dennis for acting as “Israel’s lawyer”, as indeed I and others have done. But particularly as he has never made any real secret of his aims, his legacy deserves to be judged on its own terms. It is we and the Israelis who have made Dennis Ross. If he didn’t exist, someone would have invented him. In his many years of successful advocacy, he has precisely mirrored both the strengths and weaknesses of his client, and therefore must be assessed as having represented his client badly: Like the Israelis, he is a brilliant tactician and a strategic ignoramus. A better advocate might have saved his client from himself. Instead, Dennis’ many years of successful temporising have helped to bring Israel to the point where a two-state solution is no longer possible. Thanks in some measure to Dennis’ efforts, Israel in future can be Jewish, or it can be democratic: It cannot be both. Having served Israel to the point of helping to destroy Zionism: That is the very definition of catastrophic success. Unfortunately, Dennis’ record of ruinous achievement is not yet complete.

Ross states that he is leaving for family reasons. While one has no reason to doubt his familial devotion, his explanation seems partial, at best. In fact, Ross can move on because his work, in this administration at least, is done. Having successfully undercut George Mitchell and otherwise parried any immediate threats to Netanyahu, Ross can take satisfaction in the death of the peace process. There will be no more trouble from that quarter, and Obama’s pliancy is now assured.

However, if Ross assesses that this administration is unlikely to go to war over the Iranian nuclear programme, he is most likely correct. Clearly, to bring US policy over the last hurdle in confronting Iran, Ross will need to find another vehicle to do it. That, in the end, is why he is leaving Obama, and why his departure is seen as such a threat. As Elliot Abrams has written recently, “Ross’s departure is not a diplomatic problem for the White House; it is instead a problem for the Obama re-election campaign.”

Yes, Dennis Ross still has miles to go before he sleeps. And at the end of his personal journey, if he is successful, lies a US war with Iran.  

Robert L. Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan, before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Previously, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.