Dennis Ross: Obama Doesn’t Understand Israeli Concerns

Former peace negotiator Dennis Ross and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz criticize U.S. as lacking a Middle East policy.

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Dennis Ross speaks with Aluf Benn at the first Israel Conference on Democracy, Tel Aviv, February 17, 2015.
Dennis Ross speaks with Aluf Benn at the first Israel Conference on Democracy, Tel Aviv, February 17, 2015.Credit: David Bachar
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK — Former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said Sunday that U.S. President Barack Obama has failed to understand the central security concerns of the Israeli people, and that current American policy is leaving a dangerous vacuum in the Middle East.

While Obama “sees himself as a friend of Israel, the problem is he never demonstrates a connection with the Israeli people, that he understands their predicament,” the former senior U.S. foreign policy advisor said at an event at the 92nd Street Y cultural center in New York City.

Ross has helped shape U.S. Middle East policy from President George H.W. Bush's administration to Obama's until 2011, and has been directly involved in negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He has just published a new book on U.S.-Israel ties.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.Credit: AP

Ross and Dershowitz discussed the latest wave of violence roiling Israel and singled out what they see as Obama’s Middle East foreign policy errors, especially in connection to the Jewish state.

The current violence is “qualitatively different” from the second intifada and previous periods of unrest, said Ross. “Even now the rest of the Arab world is not focused on this. Palestinians feel the Arabs don’t care about them. They’re very disaffected with their own leadership,” he said, and “they are incited by a false narrative” in which Palestinian leaders are “spreading something that they know is not true.”

Dershowitz blamed “imams for inciting lone wolves” to violence, while Ross noted that an increasing number of Israeli government ministers have expressed a desire to enter the Temple Mount, which conveys to Palestinians the impression that Israel intends to take full control over the holy site rather than maintain the status quo. The current agreement, put in place after the Six-Day War by Moshe Dayan, gives responsibility for operating the mosque compound to the Waqf, a Jordanian-affiliated Muslim religious trust.

Ross said he would like to see Jordan’s King Abdullah sit with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and jointly say that the status quo will not change.

Even short of that, a reason that current violence has not exploded into a greater conflagration involving Palestinian security forces is that “the consequences of the second intifada still weigh on Palestinians in the West Bank,” he said.

Dershowitz added that “the greatest fear Palestinians have is of an Arab Spring,” which would likely see more radical leadership move in after the failure of relative moderates.

He said that if he were Palestinian, “I wouldn’t do anything different” than Palestinian leaders are doing right now. “They are getting U.N. recognition, French acknowledgement and support from U.S. students,” the renowned attorney said. “They think they’ll get a state without having to give up [their claim to] a right of return.”

But this is “leading Palestinians down a very dangerous path because only Israel can negotiate a two-state solution” with them, he said.

While Ross has expressed significant reservations about the Iran nuclear accord, he said he believes that, with Congressional help, the agreement can work to Israel’s advantage.

With the negotiated deal, “you’re buying for real 15 years in which they won’t have a nuclear weapon,” said Ross. But “Iranians have to know” that there will be a price to pay if they fail to live up to what is required of them. “The declarative language [coming from the international community] has to be much stronger,” he added.

Ross said that laws passed by Congress could guarantee Israel the protections it needs, for example by providing it with the MOP, or Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a precision guided so-called “bunker buster” bomb.

Providing Israel with the MOP “gives force to the words” of the Iran nuclear agreement, Ross said. “I would put in legislation MOP and other new technologies. Let’s focus on how we can take advantage of these 15 years.”

He said he hopes that Netanyahu will bring this to Obama as an Israeli request at their meeting on November 9.

When it comes to overall Middle East foreign policy, Obama has miscalculated, both speakers said.

“The preoccupation has been with the cost of action, not the cost of inaction” in terms of military intervention, Ross said. But “when the pendulum swings too far in one direction it swings too far in the opposite direction” as well, he said.

Obama’s first term “behavior was fundamentally different” in terms of Middle East policy, Ross said. “I am troubled by what I see in his second term” he said.

“We have a tendency to contribute to vacuums, and in the Middle East they’re filled by the worst forces,” Ross said. “The choices in Syria today are all bad, and they’re going to get worse.”

“Obama has been a very good domestic president,” Dershowitz said, but “he has had abysmal foreign policy because he acts from ideology, not policy. We need a president with a policy for the Middle East, not an ideology.”

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