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In Their Own Words
Barack Obama's Senior Middle East Policy Advisor, Dennis Ross, discusses policies on Israel and the Middle East.

Ambassador Dennis Ross Visits Main Line

--- Charles Smolover

Ambassador Dennis Ross served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, and as Special Envoy for the Middle East.  He was America’s point man in both the Bush and Clinton administrations for exploring all avenues and approaches to settling the Mideast conflict. A scholar and diplomat with more than two decades of experience in Soviet and Middle Eastern policy, Ambassador Ross is currently a consultant to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is also the first chairman of a new Jerusalem-based think tank, the Institute for Jewish People Policy Planning, funded and founded by the Jewish Agency.

Ambassador Ross has written several books on the conflict in the Middle East, including most recently Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World and The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace .

Ambassador Dennis Ross spoke with conviction in support of Senator Barack Obama to an audience of eight hundred at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Although Ambassador Ross is a well-known speaker, this was the first time he was moved to give a partisan speech. Fundraiser Mark Aronchick introduced Ross to the crowd as Obama’s Senior Middle East advisor. Aronchick, who led the Hillary Clinton campaign in Philadelphia, now enthusiastically supports the Obama presidential campaign, and remarked that the Pennsylvania Democratic Party was firmly united behind the party’s nominee.

Ambassador Ross reiterated many of the points in Statecraft, in which he contrasted his own view of diplomacy with the unilateralist strategies of George W. Bush and John McCain. Ross firmly pointed out the overreliance of Bush and McCain on projected military power, and their failure to form (or contemplate) workable coalitions with possible allies in Europe and the Middle East.

 The following are excerpts from an interview with Ambassador Ross:

PJV: What is it about Sen. Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy that supporters of Israel should find comforting?

The most important thing is his understanding that Israel is always stronger when the U.S. is strong, and that Israel suffers when we lose standing and credibility – when we’re seen as sitting on the sidelines. And that’s what is happening right now in the Middle East. While I was in Israel last week, President Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and Sheik Ahmed of Qatar were all together in Damascus meeting with President Assad. The Israelis were asking me, “Where is the United States? Who’s there to protect our interests?” So here is Assad, able to achieve a certain standing of acceptability without having done anything, and when the U.S. is on the sidelines Israel suffers. One of the things Obama will restore to our foreign policy is greater effectiveness in making the world more responsive to us. And that is key to Israel’s security.

PJV: Some have criticized Obama for his stated willingness to meet with leaders like President Ahmadinejad of Iran. Do you think this criticism is valid?

No, I don’t. And let’s be clear about what Obama has said. He said he would meet with leaders when the meeting is properly prepared for and when he thinks it is in our interest to do so. By doing that, he is doing something that the Bush administration has failed to do. When the administration rules out talks with certain states – I’m not talking about non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah which Senator Obama has refused to meet with – they end up making their refusal to talk the issue instead of the bad behavior of those we seek to influence. You need to shape engagement in a way that builds leverage, and that’s what Sen. Obama has been talking about. When it comes to Iran, he wants to engage because the current policy has failed. Iran is enriching uranium right now. They’ve been perfecting the nuclear fuel cycle for the past eight years. Not negotiating with them has not allowed us to put pressure on them or to mobilize others to pressure them.

Obama’s approach to engagement is not some kind of giveaway. It’s designed to build our leverage so we can influence those nations whose behavior we have to change. If we keep doing what we’re doing, Iran will continue to get stronger, will become a nuclear weapons state and in effect, we will be in a position where our choices shrink, their leverage grows and our credibility continues to decline.

Tim Briggs, Democratic candidate for the State House of Representatives in the 149th District, and State Connie Williams, 17th PA Senate District, met with Ambassador Ross at a reception prior to the main program.

One of the things I heard when I was in the region last week was that the Iranians are now telling the Gulf states, “You see what happens when you’re an American friend? You see what happened to (Lebanese Prime Minister) Siniora and (Georgian President) Saakashvili? Both of them were big American friends and see where they are now? Your best bet is to cut a deal with us now.” We have to turn that around or we’re going to be operating in world where the strategic landscape is dramatically worse for us.

PJV: What is it about MaCain’s approach to foreign policy that supporters of Israel should find troubling?

I don’t see that he has spelled out anything with respect to dealing with Iran that is different from the Bush administration. And the Bush administration’s policy has failed.

PJV: What do you make of McCain’s statement in the wake of the recent conflict with Russia there that, “we are all Georgians.”

I suppose he was trying so say that we have an enormous stake in Georgia. And we certainly do have a stake in ensuring that Georgia’s territorial integrity is respected, and that Russia doesn’t use force whenever they want with no consequences. But the key is that when you stake out positions like McCain has, you need to be in a position to act on those positions. What has bedeviled the Bush administration is that they have frequently staked out positions that they can’t act on. I would hope that’s not what Sen. McCain meant.

PJV: Given the rifts in Palestinian politics between Hamas and Fatah, can the Palestinians really stand up as a viable peace partner that is able to enter into some kind of an agreement with Israel?

There is no question that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is in no position to make any agreements, especially with regard to Gaza. But what you have to keep in mind is that Israel has an interest in having a Palestinian partner that believes in coexistence. If there is a struggle among Palestinians between those who accept the notion of coexistence and those who reject it, then you have an interest in building up the side that accepts it. If you say there’s no point in working towards a deal right now because there is no partner, you create a self-fulfilling policy: you’ll end up having no one to deal with. You’ll end up weakening the very forces that you would like to be able to make peace with. Even if the PA doesn’t have the ability to conclude a deal, it is still in Israel’s interest to negotiate with those who have an aspiration for coexistence.

PJV: Some Israel supports have expressed concern that a particular candidate would put pressure on Israel to make some kind of deal with her adversaries. Can any U.S. administration force Israel to take diplomatic steps or make concessions she doesn’t feel are in her interests?

The answer is no. And the answer should be no. At the end of the day, the decisions Israel makes about its future and its security have to be Israeli decisions. It should be able to count on friends like the U.S. to help them in that process. I know there are people who say that the U.S. should impose peace. They’re as wrong as the people who say we should impose democracy in the Middle East. You can’t. We’ve clearly seen that. You have nurture both peace and democracy, and to think that you can impose them is a myth.

To view previous editions of "In Their Own Words", please click here.

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