Obama could only take Netanyahu on when Dennis Ross, Bibi’s backchannel, was incommunicado

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Peter Beinart is upfront about the centrality of Jewish identity to Obama’s presidency in his new book on the Crisis of Zionism. From this reported excerpt in Daily Beast, the theme is liberal Zionists versus rightwing Zionists. Obama came out of the former community and betrayed it in his first term. Obama underestimated the strength of what his former aide (and an eternal presence at the White House) Dennis Ross represented: Netanyahu and his ties into the rightwing Jewish community, the Israel lobby’s man in the American government.

So when Obama wanted to take Netanyahu on, he had to make sure that Dennis Ross was out of the loop–presumably so that Ross wouldn’t dime him out to Netanyahu. 

The story of Obama’s relationship to Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies is, fundamentally, a story of acquiescence. Obama took office with a distinctly progressive vision of Jewish identity and the Jewish state, one shaped by the Chicago Jewish community that helped launch his political career. Three years later—after a bitter struggle with the Israeli government and the American Jewish establishment–that vision is all but gone.
Obama entered the White House after an adulthood spent—more than any predecessor—in the company of Jews….

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had a record of opposing settlement growth too. In 2003, he had been one of only four Jewish members of Congress to sign a letter endorsing the Road Map. Privately, he told associates that the Bush administration had coddled Israel, and that it was time for Israel’s American friends to speak more frankly to the leaders of the Jewish state. When Netanyahu tried to establish back-channel discussions with Emanuel, bypassing Mitchell, Obama’s chief of staff refused.
Among the few administration skeptics of a settlement freeze was former Clinton administration envoy Dennis Ross, who considered it unrealistic given Netanyahu’s right-leaning government. But Ross was working at the State Department, not the White House, and his job description was restricted to Iran. He had tried to broaden his mandate during the transition, arguing that in order to effectively craft Iran strategy he needed the freedom to dabble in every aspect of Middle East policy, including the peace process. A statement by Ross’s former employer, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, had even declared that he would be working on a “wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran.” But Jones promised Mitchell that Ross would not meddle in his work, and when a State Department spokesman announced Ross’s appointment, he insisted that Ross “will not be, in terms of negotiating, will not be involved in the peace process.” Whether Ross abided by that pledge while at the State Department is a matter of sharp dispute. But either way, he did not control the Israel-Palestinian portfolio. Not yet…

Soon, reports surfaced about a power struggle between Ross, on the one hand, and Mitchell and his chief of staff, Mara Rudman, on the other. It was no contest. For one thing, Ross now worked at the White House, in close proximity to the president, while Mitchell spent most of his time either in the Middle East or at his home in New York. Second, given the weakness of James Jones, Tom Donilon—an old Ross ally from the Clinton administration— had become the de facto national security adviser. Finally, Ross had much closer ties to the Israeli government—which had been trying to bypass Mitchell from the outset—and to the American Jewish establishment….

While Ross and [National Security staffer Daniel] Shapiro were on a commercial flight back to Washington, however, and thus briefly incommunicado, Hillary Clinton held her weekly meeting with President Obama—with Emanuel, Jones, and Donilon sitting in—and the White House decided that it could no longer tolerate Netanyahu’s affronts. On Friday, Clinton harangued the Israeli leader on the phone for 43 minutes. Two days later, on March 14, Axelrod publicly called it “an insult” that Israel had announced the Ramat Shlomo construction during Biden’s visit. When Netanyahu visited the White House nine days later, Obama refused him the courtesy of a joint press conference or photo op.

The divergent responses reflected, in part, the ongoing battle between Ross and Mitchell. One administration official complained to Politico that Ross was advocating “pre-emptive capitulation to what he described as Bibi’s coalition’s red lines.” Ross, in turn, waged what one close observer called “a ruthless campaign against George Mitchell,” repeatedly suggesting that he was spending too much time at home in New York and not enough in Washington and the Middle East.

A year back, John Mearsheimer said in a call in that Ross was essentially an agent for the Israeli government. It’s hard to argue with that description, reading Beinart. And remember, Ross went from being chairman of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute before he went into the Obama administration to being back at the JPPI as a co-chair. The institute opposes intermarriage, among other great stances. Crazy, huh? (And you wonder why Grant Smith at IRMEP has been trying to get AIPAC registered as a foreign agent…)

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