Longtime peace processor Dennis Ross has denied the charge that he was “Israel’s lawyer” in the White House, but the other night at Central Synagogue in New York he dropped all pretense to fairness. In what was billed by the rabbi as an “off the record intimate conversation with a thousand of your friends,” Ross identified himself as a Zionist and attacked the trend inside the Jewish community to stand up for Palestinians.
“Plenty of others have been advocates for the Palestinians. We don’t need to be advocates for Palestinians. We need to be advocates for Israel,” he said to an outburst of applause from more than 500 people gathered in the historic landmark temple.
And lest anyone think he was an honest broker in the peace process, Ross also said, “In Arabic, the word for yes is na’am and the word for no is la. And when it comes to peace proposals, the Palestinians have used the word la only.”
Ross spoke with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at an event titled “Israel at a Crossroads.”
The former White House aide who has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state under Hillary Clinton issued his declarations of Zionism and Jewish advocacy during a discussion of restrictions on prayer at the western wall in Jerusalem. Ross said that American Jews must insist that it is “unacceptable” that the Israeli government bars access to some Jews. “On the issue of religious pluralism… we as Jews in this country have an obligation [to explain] we are too small a people to be exclusionary,” he said. “We shouldn’t be silent.”
But other Israeli policies should not be questioned:
It becomes more complicated when you start talking about the peace issue. Because we don’t live there, we don’t bear the consequences of the decision, and some– many Israelis will react negatively to the idea that you really can’t tell us what we should be dealing with what is required for our future…
And while Ross said that American Jews ought to have a more vigorous debate of Israeli policies, many have gone too far in criticism of Israel.
There are some in the Jewish community who basically want to look at the Palestinians and think that the Palestinians really are the ones who have been forthcoming, it’s only Israel that’s holding back. It’s not true. I don’t need to cite chapter and verse. In Arabic, the words for yes is na’am and the word for no is la. And when it comes to peace proposals, the Palestinians have used the word la only. And so when we raise questions about what Israel needs to do it shouldn’t be seen as if somehow we’re advocates for the Palestinians. Plenty of others are advocates for the Palestinians. We don’t need to be advocates for Palestinians. We need to be advocates for Israel.
Ross seemed to slam Jews who have called for a single state in Israel and Palestine; and in doing so he extolled Zionism.
Now being an advocate for Israel is not saying, that if you stay on the same path “you become a binational state, that’s a good thing!” Being an advocate for Israel is saying, “you know what, take the steps you need to take to assure you’re going from a binational state.” Not because we think the Palestinians have been responsible– because they haven’t been– but because the essence of Zionism is… you shape your destiny, you don’t let others do it.
Despite serving in the Clinton and Obama administrations as a negotiator in the peace process, Ross has always been seen as an advocate for Israel. In fact, that advocacy has helped him to keep high position, because he has had the approval of the powerful Israel lobby; Abraham Foxman of the Anti Defamation League once said that Ross is “the closest thing you’ll find to a melitz yosher [advocate in Hebrew], as far as Israel is concerned.”
Ross was put on the defensive by a 2005 article in the Washington Post by fellow negotiator Aaron David Miller that began:
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.
The line was widely read as a criticism of Ross’s work during the Camp David negotiations of 2000; and last fall Ross addressed the charge when he published a book called Doomed to Succeed, the US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, which argues for an enduring and close friendship between the countries. Ross wrote:
“The criticism of Clinton in many quarters was that he tilted too much toward Israel, that he was, in the words of my former deputy, Aaron David Miller, too much ‘Israel’s lawyer.'”
Ross’s statement was inaccurate; Miller mentioned “the Clinton administration” only once in his article. Its target was Miller himself and Dennis Ross.
Also in that book, Ross waited till a footnote on page 224 to say that he is Jewish. There was no such hesitancy when he came to a Jewish audience in New York the other night. Nope; it’s “we need” to do this and that, and we Jews have an “obligation” to do thus and such.
Ross –who has chaired the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem– was brought into the Obama administration in 2009 as a Middle East adviser at the behest of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because Obama needed to mend fences in the Jewish community. During his two years in the administration, Ross argued to Obama that Arab states didn’t really care that much about Palestinians, so ending the conflict wouldn’t improve the U.S. image in the region that much. (Ehud Barak argued pretty much the opposite the other night).
At the Central Synagogue, Ross said that Hillary Clinton has always understood better than Obama how to deal with the Israelis.
“Hillary’s instincts are much closer to her husband’s than to Obama’s… I think she understand Israel’s predicament, she understands the region it’s in… she doesn’t feel that she knows better than Israel…”
Clinton would air her disagreements with Israel “in private,” he said, and it’s “a whole lot easier for Israel” to take steps toward peace if it knows the U.S. is on its side.
Donald Trump has embraced a stance of “belligerent isolationism” and “no entanglements,” Ross said, then praised Hillary Clinton’s sense of realpolitik. The former secretary of state understands that we must be engaged in the Middle East at a time of “terrible turmoil,” which is likely to continue for the next 10 to 20 years, and sometimes that means using force.
Obama has failed to send the message that the U.S. is willing to use force, Ross said. The Russians “have a tiny fraction of our military force, but they have used their force to change the balance of power. We are not perceived as willing to use force in the same way.” Clinton would change that perception, he said:
“I think Hillary also understands that the power is the currency still internationally. We might want global norms to define the way things are, but since global norms aren’t respected, there have to be consequences when they’re not, and in the Middle East power is what defines the realities.”
P.S. The Central Synagogue has objected to us that the event was off the record. The invitation to the event did not say so, and when a synagogue brings in a foreign leader to attack the president’s foreign policy in front of 500 cheering people— with no demurral from the rabbi sitting at his side, after everyone in the synagogue has stood to sing the national anthem of that foreign country (yes, along with the Star-Spangled Banner)– other Americans have a right to know about it.