There must be much more than the reported “personal reasons” behind Dennis Ross’ decision to step down as the chief United States negotiator between the Israelis and the Palestinians. No question that Ross has invested more hours on behalf of U.S. governments trying to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors than any other single diplomat outside the region. His intelligence, insight, and negotiating skills earned him kudos from both Republican and Democratic presidents alike. While his family interests surely are genuine, it seems more is going on.
Ross has been down the road of peace talks almost from the time he left graduate school. He came into the Obama administration to work in the State Department as special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Iran. After six months he was reassigned to the White House and once again moved directly into the Israeli-Palestinian mix. His work on Iran is believed to have encouraged the president to intensify U.S. pressure on Tehran through escalated sanctions. On the Palestinian talks, after more than two years, he failed to obtain any significant movement.
Ross’ departure leaves the Obama administration with no major figure remaining from its original negotiating team. George Mitchell announced his resignation in May 2011 and Dan Shapiro is now U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv. While Ross and Mitchell were never the cuddliest of friends, they were both seasoned professionals. Now the administration is left with hardened Foreign Service specialists, but no true recognized expert in negotiating.
Ross clearly recognized that it was unlikely that there would be very much progress before the U.S. elections. Ross knew the president would be unwilling to take much of a risk on the peace process while some Jewish voters and fund-raisers continued to regard him as exhibiting inadequate support for Israel and demanding too much in negotiations from the Israelis.
The American slowdown was met by a similar reticence on the part of the Netanyahu government. The Israelis let it be known that they are not prepared to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians given the bitterly contested leadership fight and tactical debate between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Assuming that the Bibi observers are correct — that he is not interested and has no serious intention to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians for the foreseeable future — Ross, having invested all these years, did not want to be seen now as part of a negotiations charade.
Netanyahu no doubt believes that the November 2012 elections could well produce a president whom Israelis would find less critical of Israel and more willing to support a hard-line Israeli government. In addition, with elections due to be held in Israel no later than 18 months from now, Netanyahu was unwilling and unlikely to be forthcoming in peace process negotiations with the Palestinians before then. For Ross, therefore, running in place for a year and a half was unacceptable.
Some have surmised that insiders on the Obama team (and not only Mitchell) considered Ross too strongly pro-Israel. The Palestinians have always felt that. The Obama administration supported Ross not only because of his experience but also precisely because Ross was the only one the Israelis were willing to trust. His departure, therefore, has locked the door on any serious negotiations until 2013.
Finally, Ross understood the heightened dilemma facing an American-Jewish community that may support a two-state solution but is reluctant to criticize a sitting Israeli government. Perhaps he wanted to withdraw before he was forced into that discussion as well. It was not that he was losing his effectiveness, but rather that no one wanted to support his efforts to push any of the parties harder.
Ross may likely be back for an encore before his diplomatic career is over. The White House news release even suggested as much. Nevertheless, given the lack of progress, seriousness, and primacy being given to peace negotiations by all parties, he earned the right to spend more time with his family.