President Obama’s special assistant, Dennis Ross, was the featured speaker at J Street’s conference on Monday, and the organization hasn’t stopped complaining about him since. Ross, seeking to avoid controversy, spent only five minutes of his 30-minute speech on Israel.
Dennis Ross spoke at the J Street conference for 30 minutes this morning, and he spent most of that time trying to avoid any mention of Israel (a smart move). The first 20 minutes of his speech were about Egypt and the recent uprisings in the Middle East; the last five minutes of his speech were devoted to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And somewhere in between, he managed to squeeze in a few prosaic words about Israel.
But it was Ross’ words about Israel that had everyone talking afterward. That happened because the hardest shot he took against Israel was to call the status quo “unsustainable.”
Changing the topic to Israel, Ross stressed that one of the Obama administration’s principles was “an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.”
He spoke about U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen’s recent visit to the region, and said that the level of the security cooperation between the two countries has never been stronger.
Asked about the possibility of the new American initiative, Ross said “we have to think through carefully what do we do on peace and how it relates to what the focus is on now in the region the relations between the rulers and ruled. We’ll make a judgment on where the process is and the sides are, the status quo is unsustainable.”
Ross, the consummate diplomat, didn’t tell J Streeters what they wanted to hear. In fact, he very subtly told them what they didn’t want to hear.
Ross in some clever ways communicated to J Street that its agenda and strategy are out of touch with reality. J Street perpetrates the myth that Israel, and specifically Israel’s settlements, are the center of most if not all woes in the region. He, however, didn’t mention “Israel” for the vast majority of his address and never referred to “settlements.” Instead, he explained that the main issue in the Middle East is the toppling of autocratic regimes. He told the group that from “Algeria to Yemen” pressure is coming from the people of the Middle East. Using a term the left likes to apply to Israel’s possession of the West Bank, Ross said that the old autocratic regimes are “unsustainable.” Granted, his address was exceedingly dull and delivered in a monotone, but one couldn’t ignore the utter silence — indifference, perhaps — when the topics of freedom, revolutionary change, and Muslim despots were discussed. And when he stressed the need for Muslim states to focus on internal reform without blaming Israel, the crowd, again, seemed not to notice or care that he was ridiculing J Street’s own obsession with Israel and its settlements.
That and Ross’ defense of the US veto of the UN Security Council resolution that was critical of Israeli “settlements” did not endear him to the panelists in the next session.
“Is direct negotiations really the best way to approach this?” political economist and journalist Bernard Avishai asked the conference. “I think it’s clear through five administrations — going back to Reagan when there were 10,000 [Israeli] settlers and now there are a half million settlers across the Green Line — that just relying on bilateral negotiations and the idea that it will produce a settlement is misguided. The promise that they will produce a settlement is nil. And yet the product of any good faith negotiations is known.”
“The core issue here is we have to somehow usher Israel from the defensive crouch it is in, from this siege mentality, which cannot see in this [regional democratic] movement a glimmer of possibility,” [New York Times columnist Roger] Cohen continued. “We need leadership. … Great leaders of history seize the moment. What we have seen across the region… this is a moving moment.”
The open criticism of Ross continued through the day.
At a conference panel about engaging Hamas, one speaker had some pointed criticisms about the group’s decision to appoint Dennis Ross as the keynote speaker. “It’s disappointing that you would still host someone like Dennis Ross after 20 years of peace failure,” said Marwan Bishara, a senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. His comment was met with an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, suggesting that many conference-goers agreed with the sentiment.
In a meeting with reporters, I asked J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami about the criticism, and he made it clear that his organization wasn’t involved in the decision to invite Ross. “We asked the [Obama] administration for a speaker, and they chose Dennis Ross,” he said.
If even the Obama administration recognizes that J Street is far to the left of the American mainstream on the Middle East, it’s likely that the organization won’t play much of a role in the 2012 election campaign. But if Obama wins re-election, J Street is likely to come back with a vengeance. While J Street’s views are far outside the mainstream, Obama’s views are closer to J Street than to Dennis Ross.
What could go wrong?