With democratic uprisings, sectarian strife, and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons roiling the Middle East, Israel’s future seems more precarious than ever. On February 6th, Ambassador Dennis Ross came to the Institute as part of the Michelle Smith and the Robert H. Smith Foundation Roundtable series for a wide-ranging discussion with Walter Isaacson on the perspective his decades of diplomatic experience have given him on the challenges Israel faces. Throughout the conversation, Ross emphasized the need for humility from those working in the region, who are often eager to opine, yet unwilling to see dynamics as fluidly as they demand to be seen. Herewith, several key points from the discussion.
Ross expressed confidence that sanctions, along with Iran’s growing isolation from the Arab community, were forcing Iran to run a cost-benefit analysis they seemed increasingly aware they were losing. He credited the coalescing of the international community with backing Iran into a corner from which they would look for an exit, circumventing the need for an Israeli attack.
The Military Option
“Some of what Israel does is to motivate the rest of the world,” Ross said in response to a question about the plausibility of recent discussions of an impending Israeli attack on Iran. He emphasized that if the world wasn’t convinced Israel might attempt military action, they would have been as likely to adopt sanctions with the expediency they did. “They don’t want Israel vs. Iran, they want The World vs. Iran,” Ross said.
“I don’t see Assad as Quaddafi, hiding out with no electricity, no water,” Ross said. “If Assad saw the balance of power was changing from the outside, it would have an impact on the inside.” He heralded Secretary Clinton’s latest Friends of Syria initiative, and stressed the importance of coercing Russia into joining, instead of demonstrating its independence with bellicose blockades of Security Council resolutions. He pointed to the rallies across Moscow as evidence that Russia should learn the lesson the Arab League has—public opinion matters in both the international and domestic communities.
Egypt’s detention of 19 Americans for supposed covert incitement of unrest from their perches at congressionally-funded NGOs has more than a few experts scratching their heads. Ross notes that Egypt could be asserting sovereignty with the arrests, but risks the revocation of foreign aid at a time when Egypt needs it to deliver on its promises to its citizens. He advocated for an international threshold for support, including accountability standards on minority rights, freedom of speech, and protections for the private sector.
The Rise of Islamism in the Middle East
Ross enumerated the advantages Islamists have had in the region’s elections thus far: mosques to organize in; authenticity in their reflection of Islam; and the ability to connect across classes. He noted that if Islamist parties sought to rule like their autocratic predecessors, they would face dissent in the streets from a public who now see themselves as citizens, not subjects.
Jordanian Peace Talks
Ross stressed the importance of timing in fashioning an agreement palatable to Israelis and Palestinians, noting that with so much of the region in flux, there was little incentive for either side to make concessions until the dust had settled. He praised the Jordanian efforts to revive negotiations, and noted Jordan’s King Abdullah II’s historical role at mediating when Western diplomats had reached an impasse.
Israeli Relations with Hamas and Fatah
In response to a question on the relationship Israel and Hamas, Ross emphasized the purity of Israel’s intentions in last fall’s prisoner swap for Sgt. Gilad Shalit, while acknowledging the effect of the swap in bolstering Hamas’ standing with their constituents. He also discussed the perception gap between Fatah leader Abu Mazen and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, with both believing each side acts only to delegitimize the other.
Ross emphasized the importance of the Palestinians being held to the criteria they agree to on who is a legitimate candidate, as well as the necessity of the international community to be consistent. “You shouldn’t push for elections that you refuse to validate,” he said, referring to the 2006 elections that swept Hamas to power. Pointing to Hamas’ low levels of support in Gaza, Ross expressed optimism for broad support of non-violent parties supporting co-existence in coming elections.
Ross, Walter Isaacson, and a State Department official engaged in a spirited conversation over the pace and sophistication of the Obama Administration’s efforts to connect with the Middle East through new media. The ability of new media to promote the private sector in the region, the need for dissemination in Arabic, and the Institute’s recent Partners for a New Beginning forum in Marrakesh were all topics up for discussion.
Watch the full session: