With fewer than three months until the November presidential election, both Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama have laid out their plans for dealing with Israel and the Middle East.
Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat and Middle East observer, says it is Obama’s plan that offers the best hope for Middle East peace.
Ross, who is the current Middle East policy advisor to Obama, accompanied the Democratic candidate on his trip to the region this past summer. He says Obama understands how things need to get done in order for the possibility of peace to exist in the hostile region.
“You have someone who I think actually understands the reason to be involved with the reason for peace,” Ross said in an interview with The Chronicle last week while visiting the state. “He understands you need to pursue peace realistically.”
Ross previously served as special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning office during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
While traveling with Obama in the Middle East, Ross became impressed by how the Illinois Democrat handled himself with the foreign leaders, he said.
Ross criticized President George W. Bush for being ineffective in peace talks during his eight years in office. In order to even have hope for peace in the region, he said, a foundation must be set between both Israel and the Palestinians before peace talks can move forward.
What concerns Ross is that McCain’s policy for the Middle East is extremely similar to that of Bush’s.
“What the Bush administration never did was never create a foundation for peace making,” Ross said. “Obama has a much better strategy than Bush, and I haven’t seen much difference in McCain’s strategy from the Bush administration’s.”
Because he says Bush failed in the Middle East, both the Israelis and Palestinians slowly lost hope that there could be peace. Whenever a negotiation was announced, both sides had little hope anything would be accomplished.
“The public disbelieves because they don’t think anything can change,” Ross said. “Nothing changes day to day, and when you have a negotiation — it’s an abstraction.”
Ross believes Obama can set up a strong, positive foundation for peace. However, he said that a change for the better must be evident before the two sides will begin looking at things optimistically.
“You must let the public get a second look, and you do that with creating a foundation,” Ross said. “There has been a loss of faith in the very idea of peace negotiations. They (Palestinians) don’t believe there is a peace negotiation going on. To convince both sides again that peace is a possibility, they are going to have to see things change for the better.”
Whoever wins the election, will have several big challenges to overcome in the region Ross said.
From the troops still in Iraq, to the growing threat in Iran, the new president won’t have much time to celebrate.
“Whoever becomes president has to deal with Iraq because you’re still going to have 138,000 troops there,” Ross said. “They will have to deal with Iran because they are stockpiling uranium, and are trying to intimidate anyone who is trying to pursue peace.”
“Iran is the issue,” Ross continued. “It is the threat throughout the region. It backs militias. It is hostile to Israel, backs terrorists. It gave Hamas rockets and it is pursuing nuclear capabilities.”
While the new president won’t take office until Jan. 20, a current issue facing Israel is the topic of unilateral withdrawal out of the West Bank.
But unilateral withdrawal by the Israelis is not a good idea according to Ross.
“Unilateral withdrawal will not work in the West Bank,” he said. “Israel got out of Lebanon unilaterally, Hezbollah got stronger. It got out of Gaza unilaterally and Hamas got stronger.”
The concept for unilateral withdrawal originally incorporated the idea of giving up land for peace and security. That didn’t happen Ross said.
“It became land for violence,” he said. “The question is how do you create a land for security formula. That’s the key to building peace in the future.”
(Mike Zoller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)