Dennis Ross and Dual Loyalties

Last week, Laura Rozen at the Politico gave space to an anonymous Obama administration official to smear Dennis Ross, the White House’s Middle East strategist. Ross’s grave offense, apparently, was to evince some understanding of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position, which also happens to be the mainstream Israeli position, that Israel has a legitimate right to construct new housing in Jerusalem. That earned Ross the smear that he “seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to U.S. interests,” a crude implication of dual loyalties and a classic anti-Semitic slander. Now Harvard professor Stephen Walt has emerged to defend the charge under the guise of rejecting it.

Walt, it will be recalled, is co-author of The Israel Lobby, and thus an unlikely voice to come to the defense of someone who shows any empathy for Israel’s position. Indeed, although Walt curiously does not mention it, that book counted Ross as a prominent member of “the Israel lobby” -- a term with ominously dark connotations -- because he has the temerity to believe, as the authors put it, that the United States should support Israel even when the two countries disagree. (Presumably the “realist” position, which Walt is said to represent, would be that the United States should break all support for countries with which it fails on occasion to see eye to eye.) And sure enough, after some pro-forma hand-wringing about anti-Semitism by which he seems untroubled in other contexts and a few banalities about the nature of political attachments, Walt comes to the conclusion that the real problem with the dual loyalty smear, at least in Ross’s case, is the phrasing. He suggests that it should be called a more sanitary-sounding “conflict of interest.”

Walt no doubt imagines this to be the pragmatic position. He is as usual mistaken. For one thing, what is the conflict of interest in Ross’s case? That he shows some appreciation of Israeli public opinion and understands Israeli domestic politics? Note that Ross has not come out and said that the United States should accept Israel’s position on Jerusalem, which would be eminently reasonable counsel. He has only advised the administration to show more understanding of Israel’s position on that issue. The only way this could be interpreted as a “conflict of interest” is if one believes, as Walt apparently does, that any willingness to listen seriously to Israeli concerns represents the elevation of Israeli interests over American ones. This in fact happens to be an extreme position.

Walt then airs this complaint, presumably directed at Ross:

But when an individual’s own activities or statements give independent evidence of strong attachment to a particular foreign country, is it a good idea to give them an influential role in shaping U.S. policy towards that country?

Since Walt doesn’t cite any of these suspicious “activities” and “statements,” it’s hard to find the argument very persuasive. But let’s assume that Ross does have a “strong” attachment to Israel. He’s certainly more sympathetic than Walt, although that is saying little. In that case, so what? Why is this a drawback rather than an asset? Perhaps if the Obama administration had shown more appreciation for Israel’s position on the city it considers its rightful capital, it could have avoided the diplomatic fallout that has seen U.S.-Israeli relations plummet to the lowest point in decades, with the administration losing all standing in the eyes of the Israeli public: In the latest polls, just 9 percent of Israeli Jews view the Obama administration as pro-Israel. How the administration expects to forge a peace settlement when it is overwhelmingly viewed as hostile to Israeli interests is a diplomatic quandary that Ross’s nameless internal critics don’t seem to have considered.

In the interest of accuracy, it might be noted that Ross has a mixed record on issues of importance to Israel. Most misguidedly, he spearheaded the Clinton administration’s efforts to treat the late Yassir Arafat as a credible negotiating partner instead of the arch-terrorist he was. (To his belated credit, Ross later admitted in his book Statecraft that the administration had been wrong to assume that Arafat had any intention of ending the conflict. That was sufficiently obvious at the time, of course.) On the other hand, Ross at least has the good sense to reject the ridiculous canard that the creation of a Palestinian state should be a paramount American interest -- ahead of, say, stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And whatever his past errors of judgment, he also deserves the backing of Israel’s supporters in this latest row. If he is exasperating anti-Israel obsessives like Walt, Ross must be doing something right.