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J Street Day 3: The Dennis Ross Speech, the J Street Response, and My Final Thoughts about J Street

On J Street’s third day, the long awaited speech by Dennis Ross opened the day, at a large plenary that, this time, had major press attendance. If anyone hoped that Ross would say anything other than the usual State Department boilerplate, they must have been bitterly disappointed. Nevertheless, even Ross’s tepid speech seemed to be too much for the majority of the J Street attendees, who evidently thought it was too pro-Israel. The whole purpose of his presence there was made clear by Morton Halperin, who introduced  Ross by telling the audience that the Obama administration had promised that as long as President Obama is in office, someone from his administration would attend their national conferences. In that regard, it almost didn’t matter what he said; all that was required was that he, or someone else from the administration, was there. The purpose was to legitimize J Street as kosher. But since the organization is to the left of the administration, it allows the Obama team to depict themselves as in the center, and as friends of Israel, and not echoes of J Street.

In his presentation, which clocked in at little over half an hour, Ross began by talking about the Middle East and Egypt, without any mention of Israel or the Palestinians. The area, he said, was undergoing a remarkable transformation, in which a few months seemed like an eternity. Some governments like Mubarak’s fell, while in Libya, the leaders were taking a “desperate and irresponsible response to legitimate demands.” We must, Ross said, think of the Middle East in new ways, since “the world is changing.” He then quoted Obama, as well as Hillary Clinton, from past statements.  These could have easily been found from old press clippings, and of course, were not necessary to repeat. His purpose, it seems, was to make it appear that the Obama team was on top of things and prescient, rather than what was actually the case: having to respond to developments about which they were caught by surprise.

“The status quo,” Ross went on, “is not sustainable.” Dissent could not be stifled, and the old tactics used by dictators could not be carried on any more. There had to be openness for political space in Egypt. Mubarak tried to silence opposition, he said, and failed. The rebellions started when police broke into an internet café, took out a blogger critic, and then murdered him. A web space built in memoriam soon had half a million readers, due to the Google executive in Egypt who got worldwide fame for his role in starting up the rebellion.

No one, Ross noted, predicted how fast events would move. The tyrant Mubarak thought that change would be gradual because of the level of repression, and would not be overnight. But when dissent is not allowed, they found out that frustration that was pent up would soon explode. Ross was gratified to find that at the square, Muslims and Christians alike prayed together, in harmony because of their joint desire to be rid of their oppressors.  The Obama administration, he claimed, had told Mubarak from the beginning that he had to open up his system and lift Egypt’s emergency law that had been intact for decades. “Unfortunately,” Ross said, “Mubarak chose not to heed our warnings.” Again, Ross’s intent was to make the Obama administration seem on top of things, and to make it clear that it was not their fault Mubarak did not listen to them.

Now, the United States favored a broad outreach to all in Egypt, and stood for a negotiated transition. This was a delicate phase, and the U.S. had to reassign its aid to Egypt to be used for help in creating a democratic transition and recovery. “Now,” he said,

"is not a time to cut aid to Egypt,” since the stakes are enormous in the region. Ross applauded what he called the  “professionalism” of the military, and its decision to safeguard the population. The U.S., he noted, saws the military as a source of stability in this transition period.

The goal now is to carry out the transition to peacetime rule by civilians. The U.S., he stressed, had excellent ties to Egypt’s military that would be continued. They must learn that “repression does not pay.” That meant credible reform and maintaining the peace treaty with Israel that the military always had supported.  He was glad to cite as a positive sign the decision of the rulers of Bahrain to engage in a national dialogue, as well as Algeria’s decision to lift its nineteen-year-old emergency law. These steps were “credible” measures on the way to reformed societies. Those who use violence, Ross said, must stop immediately. His comments reminded me of nothing less than Rodney King’s plaintiff cry, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Ross then assured the audience that he and his colleagues regularly met at the State Department, and had study sessions where they looked at the different areas and focused on how to help the Middle East achieve reform. State, it seemed, was just another think tank in which they sat around studying things. “We have,” he assured everyone, “close and ongoing contact with the regional players.”

Ross praised the UN’s condemnation of Libya, and its urging that the regime be brought before the International Criminal Court. Egypt, he said, had broken the circle of isolation. Finally, turning to what he had not mentioned before -- Israel -- Ross said they had to go beyond the cold peace Egypt had with Israel in the past, and he warned that if change did not keep on developing, only the extremists would benefit.

The U.S., he said, “has an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.” This blanket statement received only a smattering of applause, as most of J Street sat silent. Ross noted that the United States gave Israel the Iron Dome anti-rocket system which Israel used to protect itself against rocket attacks from its enemies. Israel, he said, had to be strong given the changes in the region, and he warned that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians became more and more intractable as time passed. Thus our “efforts to promote peace are ongoing and intense.”

Continuing on the topic, Ross said that the clock was ticking, and that a two-state solution that met the needs of both sides had to be adopted quickly. Israel faced the demographic clock that would make it irrelevant and that challenged the “Zionist dream of building a Jewish and a democratic state.” Second, younger leaders were emerging, and they would no longer accept an enduring occupation by Israel of Palestinian land, and thus the hope for peace would fade. Leaders had to emerge who saw peace as a real possibility, and who would accept co-existence of both Palestinians and Israelis.

The region needed leaders who were pragmatists, rather than rejectionists, and who accepted the national aspirations of both people. There could be no reform without peace, and continued conflict would interfere with the process of reform. In the '90s, he said, Shimon Peres had spoken of building a new era of cooperation, and now decades later than opportunity had to be seized. “Reform and peace,” Ross said, “go hand in hand.”

Turning to Iran, Ross offered no new insights, instead choosing again to quote words of Hillary Clinton and President Obama. The administration, he said, was “keeping its eye on the ball in Iran,” which one would hope is certainly the case. If Iran did not show it was stopping a nuclear buildup, pressure would be increased. “We remain determined,” Ross said, “that Iran not get nuclear weapons.”  He said nothing, however, about any military options being kept on the table, simply repeating instead that “we will not be deflected from that goal.”

At the end of the speech, a short dialogue between Halperin and Ross took place. Halperin asked if there should be a new peace initiative. Ross said any such action had to be defended and supported by all parties, and again cited a recent speech by Secretary Clinton. Each side, he said, had to work in parallel directions. He cautioned that unilateral moves, such as the Palestinian announcement that they would announce creation of a state on their own, were counter-productive, since such moves would not produce an agreement that would work. Both sides, he said, had to have their needs addressed through negotiations.

Turing to the Palestinian authority, Ross praise both Abbas and Fayyad for making a serious effort to create a government that was not corrupt and was helping the West Bank develop. There was, he said,  a dramatic transformation of the Palestinian public in its attitude towards their own leaders. Ross did not address what everyone listening knows, which is that from all accounts, the support these leaders have is still rather minimal.