- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

UPDATED:

The incoming Obama administration has chosen former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross to coordinate policy toward Iran and is unlikely to shift policy toward Israel in the near term, people familiar with the transition process said Wednesday.

Mr. Ross is to be “ambassador at large and special adviser to the secretary of state” for Middle East affairs, said Chris Nelson, author of a newsletter, the Nelson Report, that tracks foreign policy and personnel. Mr. Nelson obtained a memo from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank where Mr. Ross is a “distinguished fellow,” to its trustees that reported the appointment.

A person close to the transition confirmed the pick. He asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak for the president-elect. The transition team declined to comment, and Mr. Ross did not return phone calls.

The Washington Times reported last month that Mr. Ross was the leading candidate for the Iran coordinator job.

The job may have broad implications for Middle East policy.

On his blog, Obama Mideast Monitor, Steven J. Rosen, a former director of foreign policy for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, wrote Wednesday that Mr. Ross’ job will include “the full range of issues that are raised by Iran.”

That would entail dealing with the nuclear issue and Iran’s support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah as well as its involvement in Iraq, he said. However, Mr. Ross will not repeat his prior duties as a day-to-day mediator for Arab-Israeli affairs, Mr. Rosen and the Washington Institute memo said.

Mr. Rosen also said that Dan Shapiro, a former aide to Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, will be the senior director for the Near East and North African affairs at the White House National Security Council, a job held by Elliott Abrams in President Bush’s first term. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Shapiro was a liaison for Barack Obama to the Jewish community.

The Ross appointment signals a major new focus on diplomacy, in accordance with Mr. Obama’s campaign pledges, but not necessarily a change in substance.

For example, U.S. policy regarding the Gaza confrontation is not likely to change because the incoming administration shares its predecessor’s view of Hamas and commitment to Israeli security, diplomats and Middle East specialists said.

On Wednesday, the Bush administration blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in the conflict in favor of a nonbinding statement “seeking an immediate and durable cease-fire” that would prevent Hamas from rearming.

A diplomat familiar with the transition team’s thinking said”there can’t be a substantive change [on Gaza], because the options are very limited.”

“The Obama team will get credit at first just for not being the Bush administration,” the diplomat added.

Both Mr. Obama and his rival in the Democratic primaries, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the incoming secretary of state, criticized the Bush administration for not engaging vigorously in the peace process until almost seven years into its tenure. Both also said they would negotiate directly with Iran without preconditions.

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