- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009


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.

The diplomat said the Obama administration will ask Mrs. Clinton to engage immediately with both Israelis and Palestinians and send an envoy to the region soon after Inauguration Day, possibly even before a likely visit by Mrs. Clinton next month.

Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and their aides have been careful not to comment on the ongoing hostilities in Gaza beyond expressing concern about the humanitarian situation.

During the presidential campaign, some viewed Mr. Obama as more sympathetic than President Bush to the Arabs and Iran. Mr. Obama went out of his way to proclaim his support for Israel when he visited the country in the summer.

Fewer questions have been raised about Mrs. Clinton despite her famous 1999 embrace of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s wife, Suha. Mrs. Clinton had plenty of opportunities during her New York senatorial campaign in 2000, as well as her 2008 campaign for president, to profess her backing of the Jewish state.

Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, dismissed reports that Israel is worried about Mr. Obama’s support.

“I know that Senator Obama shares my view that the next president must be ready to say to the world, ‘America’s position is unchanging, our resolve unyielding, our stance nonnegotiable,’” Mrs. Clinton said in June. “The United States stands with Israel - now and forever.”

Mrs. Clinton also said: “We must be clear about how we feel about our next president negotiating directly with Hamas. Here is how I feel: Until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel, negotiating with Hamas is unacceptable for the United States.”

Mrs. Clinton warned Iran during the campaign that the United States would “obliterate” the country if it attacked Israel, and she voted for a nonbinding resolution declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guards - a force that is integrated into Iran’s overall military but also works with Arab militant groups abroad - a terrorist organization.

Mr. Ross has called for larger incentives and disincentives to persuade Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program and its support for Arab militants.

“We need to offer political, economic and security benefits to Tehran, on the condition that Iran change its behavior not just on nukes but on terrorism as well,” he wrote in the Dec. 8 issue of Newsweek.

Mr. Ross has no direct experience dealing with Iran, and Iran specialists have said they would prefer others who do, such as James Dobbins, a former State Department official, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador in Iraq.

But Aaron David Miller, a colleague of Mr. Ross in failed efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria under the Clinton administration, said, “If you have the right instincts on the part of the president and secretary of state, it is much less consequential who the envoys are.”

Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said there are lines that no U.S. administration will cross when it comes to putting pressure on Israel.

“I don’t think they will do anything differently,” he said of the Obama team. “This [Gaza] operation is digging a deeper hole for everyone, and I don’t see either Obama or Clinton being willing to do the tough and even-handed diplomacy that progress will require. And there’s no sign he’s going to appoint anyone who would be willing to use a little tough love.”

• Barbara Slavin and Eli Lake contributed to this report.

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