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February 13, 2015  RSS feed
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Ex-Mideast envoy: Beware Israel getting entangled in U.S. politics

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press

Dennis Ross has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations Dennis Ross has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations If American policy on Israel ever becomes a partisan issue, it could spell big trouble for Israel.

That was one of many points touched on by former Middle East Ambassador Dennis Ross as he delivered his keynote speech at the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation’s Annual President’s Dinner on Feb. 8.

Ross spoke about the tangled web of competing Arab factions, the strange alliances the factions form, the sheer madness of radical Islamists and how complicated it will be for Arabs to find peace. He also spoke on peace prospects between Israel and Palestinians, and on none of the issues did he offer great hope for improvement in the near term.

Though he now works in the private sector as a Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he drew on years of experience as point man on the Middle East peace process in both the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

Boehner, Bibi and Iran

While acknowledging that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is highly skeptical of the negotiations to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Ross said the difference in U.S. policy and what Netanyahu wants is a matter of degrees – as to how much of a nuclear program Iran should have.

He said based on his years of experience in the region, he believes Israel could live with the idea of Iran having limited uranium enrichment, but not an industrial sized program. The key would be transparency, so inspections could be made anytime and at any place. Another key factor would be that if there were violations, it would not lead to more negotiations on the nature of the violation and severity of the penalty, but on swift, certain and harsh consequences.

As for House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation for Netanyahu to talk about the Iran negotiations to joint houses of Congress, Ross offered a history lesson.

While most people tend to feel the U.S and Israel always have been strong allies, he reminded the audience that President Harry Truman was criticized for recognizing Israel and that Eisenhower gave Israel no weapons. Kennedy was the first do to so and they were defensive weapons. Johnson was the first to provide offensive weapons.

“Israel is not a GOP or a Democratic issue. It is an American issue. We need to ensure Israel never becomes a partisan issue. The same for Iran,” he said.

To allow those issues to become partisan invites disaster, he said.

Shiites, Sunnis and ISIS

The audience could have used a scorecard to keep up with Ross as he said he would “try to explain the unexplainable,” detailing the Arab Shiite and Sunni factions, which often are bitter enemies, but in some cases form alliances against common enemies, such as with ISIS. The emergence of ISIS and the mess in Syria have only complicated the path to peace, he noted, calling ISIS the most pressing problem in the region.

Radical Islamist reject all civil authority, the legitimacy of states, pluralism and the existence of Israel and “if you have failing states, you open the door for radical Islamists,” Ross said.

Shiites and Sunni have much in common when it comes to opposing radical Islamists. He listed a number of non-radical Islamist states, including Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and even Saudi Arabia that could and should be forces to bring stability to the region.

No policy today will escape dilemmas, he said, but added that the key to peace is creating a movement to keep the nation state system and to expand pluralism. Last summer’s battles between Israel and Hamas in Gaza drew protests against Israel in Europe and the U.S. but none in Arab nations, save the West Bank, he said, because the Shiites and Sunnis oppose radical Islamists like ISIS and Hamas.

Hamas and Gaza

Ross rebuked the argument that Israel’s embargo created the impoverished conditions in Gaza and was to blame for the fighting. He recalled giving a speech in Gaza in 2002, as Israel announced it would pull out of Gaza, and a leader of Hamas was in the audience. He said this was the perfect time for those in Gaza to set aside animosities with Israel and to flourish, to build their nation and not be a platform for attacks on Israel. As Israel left, six crossings between the two states were open, opportunities for commerce, and there was no blockade. Gaza had a chance to build, but instead, within days of Israel starting to withdraw, there was a bus bombing and there were attacks at crossings as Hamas took over. The result was Israel closed the crossings.

“Hamas did that,” Ross said, pointing out that their actions led to the blockade. “If Hamas’ purpose was to develop Gaza into a Palestinian state, why did they focus their energy on creating a hostile state?” he asked.

He said now, Hamas is test firing rockets again and the gap between Palestinians and Israel is as wide now as anytime he has seen it.

2-state solution

Neither side believes any longer in a two-state solution, he said. “Palestinians are unwilling to concede anything at this point and Israel looks at Palestinians as not believing in a two-state solution. On the other hand, when Israel builds settlements in West Bank areas likely to become Palestinian under earlier peace talks, he said it sends a message that Israel does not believe in a two-state solution either.

“The key is to address the sources of disbelief on both sides,” Ross said.

He said if Israel stops West Bank settlements and opens up commerce areas and Palestinians bend on some variations of the 1967 borders, there could be peace.

“But if you do nothing, bad things happen. The vacuum gets filled. There are possibilities; it is not hopeless,” he said.

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