Exclusive: Barack and Dennis the Menace – Ross Remarks on Middle East Could Signal Trouble Ahead for Obama

by JOEL HIMELFARB November 20, 2008

 

During his masterfully executed presidential campaign, Barack Obama didn't stumble on too many issues. One exception was Middle East terrorism – specifically his position toward Iran and its allies Hamas and Hezbollah. After delivering a powerful speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in June, in which he denounced Tehran and its terrorist allies, Obama went out of his way to distance himself from anyone who suggested that putting pressure on Israel would help achieve Mideast piece. His skill in doing this helped Obama to win close to three-quarters of the American Jewish vote.
  
But some recent comments by one of his senior foreign-policy aides, former State Department Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, hint that many of these Jewish voters could eventually face buyer's remorse about voting for Obama. In a little-noticed interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz published October 28th, Ross suggests that the United States should support stepped-up diplomatic efforts to engage Tehran, Damascus and the shaky Palestinian Authority in an effort to achieve "peace." Taken together with some of Obama's controversial comments during the campaign, Ross's remarks suggest that Washington and Jerusalem could face a tumultuous four years – especially if Israeli voters elect peace-process skeptic Benjamin Netanyahu when they go to the polls in February.  
   
During a televised debate last year, Mr. Obama said he would engage in dialogue without preconditions with hostile regimes including those in Iran and Syria. The Illinois senator later depicted Hezbollah – a Lebanese terrorist group that has killed hundreds of Americans and receives upwards of $100 million in annual aid from Tehran – as an organization primarily interested in domestic "reform."
   
"It's time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and the development of the economy that provides for a fair distribution of services, opportunities and employment," Obama said. This was too much for columnist David Brooks, who has often written sympathetically about Obama's candidacy. The statement, Brooks wrote, had the "whiff" of appeasement. "Is Obama naïve enough to think that an extremist ideological organization like Hezbollah can be mollified with a less corrupt patronage system and some electoral reform?" Brooks asked.
   
When Brooks telephoned the senator in May asking him to clarify his remarks, Obama allowed that Hezbollah was not a legitimate political party, and that the group's connections with Iran and Syria made it a "destabilizing organization." But Obama also stated that the United States needs a foreign policy that examines "the root causes of problems and dangers." The Illinois senator said Hamas and Hezbollah both have to be forced to understand that "they're going down a blind alley with violence that weakens their legitimate claims."
    
Obama's comments had an almost surreal quality to them. Hamas and Hezbollah are sworn to Israel's destruction, and have been committed to this for decades. They are heavily subsidized by Iran, and routinely distribute literature recycling anti-Semitic canards like the notorious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and describe Jews as relatives of apes and pigs. In this context, how are their "legitimate claims" about social and political matters today any different from Adolf Hitler's claims in the 1930s about the onerous nature of the Versailles Agreement after World War I? Historians of all political stripes have spent decades debating whether Versailles was too draconian and inadvertently aided the rise of Nazism. But it didn't change the reality that, whatever grievances Germans had, Nazism was a monstrosity that had to be defeated. The same is true today of Islamofascist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. 
    
During the presidential campaign, Obama was dogged by the fact that such people took a "glass half full" approach to his presidential candidacy. "We like Mr. Obama, and we hope he will win the elections," said Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas political adviser. In an April interview with WABC Radio in New York, Mr. Yousef added hopefully that Obama wants "to change America to make it in a position to lead the world community, but not with humiliation and arrogance." 
    
In his interview with Ha'aretz (published less than one week before Mr. Obama was elected president) Ross attacked the Bush Administration for failing to push forward with Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. "When you don't engage, you leave the way open for your adversaries to actually gain more. The Bush administration wanted to disengage for its first six years in office," Ross said. This policy "actually strengthened Hamas' hand, because Hamas' argument is [that] there is no possibility for peace. The least you want to do is show that there could be an alternative answer." Actually, what the Bush Administration did was to give Israel a much-needed respite from the disastrous "peace process" put together by Ross and the Clinton Administration during the 1990s, which Yasser Arafat imploded in the fall of 2000 by launching a terror war. During the early years of the Bush Administration, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched a military operation which destroyed much of the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank that flourished in part due to the policies instituted by Ross. Sharon's decision to build the West Bank security fence during the respite period brought the number of suicide bombings in Israel down to almost zero.
    
Ross wants to apply the same principles of "peace process fetishism" (Commentary magazine's description) to negotiating with Iran. He said that Obama wants to talk to Tehran as a means of getting others "to apply more pressure on the Iranians." This is simply absurd – if other countries decide to play hardball with Iran, it will be because they perceive that there will be economic and diplomatic benefits from doing so, not because of some childlike desire to copy the United States. Finally, Ross expresses hope that Israel and Syria will be able to achieve peace at the negotiating table (although he doesn't explain how this would be any different from the experience between 1993 and 2000, when the Ba'athist regime sabotaged every American and Israeli effort to reach a peace agreement.)
    
Early indications are that the new administration's approach to the Middle East will be a mixture of feel-good speechifying and naïveté.
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Joel Himelfarb is an editorial writer for The Washington Times. The views expressed here are his own.
 

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