The administration’s chief Middle East adviser Dennis Ross went to the J Street confab. It was an odd assignment, given that J Street, in concert with the pro-Iranian-regime NIAC had conspired to try to prevent his appointment. The applause greeting him was slight, almost imperceptible.
Ross in some clever ways communicated to J Street that its agenda and strategy are out of touch with reality. J Street perpetrates the myth that Israel, and specifically Israel’s settlements, are the center of most if not all woes in the region. He, however, didn’t mention “Israel” for the vast majority of his address and never referred to “settlements.” Instead, he explained that the main issue in the Middle East is the toppling of autocratic regimes. He told the group that from “Algeria to Yemen” pressure is coming from the people of the Middle East. Using a term the left likes to apply to Israel’s possession of the West Bank, Ross said that the old autocratic regimes are “unsustainable.”
Granted, his address was exceedingly dull and delivered in a monotone, but one couldn’t ignore the utter silence — indifference, perhaps — when the topics of freedom, revolutionary change, and Muslim despots were discussed. And when he stressed the need for Muslim states to focus on internal reform without blaming Israel, the crowd, again, seemed not to notice or care that he was ridiculing J Street’s own obsession with Israel and its settlements. (He, of course, tried some historical revisionism, explaining how the administration had been pressing Egypt for reforms from the beginning.)
When Ross did get around to Israel the bulk of his comments were about the U.S.-Israel military relationship. He declared that the administration’s “fundamental principle is an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.” Applause was tepid. (Not what this crowd paid to hear.) He asserted, “There has never been a time when the security relationship has been stronger. And that’s a fact.” Again, only very brief applause.
At the tail end of the speech, he finally got to the peace process, saying the “status quo was unsustainable.” That got the crowd mildly excited, for now he might be getting around to their main goal — hammering Israel. But alas, he declared, “There is no substitute for a negotiated peace.” Dead silence. (You can see the thought bubbles: “Where does this guy think he is — AIPAC?)
In his wind-up, he got around to Iran. He noted the “irony” of the regime taking credit for events in Egypt. (He muffed the line and instead said “taking credit for Iran.”) And on Iran’s nuclear program, he gave the Obama-approved squishy line, saying we are determined to try to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
With near-comic timing, the J Street host the immediately asked Ross whether it wasn’t time for an American “initiative” (i.e. an imposed peace deal) to resolve the Palestinian conflict. As a trained diplomat, Ross resisted the urge to respond, “Weren’t you listening?” Instead, he said the administration is “working in a different direction” (as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out in a speech in November), namely talking separately with the parties. He cautioned that the “preoccupation” of the region is the relationship between the “rulers and the ruled.”
The host tried again, asking if it wasn’t time to publicly make a proposal. Once more, Ross explained what the administration was doing (private, quiet talks). He was asked about the Palestinians’ unilateral attempts to obtain recognition. Ross said firmly, “Unilateral moves are not going to produce an agreement.” He said the U.N. was “not the forum” for these discussions. Dead silence.
Last year, the administration sent National Security Adviser James Jones to J Street. This year the representative was a step lower in the White House hierarchy. Moreover, he gave the crowd no fodder for its Israel-bashing and zero indication he shared its agenda.
I suppose next year the administration could send an intern (continuing the downward spiral of respect). But it’s an election year, so the Obama team might wise up and send no one, for fear that the administration’s decision to speak before a group infamous for its dishonest finances and enthralled with public bashing of Israel might undermine its own “pro-Israel” credentials. But, then again, J Street — if it is still around — might not want to have someone who is going to undermine, rather than parrot, its talking points.