Ahead of the American elections, Dennis Ross, the man who used to work as President Bill Clinton's envoy to the Middle East, has been busy "working" the shuls in Florida, a key battleground state in the presidential election. Aside from sitting on the boards of many different research institutes, Ross also acts as Democratic candidate Barack Obama's Middle East advisor. In addition, he is a leading contender - among some 300 candidates - for the post of secretary of state in an Obama government. This week he sat down and talked to Haaretz.
How was it in Florida? How did people react and what are the main concerns of the local Jewish community?
Ross: "When I was down there a few weeks ago, I think there were many more questions about Senator Obama than what I see among audiences today. The questions that are asked now show that people are beginning to decide that they want to go for him, and they want to be satisfied. I think there's a desire to understand the nature of his relationship to Israel, how he would approach Iran, and [what] he thinks about the peace process. I would say those are the three big questions I was asked in one form or another everywhere I went."
Assuming that the next president's capacity to deal with these issues will be limited because of national debt, two ongoing wars and the recent financial crisis, can he really promise anything - and keep his word?
"In the first instance, [Obama] views the issue of Iran as an urgent priority, because the Bush administration's approach to Iran has failed. I talk about how Obama wants to use our willingness to talk as a means to get others to actually apply more pressure on the Iranians, as a way to ensure the talks' success, but also because the talks themselves send a signal [to] those who fear [that] applying more pressure means you're descending toward a slippery slope of confrontation. This is a way of saying, 'Look, we're trying to see if there's a way to avoid that.' Preventing Iran from going nuclear is a very high priority for him, not only because it's such a threat to Israel, but because it's such a threat to the United States.
"On the question of Israel, I talk about what I saw during his trip to Israel, how I saw his understanding of the relationship with Israel - he would describe it as a commitment of the head and heart. He looks at Israel and sees us as being two countries with common values. But he also looks at Israel and sees that whatever threatens Israel also happens to threaten the United States. So we have a [common] interest, because we end up facing the same threats.
"Regarding the peace process, I think this is an issue where engagement is also crucial, but, much like Iran, it is an engagement without illusions. When you engage, you do so without illusions. But 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. [By doing so] they 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."
What kind of engagement might it be? The Israeli government isn't fond of being under pressure, and some people are very sensitive about the idea of talking to Iran, especially since the Iranian leadership is saying nasty things about Israel.
"Sure, that's why I started by saying that it's an engagement without illusions. With regard to the Iranians, we know that by not talking to Iran the U.S. did not improve the situation. Today Iran is a nuclear power - it doesn't have nuclear weapons yet, but in 2001 it was not yet able to convert uranium or uranium gas, it didn't have a single centrifuge. Now it's stockpiling highly enriched uranium. So the current approach of not talking hasn't worked. There's no guarantee that if you talk you'll succeed, but if you don't talk you will fail."
Does one talk to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
"You don't talk to Ahmadinejad. First of all, he's not the decision maker. When Senator Obama suggests that he would be prepared to meet with him, he says such a meeting first has to be prepared. What he means is that you have to coordinate with your allies - all your allies. Secondly, it means you have to check whether you can put together an agenda for a lower-level meeting. If it becomes clear that you can't put together such an agenda, then you don't hold a meeting at a high level - the presidential level - because it's not going to lead anywhere. But if you can produce something that you know will lead somewhere, then it's silly not to do that.
"And in terms of the peace process, if you don't engage, then by definition, Hamas becomes stronger. We've seen that. Senator Obama won't deal with a non-state actor like Hamas unless Hamas changes its position, unless it's prepared to recognize Israel, unless it makes it clear [that] it gives up on terror, unless it's prepared to recognize previous agreements. So as for non-state actors, he's not willing to deal with them. Engagement without illusion in the peace process means that the U.S. should play a role, the U.S. should be involved, the U.S. should do what it can to promote the peace process and build bridges where it can."
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