President-elect Barack Obama and his presumptive secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, both pledged during the campaign to press for peace in the Middle East.
But the Middle East conflict is, perhaps unsurprisingly, already playing out on a small scale within Obama’s own transition.
Top policy jobs haven’t been filled — the org chart, insiders say, hasn’t even been drawn — but Middle East politics watchers, and Obama backers concerned with Israel, are carefully eyeing the interplay between two of his most important advisers on the Middle East.
One is Dennis Ross, a stalwart of the Clinton administration’s peace negotiations who is seen as favoring a tough approach to Iran. The other is Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel who in his 2008 book quoted Arab and U.S. officials saying Ross was perceived as “tilted” toward the Israeli side, and that he "listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it toward the Arabs."
The choice of who shapes his policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, said a top Obama backer, will be a “bellwether” for the administration’s Middle East policy — for how much to require of Palestinian leaders before they can strike a permanent deal, and for how hard to push Israel for concessions in the interest of peace.
The interest is particularly intense because despite his general pro-Israel views, the details of Obama’s approach remain unclear: During the campaign, he riled the right by suggesting that to be pro-Israel isn’t to be pro-Likud, but he has also offered tough talk on Israeli security, disappointing Palestinian activists who saw him as an ally during his state Senate days in Illinois.
The difference is a matter of degrees — and not very many degrees — within a firmly pro-Israel policy team, and there are no obvious differences of policy between the two men. Ross, the supposed man of the right, was central to the Oslo peace accords despised by some conservatives in Israel and the United States; Kurtzer, the supposed man of the left, is a Hebrew-speaking Orthodox Jew who was President George W. Bush's ambassador to Israel.
But some close watchers of the negotiations in the region think that choosing Ross would indicate that Obama plans to make tough negotiations with Iran, with a focus on weakening its regional grip, a priority, and to work closely with Israel in negotiations with the Palestinians. They think the choice of Kurtzer might mean a slightly tougher stance toward the Israeli government, and a more rapid push for a historic South Lawn handshake between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
And a small, perceived distinction in the swirl of politics and perception that is Mideast politics can produce a lot of heat. Insiders say there is no love lost between the two.
Kurtzer emerged in the Democratic primary as an ambassador to the pro-Israel and Jewish communities for Obama. Ross, a trusted figure among relatively hawkish American Jewish leaders, advised both Obama and Clinton in the primary, and was a behind the scenes force in the general election, assuring figures such as New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman that Obama was committed to Israel’s safety.
Obama has worked to keep both men inside the tent. They serve together on his Middle East transition team, along with Biden adviser Tony Blinken and two campaign aides, Dan Shapiro and Eric Lynn. But camps have begun to develop: The liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz floated Kurtzer as “special Mideast envoy” (puzzling Obama insiders who say that Obama — and Clinton — have not yet even decided whether to appoint a Mideast envoy whose portfolio includes the linked issue of Iran, or to divide that portfolio).
A Kurtzer admirer in Obama’s camp said choosing him would send the message that “we want to draw on the past, but we want to move forward on our own and not be bound by that.”
Meanwhile, Kurtzer’s critics say he lacks Ross’s stature, and that his relationship as ambassador with the icon of the Israeli center-right, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left something to be desired. They see Ross in a more senior policy making role than envoy, if there even is an envoy.
“I’m not sure Dennis wants to be the new Bill Murray of 'Groundhog Day' and just be special envoy again,” said a Ross fan.
Ross did not return a call from Politico seeking comment, and Kurtzer e-mailed that he isn’t speaking to the press. And they aren’t the only ones in the running for top posts shaping U.S. Mideast policy. Clinton Israel Ambassador Martin Indyk remains a force in the field, and Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, has his own background in Middle East peacemaking and could bring in a member of his military team there.
The distance between Kurtzer and Ross, moreover, isn’t the only possible rift. The New Republic suggested recently that conflict could come between Jones, who has pushed for Israeli compromises, and Clinton, who has become firmly identified with a hard pro-Israel line. Even Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fiercely pro-Israel Florida Republican, advised Obama in a telephone conversation “to rely on Hillary’s advice on Israel, because she is very pro-Israel,” her spokesman, Alex Cruz, told Politico.
The form of the peace process also remains unclear. Top American diplomats, inlcuding Indyk, Ross, and Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, have suggested that the U.S. press for a treaty between Israel and Syria before attempting to settle the Palestinian conflict. The Israeli elections on Feb. 10 could bring to power Benjamin Netanyahu, who is thought to favor that Syria-first approach, and who is skeptical of talks with Palestinian leaders; or Tzipi Livni, who appears more likely to aim for a grand bargain with the Palestinians.
And ultimately, the key factor may be the commitment of the key American players, Clinton and Obama, whose attention will be drawn by an economic crisis at home, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan abroad.
“What counts is whether the president of the United States is going to make this a top priority, and whether the secretary of state is going to provide the kind of adult supervision and oversight that is required,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official and veteran of Mideast negotiations. “Who they come up with [as envoy] is significant but not determinative.”
Amie Parnes contributed to this report.