This morning, the White House hosted a conference call for “Jewish community newspapers” in which Dennis Ross explained and clarified his boss’s position on Israel in advance of the long holiday weekend. The main talking points? “The context” for Obama’s remarks “was an unshakable, ironclad commitment to peace;” “The fundamentals of the relationship, which sometimes seem to be lost as it relates to security, have never been as strong as they are right now;” and, Europe—Obama’s call for negotiations predicated on the 1967 borders “gives him credibility with the Europeans to oppose” Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.. “The president has done what he sees as something that’s a credible basis to say,” Ross explained, “let’s focus on negotiations, and there should not be a focus on statehood in New York.”
Officially, Ross, who served a similar role in the Clinton administration, is a special adviser to the president on Mideast and Southwest Asian (read: Iran) affairs. Unofficially, he is the pro-Israel community’s largest presence in the Oval Office, “Israel’s friend in the Obama White House and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in town,” as the New York Times reported earlier this week. It added, “His strategy sometimes contrasts sharply with that of a president who has bold instincts and a willingness to elevate the plight of the Palestinians to a status equal to that of the Israelis.”
I did not get to ask my question: I wanted to know about the process going into Obama’s speech last Thursday, and specifically why the official backgrounder and official fact sheet made barely any mention of Israel-Palestine while the speech itself devoted nearly 20 percent of its word count to that conflict, and why the biggest news to come out of an address ostensibly concerned about “the Arab Spring” was about Israel. I suspect I would have gotten a “we don’t comment on internal deliberations” answer. And I wonder (and it is purely speculation) if some sort of conflict between Ross and Obama may have led to this discrepancy.
So the real news of the phone call is that the White House is very much aware that, in the wake of the past week or so, its Jewish communal support needs a bit of tending to. It wants American Jews going into Shabbat and into the long weekend to read articles and blog posts (ahem) about how the White House has an “unshakable” and indeed “unprecedented” commitment to Israel’s security, and that the one line that has pissed some people off was in fact inserted precisely to help the U.S. help Israel at the U.N. That, anyway, is Dennis Ross’s story, and he is sticking to it.