The National Security Council's Dennis Ross is the latest U.S. official to link the Obama administration's drive to secure peace between Israelis and Arabs to the overall goal of bringing greater stability to the region and combating the threat from Iran.
"In this region, pursuing peace is instrumental to shaping a new regional context," Ross said in remarks Monday evening. "Pursuing peace is not a substitute for dealing with the other challenges ... It is also not a panacea. But especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, if one could do that, it would deny state and non-state actors a tool they use to exploit anger and grievances."
Ross was speaking at the closing dinner for the Anti-Defamation League annual conference, where attendees also heard from the NSC's Daniel Shapiro, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin, special envoy for monitoring anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal, Israeli Amb. Michael Oren, and others.
Ross, whose exact portfolio at the NSC has been the subject of much speculation outside the administration, noted that "the greatest challenge for peace, for security in the Middle East, lies in Iran" and tied the Israeli-Arab conflict to the Islamic Republic.
"Clearly one way that Iran is increasing its influence in the region is by exploiting the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians," Ross said, echoing statements made by U.S. Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus in a report (pdf) submitted to Congress back in March.
"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests," Petraeus wrote. "The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
Conservative hard-liners ripped Petraeus for the statement, linking the report to a story on Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel (some elements of which are in dispute). The National Review's Andrew McCarthy even accused the general of "echoing the narrative peddled incessantly by leftists in the government he serves and by Islamists in the countries where he works."
But Ross, who is not often accused of being too hard on Israel, made similar comments Monday. "The continuation of the conflict strengthens Iran's rejectionist partners and also Hezbollah. Iran deliberately uses the conflict to expose even the moderates in the region by stoking the fears of its populations and playing the worst most anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist prejudices," he said.
Ross also had some harsh words for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government the Obama administration believes may have considered transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah.
"By transferring weapons including long-range weapons to Hezbollah, Syria is engaging in provocative and destabilizing behavior," said Ross, borrowing language from earlier remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "President Assad needs to make a decision whether he wants war or peace in the region."
Clinton made also linked the peace process to Iran in remarks last month when she said, "Those who benefit from our failure of leadership traffic in hate and violence and give strength to Iran's anti-Semitic president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad]and extremists like Hamas and Hezbollah."
At Monday's dinner, ADL Executive Director Abe Foxman defended Ross from a recent attack by an anonymous administration source quoted by Politico's Laura Rozen.
"He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests," the source told Rozen, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"Ambassador Dennis Ross has been advancing U.S. interests in national security for over 25 years," Foxman said. "He's a gifted statesman who is trusted by people on different sides of the negotiating table and on both sides of the aisle here at home."