(Jpost, Politico).Top White House aide Dennis Ross visited Israel secretly at the end of last week, paving the way for meetings administration officials are scheduled to have this week in Washington with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho.
Ross’s trip here, coupled with a Prime Minister’s Office statement about Molcho’s visit that called Ross the “American envoy to the Middle East,” fueled some speculation that he was replacing George Mitchell in that role. Israeli diplomatic officials, however, said there was no indication that this was the case, and that referring to Ross as the Middle East envoy was merely an error in wording.
A US official also denied that there had been any change in Mitchell’s status or role, saying he was due back in the region in the near future.
Ross’s under-the-radar visit to Israel was his second in three weeks.
Meanwhile, Molcho may meet during his visit with Bill Daley, the man US President Barack Obama tabbed as his new chief of staff, replacing Rahm Emanuel.
Ben Smith, writing on the Politico website, reported over the weekend that Daley and Netanyahu sparred in 1998, when the former served as then-president Bill Clinton’s commerce secretary.
"Commerce Secretary Daley sparked a tense exchange of words in 1998, when he answered a question after a speech at the Brookings Institution by suggesting that Netanyahu -- the prime minister at the time -- was less interested in peace than his people, and that an election could fix that.
"Every poll we've seen, every poll that has been reported about the people of Israel are overwhelmingly in favor of the peace process moving forward," he said. [G]enerally governments end up reflecting their people. It may take some elections to do that but that generally happens. ...And hopefully that the people of Israel, again, who overwhelmingly are supportive of peace will make their voices heard a little louder to the political establishment."
Netanyahu fired back at the time, demanding an apology.
" I don’t know whether he said the things that he hinted at or called for changes in the Israeli government. If he said these things, they’re grave remarks which are unacceptable to us," he said. "If these things were indeed said, I expect an apology and unequivocal correction of the comments."
Of course, it was little secret that Clinton did want to get rid of Netanyahu, and his political team would help do it. The Obama Administration has resisted the temptation to interfere with Israel's domestic politics -- some Americans grumble that the Israelis play American politics and we don't play theirs -- but Daley obviously isn't allergic to the idea.
The pro-Israel Democrat who recalled the incident to me this afternoon made the case that history won't repeat itself:
"This stuff was a long time ago, and the Obama administrations seems to understand Netanyahu is the only one making tough calls for peace, not the Arabs and not the Palestinians, and they've learned some important lessons from their own mistakes of the last couple years.
Bill Daley is a friend of the pro-Israel community and a special US-Israel relationship because he knows it's good for America. But he also knows that 80 percent of America thinks of Israel as one of our best friends and are more likely to vote for candidates who are pro-Israel. He also knows it's the Palestinians who have reverted to pre-Oslo positions, refusing to even talk to the Israelis, which is hurting the President's desire to help deliver peace".
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the report on Monday.
It should be noted that Ross – who worked as the US Middle East envoy in the 1990s when Netanyahu was serving his first stint as prime minister – had a number of unflattering passages about Netanyahu in his book The Missing Peace, but this has not prevented him from becoming a trusted White House conduit to the prime minister.