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Former special envoy Dennis Ross discusses the state of U.S.-Israeli relations


The president of Israel is in Washington today. Isaac Herzog speaks to a joint session of Congress tomorrow. Some Democrats say they will boycott that address to protest Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Dennis Ross is a former U.S. special envoy for Mideast talks, and he joins us from Tel Aviv. Welcome.

DENNIS ROSS: Always good to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: I feel it's important, for many people, just to explain the basics here. People will know that Israel has a parliament and a prime minister with the main amount of power. So would you explain who the president is and what power he has?

ROSS: The role of the presidency in Israel is largely a ceremonial role, and people typically tend to focus just on that sense of ceremony. There are a couple of important actual powers that the president does have. After an Israeli election, he is the one who determines who to ask first to form a government. He also has the power - the only one who has the power of the pardon in Israel. Now, one other thing I would just say, in general, presidents who become effective present themselves as being above politics. They are, in a sense, not just the head of state, but they're there, I think, even symbolically, to kind of represent the whole of the country, all of the people. And certainly, Isaac Herzog tries to present himself in that role. He actually has been the one who's been presiding over talks between the government and the opposition to try to sort out the differences over the whole question of whether the judiciary should be reformed or not.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, that is really interesting because, we should note for people, that Herzog is associated with center-left parties. He was chosen by an earlier parliament of Knesset, not this right-wing one. So he's not necessarily on the same page as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it sounds like you're saying.

ROSS: Not necessarily. But again, he knows his role is to be nonpartisan. He knows he is not going to be particularly effective if it looks like he's opposing a prime minister. If he can be someone who actually can be helpful to the prime minister in terms of sorting out differences, that's the best of all worlds. At the same time, he certainly doesn't want to lose his credibility with the Israeli public as a whole. So he tries to walk, I think, a pretty fine line these days, given the polarization in Israel.

INSKEEP: Do you think that he is making progress on this matter of the judiciary? And we will remind people that Netanyahu, since his election months ago, has been trying to push through big changes that would apparently weaken the judiciary and strengthen his majority in the Knesset. And that has led to continual protests, even after Netanyahu has offered to weaken the bill somewhat.

ROSS: We're talking about 28 straight weeks of very significant protests throughout the country, including - today is a day of disruption from the opposition. I think that President Herzog has been - has created that forum for discussion. The problem is those discussions have been suspended. They've been suspended in part because the opposition saw the government going ahead and trying to impose at least one of the provisions, the reasonability provision of the reform. And that was after a period of a couple of months of discussions and negotiation. I think that President Herzog will still try to somehow find a way back to those discussions, but we're not in them right now. And that's one of the reasons you're seeing some of the reactions in the country.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, I want to note that Herzog, as I've read, is the first president to be born in Israel since its Declaration of Independence in modern times. But he visits at this moment when there's been this Israeli raid in Jenin, in Palestinian West Bank, which underlines the fundamental conflict over who gets to live where. Has he offered any way forward?

ROSS: He is certainly someone who, behind the scenes, tries to do all that he can. He has a very good relationship, for example, with the king of Jordan. He is someone who has the capability - again, he won't do it without the government knowing - he has the capability to reach out to the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. He's not the kind of person who can play a direct role in terms of trying to change things, but he is the kind of person who can, at times, interestingly enough, facilitate discussion, pick up the phone, and he could call Mahmoud Abbas to offer him good wishes or even to suggest, you know, maybe this is the time to see if there is certain channels that could be opened. There are subtle roles that he can play that can be helpful, and he does - he has credibility with Palestinians. And certainly, at this point within Israel, at a time of great polarization, he still is seen as someone who is trying to repair some of the breaches that you see within the country.

INSKEEP: Just got a few seconds left, but I want to ask about the U.S. role here. The U.S. ambassador is leaving, gave an exit interview on the way out to the Wall Street Journal. It was strikingly frank. He said, I'm not getting a Nobel Peace Prize in the next seven days because of the obvious. The Biden administration has not advanced a big peace plan. He did argue, I can look back and say that I've done things that have made life just a little bit easier and better for the average Palestinian. But really, in a few seconds, for the United States, is that enough for the U.S. to be doing?

ROSS: Well, I think the U.S. needs to try to do a little bit more. We need to focus on, what are the steps that Israel should be avoiding so it doesn't exclude a two-state outcome? And we need to see real reform on the Palestinian side within the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian Authority's security forces have been largely inactive because of the lack of legitimacy of the PA generally among Palestinians. Real reforms that would restore some sense of legitimacy could make a big difference in terms of the Palestinians performing some of their responsibilities. Getting both sides to focus on their responsibilities would be a very good way to move back towards trying to achieve something.

INSKEEP: Dennis Ross, former U.S. special envoy, thanks so much.

ROSS: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: July 18, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this post identified Dennis Ross as a former ambassador to Israel. He was appointed a special envoy to peace talks.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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