The Obama administration on Thursday lost a second key Mideast adviser in six months at a time when Israel and the Palestinians are making little to no progress in the peace process and the U.S. is struggling to deal with the fallout from a Palestinian drive for statehood recognition at the United Nations.
Dennis Ross, a veteran mediator, helped lead efforts in recent months to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' government to drop its U.N. membership bid and prod Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiation. The U.S. entreaties failed, and the two sides haven't held direct talks in more than a year.
The White House said Ross will leave his National Security Council post at the end of the year.
Ross has played a "critical role" in American efforts to pressure Iran's government over its human rights record and disputed nuclear program, support the democratic transitions of the Arab world and "deepen our security relationship with Israel while pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Ross' tenure had already surpassed the two years of service he promised President Barack Obama in 2009.
Still, the announcement of his departure augurs poorly for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts ahead of an attempt next week to revive the stalled talks. It comes a half-year after the resignation of the top American envoy to the region, former Sen. George Mitchell.
A series of setbacks has badly damaged prospects for negotiations, and senior diplomats from the United States, U.N., Russia and European Union will only be able to meet separately on Monday with Israel and Palestinian negotiations in Jerusalem.
According to a timeline drawn up in September by those mediators, the two sides should have restarted negotiations last month with the aim of producing detailed proposals on land swaps and security by late January. But the push for a U.N. Security Council vote on recognition of an independent Palestine and continued Israeli settlement construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank have further soured the environment for new talks.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to comment on Ross' departure or what types of ideas the quartet mediators might propose.
"We're going to again make the very clear case that the parties need to get back to the negotiating table," he said. The mediators' plan could "move this process along incrementally," so that direct Israeli-Palestinian talks can eventually resume.
Ross said in a statement that he leaves with "mixed feelings" and he said it was an honor to work for the Obama administration during the unprecedented changes of the Arab Spring.
But, he noted tersely, "there is still work to do."
Ross' effectiveness was limited by the perception among Palestinians that he held pro-Israel positions. On some trips to the region, Ross and fellow U.S. Mideast envoy David Hale consulted with top Israeli officials, while only Hale met with the Palestinians.
The ultimate U.S. goal, shared by fellow mediators, is to produce a binding treaty by the end of next year establishing a Palestinian state and bringing to a close six decades of conflict between Arabs and Israelis. Yet Washington has joined the Jewish state in fighting against the Palestinian bid at the U.N., saying statehood can only be achieved through an agreement with the Israeli government.
On Friday, the U.N. Security Council was likely to endorse a draft report showing deep divisions over the Palestinian application for membership. The Palestinians need nine votes in the 15-member body and no veto from the U.S., Britain, China, France or Russia. It appears the Palestinians lack the votes, and Washington has pledged to veto any such resolution anyhow.
That has led the Palestinians to explore alternative routes, such as membership in U.N.-affiliated organizations or perhaps an upgraded observer status in the global body.
Last week, the Palestinians won membership in the U.N. cultural organization, UNESCO, prompting Israel to announce it would speed up settlement construction in disputed territory and withhold millions of dollars in tax money it collects for the Palestinians. The Obama administration responded by announcing it halt all U.S. payments to UNESCO because of congressional restrictions on funding of organizations recognizing Palestine ahead of a peace deal with Israel.