Obama's Conservative Mideast Pick

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Jae C. Hong / AP; Lee Celano / AP

Barack Obama and Dennis Ross, a former negotiator on Israeli-Palestinian issues for Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Correction appended: July 16, 2008

Even before Barack Obama says a word upon his arrival in Israel next week, close observers of America's role in the region will get a message from the presence in his delegation of a tall, slightly disheveled diplomat well known to the power players of the Middle East. In a region where simple words and gestures can be taken as weighty indicators of intent, Arabs and Israelis alike will see much meaning in the return of Dennis Ross.

In one way, the message is simple: Ross, a career foreign service officer, was lead negotiator on Israeli-Palestinian issues for Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and he got the two sides as close as they've come to a peace deal before stepping down after the 2000 election. His presence alongside Obama in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan is designed to signal the Senator's intent to resume the active pursuit of the peace process, which Obama claims President George W. Bush has derailed through inaction.

But Ross's presence in Obama's entourage is also designed to help the Democrat handle two thorny foreign policy problems that hamper his chances in November. Israelis and some Jewish Americans distrust Obama's commitment to Israel — a recent Israeli newspaper poll found 27% of Israelis surveyed support him, compared to 36% for John McCain. And Obama's readiness to hold unconditional talks with Iran also makes him vulnerable among some voters to charges of being soft on Tehran. Both issues count in swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania where they could hurt Obama's support among Jewish voters and Reagan Democrats. But Ross is a reassuring presence on both counts.

After he left government, the 59-year-old diplomat headed up a hawkish pro-Israel think tank in Washington, and signed on as a Fox News foreign affairs analyst. A former colleague, Dan Kurtzer (an Orthodox Jew and former U.S. ambassador to Israel who also supports Obama), published a think-tank monograph containing anonymous complaints from Arab and American negotiators saying Ross was seen as biased towards Israel and not "an honest broker". Ross has been hawkish on Iran, but he agrees with Obama's pledge to start talks. "We need to work hard to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state," Ross says, "but the Bush approach isn't working."

Still, it is somewhat surprising to see Ross emerge as an official member of Obama's team. (Neither Ross nor the campaign would comment on his role in the still-unannounced trip, but several sources in the campaign confirmed details for TIME.). When Ross left the State department in 2000, he was so critical of Yasser Arafat that some friends thought he was considering working for George W. Bush, who cut ties with the late Palestinian leader. "At the beginning of the Administration he hadn't excluded the possibility of working for a Republican again," says one. Ross supported the Iraq war, though he opposed some of the Bush Administration's policies for post-war reconstruction.

The Obama campaign first reached out to Ross 15 months ago when the candidate's top foreign policy adviser, Tony Lake, called and asked him to provide Obama with advice on the Middle East. Ross was noncommittal. "I simply said, 'I can play a role on a non-exclusive basis,'" Ross recalls. "I was asked by a number of different candidates and it was the same ground rule," he says. But Lake and other Obama team members "came more often than anyone else," Ross says. By the time Obama clinched the nomination in June, the campaign was ready to draw him in further. "The question was how to bring him in more officially and more publicly and on an exclusive basis," says Lake.

Ross's return is a reassuring message to many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment who see him as an experienced hand. But just because Ross is along for the ride next week, doesn't mean he will head up Obama's Middle East negotiations if the Senator wins in November. After all, the process orchestrated by Ross for the Clinton Administration failed, and one former Clinton Administration official says, "If Obama wants to embody something new that can actually succeed, it's not just a break from Bush that he's going to need, but a break from Clinton." That may be, but for now, at least Ross is just the man for the job.

The photo caption in the original version of this story wrongly identified Dennis Ross as a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, a position Ross has never held.