"Insanity," it is said, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Former Ambassador Dennis Ross, who helped shape U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast for nearly 30 years, has written an important book that applies the “insanity” thesis to relations between Washington and Jerusalem for more than six decades. It offers a thorough catalogue of examples of tensions, based in part on American presidents failing to learn obvious lessons in Mideast truths.
The book, “Doomed To Success: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), is a must-read for those who seek a deeper understanding of the complex, love-hate dance between successive U.S. and Israeli leaders. But Ross has set a higher goal for his target audience. He told me in an interview this week that the primary reason for writing the book is to provide the next president, and his or her senior advisers, “an understanding of some of the key assumptions embedded” in American Mideast policy that “go back decades” and “are not rooted in reality.”
Two theories that Ross focuses on in his book are that a close U.S. relationship with Israel has a negative impact on dealing with the Arab states, and that unless and until the Israel-Palestinian conflict is solved, there is little the U.S. can accomplish in the region. He cites numerous examples to show that these assumptions persist but have been proven wrong time after time. The Arab states, he writes, are more concerned about U.S. support for their own governments than Washington’s relationship with Jerusalem.
Israel frequently is viewed by those in the White House as more liability than asset — the chapter on the Obama administration is the longest in the book — and according to Ross, “our approach too often has missed the mark,” with U.S. policy makers failing to understand “the fundamental realities in the region,” and seemingly “unwilling or incapable of learning lessons.”
Ross calls out Susan Rice for being in the “liability” camp in her role as national security adviser under Obama. Indeed, news stories on the publication of “Doomed To Success” focused on Ross’ criticism of Rice as symbolic of those in the administration wary of Israel. In internal discussions, he wrote, she “nearly always took the view that the Israelis were hurting us and never took our needs into account.”
As for her boss, the president, Ross offers a more nuanced take, asserting that Obama cares deeply about the survival of the Jewish state but that his “distancing from Israel was deliberate and tied to the desire to reach out to the Muslims.” He writes that while Obama’s military and strategic support for Israel has been unprecedented, his “instinct to see the Palestinians as the victims in the conflict remained too strong” to allow for an “uncritical embrace” of Israel.
Ross describes a number of occasions when he disagreed with Obama, most notably over the president’s insistence on a settlement freeze in 2009, his unwillingness to visit Israel immediately after his Cairo speech that year, his insistence on characterizing Israeli settlements as illegal (not just unhelpful), and, in general, his pressuring Israel far more than the Palestinians on peace negotiations, openly criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while giving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a pass.
He also notes that Israel hurts its cause by failing to “share its bottom line” with administrations on how far it would go on concessions to the Palestinians. The Israelis fear that to do so would lead them to being pushed for more. But Ross believes candor increases trust, and the U.S. should assure Jerusalem that it would honor Israel’s security red lines. He also urges Jerusalem to recognize and address “alarm bells” in the demographic trends in America showing declining numbers of young people and minorities who understand or support Jerusalem’s views.
On the Iran nuclear deal, Ross told me that the country’s supreme leader is certain to test the U.S. once sanctions have been removed, and that the U.S. should form a “joint consultative committee with Israel on implementation” and make certain that Tehran understands “there will be a price to pay” for violations. He favors making the consequences clear to Iran.
No one has more solid credentials than Ross in writing on U.S.-Israel relations. He has helped make Mideast policy under four presidents, Republicans and Democrats, most recently with the National Security Council under President Obama as special assistant to the president on the Mideast, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. He helped the Israelis and Palestinians reach interim agreements during the Clinton years, when he was special Mideast coordinator. He also played a key role in the Israel-Jordan peace agreement and took part in talks between Israel and Syria.
With his tall good looks, calm demeanor and crisp articulation of his views, Ross, 66, has been an effective diplomat. He attributes his successes to building trust with key figures of authority in the Mideast by maintaining personal relationships with them and speaking forthrightly.
“I was always straight with them,” he said of both Arab and Israeli leaders, “and when there was a problem to be solved, they came to me.”
Not surprisingly, though, given his Jewish identity and the nature of his work, he has been criticized both as being too pro-Israel and as a self-hating Jew for his diplomatic efforts. All part of the job, was his attitude, especially regarding occasional charges in the Arab media that Ross favored Israel. But he spoke with a hint of irritation in recalling two “ugly” media leaks, no doubt from administration sources, that raised the specter of dual loyalty against him. Both, he noted, took place during the Obama years. The first, in 2010, was a report in Politico that accused Ross of appearing to be “far more sensitive to [Prime Minister] Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to U.S. interests.” Ross noted with satisfaction that Denis McDonough, the president’s chief of staff, issued a vigorous denial of the report the next day.
In May 2011, The New York Times published a front-page story suggesting that Ross, “by almost all accounts … Israel’s friend in the White House,” was a stumbling block to Obama’s plan to essentially make the pre-1967 borders the basis for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
The leak, Ross said, “clearly was designed to undercut me for opposing the president.” And he scoffed at the suggestion that his views would trump those of the head of state.
Ross said that his years of experience in dealing with Mideast leaders gave him an advantage. “You get to read them and know when they are lying or telling the truth.”
In his many dealings with Yasir Arafat, did he ever feel the leader of the PLO was trustworthy? “No,” Ross said after a brief pause, citing a remark a colleague had made of Arafat: “If someone is ready to die for his cause, wouldn’t he lie for it?”
The cumulative effect of reading Ross’ 400-page book is that his insider experience reveals, over and over again, how successive presidents and their key advisers have failed to recognize or accept the benefits of openly embracing Israel for its role as a strong democratic ally in an increasingly troubled region. And that to do so would enhance, not hurt, the possibilities for Mideast peace. Still, as Ross implies in his book’s ironic title, given the shared values and overall goals of Washington and Jerusalem, there is reason to believe that efforts to strengthen these ties would result in a positive outcome.