The voice, humble but authoritative, was unmistakable. I had heard Dennis Ross on NPR enough times to know that I was standing next to him. I glanced to my right and there he was: a voice of reason in America’s long running Israel debate. And here we were, standing in a crowd 10 deep, shoulder to shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of President Obama as he lit the menorah at the White House Hanukah party. I had a lot of questions, but it didn’t seem like the time and place.
The title of Ross’s new book, Doomed to Succeed, captures the paradox and frustration inherent in the long-running “peace process,” a title with its own tragic irony. Beginning with the creation of the State of Israel, Ross analyzes events in the Middle East, American responses and the “mindset” that characterized each administration from Truman to Obama. Among other benefits, Ross’s book provides historical context for current debates about what it means to be “pro-Israel.”
A polarized version of that debate seems to predominate: either the US is an uncritical enabler of Israeli domination of the Palestinians (view from the Left) or the US under Obama has created a distance between the two countries that threatens Israel’s security and emboldens its Arab enemies (view from the Right). The discussion would benefit from some historical nuance.
US support for Israel has, in fact, ebbed and flowed over the years. We remember that Truman recognized Israel 11 minutes after the UN vote, but we may forget that he maintained an arms embargo and that his national security establishment was against supporting statehood. Anti-Jewish animus was rarely the driving force when American officials sought to distance the US from Israel. While the US State Department over the decades may not have been bastions of philo-Semitism, the primary motivation for pro-Arab initiatives or distancing from Israel has been strategic calculation. Presidents and their state departments (not always in sync) have feared alienating Arab regimes (or creating an advantage for the Soviets) and thereby jeopardizing our national interests.
Ross’s thesis is that this calculation consistently has been proven wrong. The US doesn’t get a return on the investment when appeasing Arab interests at the expense of Israel because Arab regimes don’t base their actions on the US relationship to Israel; they act from their own perceived interests, which are influenced primarily by regional rivalries, as well as their own need for American good will.
Ross himself is an important actor in the history he recounts. As a lead negotiator at Camp David in 2000, he was instrumental in bringing the two sides as close as they’ve ever been to a resolution of the conflict. After negotiations broke down and violence ensued, the history writing began, with each side trying to characterize the other as the major obstacle.
For Ross, most of the blame belonged to Arafat, and he sought to correct what he saw as exculpatory revisionism by some of his co-negotiators. In a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books in 2001, Ross also looked forward, noting that “…given the damage done by nine months of violence, it will take a long time to create the conditions in which solutions can again be discussed. And that day will not emerge as long as the Palestinians avoid facing painful truths, and leveling with their own public about what is possible and what is not. They, too, must assume responsibility and be accountable.” No doubt. But security conditions eventually did improve, and Israelis responded with the Netanyahu regime.
As a member of the Obama administration, did Ambassador Ross hold our ally Israel to the same standards of responsibility and constructive dialogue? Obama has been harshly criticized by many in the self-described pro-Israel community as insufficiently supportive of Israel and overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But while the president has sought rhetorical balance in discussing the conflict, his actions — increasing military support, protecting Israel from punitive measures in the UN — have followed the traditional pro-Israel script, even when he has been grossly disrespected by Netanyahu. As the Obama administration comes to a close, we are left with the status quo.
Ross concludes his book by diagnosing the current state of affairs and offering some prescriptions. He notes that reflexive support for Israel in the US could change, as minority groups with little connection to Israel eventually constitute a majority. The younger generation as well, non-Jewish and Jewish, is more likely to question Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Ross sees a need to counter these trends through “outreach and education,” and by not making Israel a partisan issue.
It appears that he views these challenges as problems of perception, not policy. He advises countering right-wing trends in Israel that are threatening its civic foundation because “the last thing Israel needs now is to have its basic democratic character called into question.” Similarly, Ross suggests that Israel “take an initiative on peace” in order to “undercut the delegitimization movement.”
In a sense, Doomed to Succeed is about correcting misperceptions — flawed assumptions that lead to errors in policy. Ross is attempting to correct the view, persistent in the American national security establishment, that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is at the center of the region’s problems. In the larger context of radical Islamism and regional turmoil, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Ross, “would not be a game changer in the region.” Perhaps, but Ross’s apparent lack of urgency bears a strong resemblance to the tendencies of the current Israeli administration, which has factions that reject even the idea of a Palestinian state. So in the end, “doomed to succeed” takes on another level of irony: the fate of Israel if it maintains the status quo and loses its Jewish, democratic soul.
DOOMED TO SUCCEED
The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama
By Dennis Ross
474 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.