The Myths of the U.S.-Israel Relationship

Review: Dennis Ross, 'Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama'

October 11, 2015

It would be hard to find someone whose background better suited him to write about the U.S.-Israel relationship than Dennis Ross. A long-time diplomat and policymaker, he has been involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations in every administration from Carter to Obama, with a single time-out under the first Bush. His new book does not disappoint: Doomed to Succeed devotes a pithy chapter to each administration, explaining its policies and the reasoning behind them.

Ross describes a recurring pattern wherein a president with warm feelings toward Israel tends to be replaced by a chillier executive, only to be replaced in turn by a friend. Thus Truman (friendly) is replaced by Eisenhower (not so much) then by Kennedy (who initiated arms sales), Johnson (also friendly), but then Nixon-Kissinger (a Machiavellian combination in outmaneuvering Israel), and so on.U.S.-Israel relations have hit a nadir with the current president. Ross quotes National Security Adviser Susan Rice playing the race card as she tells ADL chief Abe Foxman that Benjamin Netanyahu "did everything but use ‘the N-word’ in describing the president." Yet the changes at the top matter less than they might seem to. Ross’s chief contribution is to show how certain unchanging and misguided assumptions have driven U.S. policy since Israel’s birth and remain idées fixes in the minds of U.S. policymakers to this day. He writes, "I was struck by the similarity of the arguments. I found them recycled, often (to my amazement) couched in the exact same terms."

The main tenacious myths that Ross covers are that the United States must distance itself from Israel to win over the Arabs, that Israel is a liability for which the costs of support outweigh the benefits, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of America’s problems in the region.

Ross does such an effective job dissecting the first assumption—that the United States must put daylight between itself and Israel in order to woo the Arabs—that it might seem overkill were it not that there are always highly placed officials ready to believe it (National Security Adviser Susan Rice and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough being the latest). Ross writes that beginning with the Truman administration, "State Department officials constantly spoke of an ‘aroused Arab world’—aroused against us if we were seen as siding with the Jews. This theme became a mantra for them."

But the number-one priority for Arab states is survival. Ross notes that Arabs may say they are preoccupied with Israel, but they are more preoccupied with their Arab neighbors. It’s a reality that has trouble penetrating the minds of U.S. officials. Ross offers an example from personal experience, describing the reaction of Harold Brown, Carter’s secretary of defense, to a paper Ross helped write on Persian Gulf security. Brown wanted to know why Ross had included an Iraqi threat to Saudi Arabia as a contingency. "Brown could not conceive of Iraq being a threat to Saudi Arabia—reflecting a more general mind-set of the national security establishment that didn’t envision an intra-Arab conflict: it was focused on the Arab preoccupation with Israel."

While the current chaos in the Middle East forces the Obama administration to recognize the reality of intra-Arab conflicts, Obama has the old mind-set, believing that America’s problems in the Mideast stem from the Palestinian issue. His initial strategy was to put distance between the United States and Israel. Visiting Egypt in 2009 to make his famous Cairo speech, he pointedly (against Ross’s advice) did not visit Israel while in the region. Obama also accepts the second assumption: that Israel is a liability for other American interests. Ross quotes Obama saying in 2010 in the Situation Room, "With Israel, it’s all give and no get. We give and give and give and get nothing." Of course, Israel has given a tremendous amount and Ross provides numerous examples, such as technical improvements to U.S. weapons, the introduction of drones, missile defense, active armor, providing access to captured Soviet equipment and so on. Ross notes that such things are not the ‘give’ U.S. policymakers mean. They’re looking for Israeli concessions in peace negotiations.

Although Ross does not explicitly say this, the president whom Obama most resembles is Jimmy Carter. During the negotiations at Camp David, Carter identified completely with Anwar Sadat. Ross writes that Carter noted in his diary that he sent congratulatory notes to Menachem Begin and Sadat for winning the Nobel Prize, but that only Sadat deserved it. Carter overlooked the fact that Begin gave away the Sinai while Sadat gave away promises. (Ross fails to note that these promises, of complete normalization of relations in every aspect of cultural and economic life, although embedded in a series of treaties, were never fulfilled.)

The obsession with the Arab-Israel conflict carries serious perils for American policy. Ross notes that Carter became so fixated on it that he was blindsided by the Iranian revolution. Obama, too, invested a huge amount of time, energy, and capital in pushing doomed-to-fail negotiations between Israel and Abbas, and was slow to react to other challenges in the region, like the Arab Spring and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet even as Ross does a fine job describing the false notions that glide from one administration to the next, impervious to evidence, he himself clings to the most egregious assumption out there—namely, that the Arab-Israeli peace process is actually leading to peace.

Since 1969, every administration has embraced the land-for-peace approach, urging Israel to surrender lands it captured in the Six Day War for a final-status peace agreement. Despite his failure over forty years to get anywhere with this approach, Ross has not woken up to the reality that the two-state solution is no solution, however obvious and reasonable it may be to Western policy-makers. Negotiations founder not primarily on territorial issues, but on the refusal of the Palestinians to concede the ‘right of return,’ the right of some 3-6 million Arabs to flood Israel, ending its own meaning and purpose as a Jewish state.

Ross’ departure from the concerns of previous administrations concerns tactics more than strategy. Ross titles his book Doomed to Succeed because he views the U.S.-Israel relationship as flourishing despite the difficulties. And this is true when it comes to military cooperation, which Ross helped formalize during the Reagan administration. But when it comes to achieving the unchanged U.S. policy of pressuring Israel to return to the armistice lines of 1949—which even the dovish Israeli diplomat Abba Eban called the "Auschwitz borders"—one has to hope that U.S. policy is doomed to fail.

Published under: Book reviews