Over the last four decades, Dennis Ross has spent his time serving five presidents and watching the Middle East roil. Now he has penned a bird’s-eye view of the relationship between the United States and Israel that also sounds like an audition to become Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state. Dryly written but with a clear thesis, Doomed to Succeed captures in detail the ups-and-downs between Washington and Jerusalem. It provides firsthand insight into the players who have molded the policies of both countries for nearly 40 years and is worth the read.
Ross argues that despite marked misgivings among members of America’s defense and foreign-policy establishment, bilateral U.S.-Israel relations have grown close over time. To illustrate, he depicts how Israel went from once being treated as an albatross during the Eisenhower years to a strategic partner under Ronald Reagan that was warmly embraced by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Indeed, even Barack Obama, who has been repeatedly mocked and vilified by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and his backers, has stressed that America’s “commitment to the security of Israel is rock solid.”
Ross also contends that closer ties between the U.S. and Israel have been attained with little cost to America’s standing among Arab states. He points out that America earned Egypt’s enmity under Nasser, even as America attempted to keep Israel at arm’s length, and convincingly argues that closer ties between Egypt and the U.S. resulted in part from America’s support of Israel. To be sure, President Nixon ably harnessed Israel and Egypt as counters to the Soviet Union, with Israel acting as a de facto member of NATO’s southern flank.
But nothing in the Middle East is unalloyed. Egypt’s treaty with Israel led to the October 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat by the radical Egyptian Islamic Jihad, just as the tattered deal between Israel and the Palestinians resulted in the November 1995 murder of Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of Yigal Amir, a Jewish religious nationalist.
To his credit, Ross acknowledges the 1973 Arab oil embargo, and its nexus with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But he attempts to shift causation of the embargo away from Israel’s ties to the U.S. and Europe, and toward the state of the oil market itself. Less persuasively, Ross tries to decouple Muslim hostility towards America from America’s bond with Israel. Still, Ross notes that this is a view that has retained its currency among the Pentagon brass and within the Obama administration. In that vein, he recounts how Obama rejected Ross’s entreaty for coupling the president’s visit to Cairo with a stopover in Israel.
As a political campaign veteran and seasoned Middle East hand, Ross is aware of how acute changes in America’s demographics (and the rise of the increasingly nonwhite, socially liberal “Coalition of the Ascendant” within the Democratic Party) stand to shape U.S.-Israel politics in the years to come. He ticks off data on Israel’s relative unpopularity among America’s minorities and younger voters, and urges Israel to demonstrate particular sensitivity to their concerns. Similarly, Ross takes Netanyahu to task for his speech to Congress in opposition to the Iran Deal.
Ross is hopeful that this goal is attainable over the long-haul. Yet Israel’s blood-and-soil roots are becoming ever more visible, and Blue America doesn’t seem to cotton all too well to an increasingly ethnically and religiously driven Jewish state. When Israel went to the polls last March, Netanyahu was busy warning Jewish voters that Israel’s Arabs—who are Israeli citizens—were voting “in droves.”
Doomed to Succeed also omits some of the postscripts to Netanyahu’s reelection that continue to echo. In June, Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes, the wife of Israel’s vice prime minister and interior minister, Silvan Shalom, and a well-known media personality in her own right, tweeted out: “Do u know what Obama coffee is? Black and weak.” Nir-Mozes’s tweet was quickly removed, but the damage was done.
Past can be prelude, and Netanyahu is again in hot water over an aide having shared his thoughts about Obama and the U.S. It turns out that Ran Baratz, Netanyahu’s recent choice to lead Israeli public diplomacy, branded Obama an anti-Semite, and labeled Secretary of State John Kerry a clown.
On March 3, Baratz wrote on Facebook: “Obama’s response to Netanyahu’s speech—this is what modern antisemitism looks like in western liberal countries.” Netanyahu announced his selection of Baratz right before the prime minister left for the United States. Talk about timing.
Ross skips over the involvement of Netanyahu and Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s then-aide and now Israel’s ambassador to Washington, in quarterbacking Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign stop in Jerusalem. The author also elides over the fact that his old boss, Jim Baker, barred Netanyahu from the State Department when Netanyahu was serving in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir back in the early 1990s.
Right now, U.S.-Israel relations have more of an air of a toxic marriage than of an unbreakable bond, and Ross has admitted that things are at a low point. Just hours before Donald J. Trump went on “Saturday Night Live,” Vice President Joe Biden took direct aim at Netanyahu: “There is no excuse, there should be no tolerance for any member or employee of the Israeli administration referring to the president of the United States in derogatory terms. Period. Period. Period. Period.” Netanyahu has yet to back down over his choice of Baratz as his flack.
Still, with Hillary and the Republicans locked in a tight race, do not expect relations with Israel to go markedly downhill between now and Election Day. Rather, that’s an issue for the day after the day after. Just last week, Clinton published an op-ed in the Jewish newspaper The Forward titled “How I Would Reaffirm Unbreakable Bond with Israel – and Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Gazing ahead, if Clinton wins the election, Ross is a natural candidate to be her secretary of state. As a younger man, he backed George McGovern’s 1972 quest for the presidency, as did the Clintons. Ross also came to serve in Bill Clinton’s White House, touted Obama’s candidacy in 2008, and worked for Hillary at the State Department.
Ross concludes by stating that with “the right kind of continuing management and commitment on both sides,” the U.S.-Israel partnership “will remain certain, if not doomed, to succeed.” Yet, the words “right kind” hint at Ross’s unease with what the future may portend. Like taxes, abortion, and Keystone XL, the Jewish state is now one more flashpoint in our political firmament.
Against this backdrop, Israel may be on its way to becoming an updated version of Taiwan, a country that once earned America’s affection but over time became a casualty of realpolitik and a less concerned public. Suffice it to say, Ross doesn’t say a word about the Taiwan case, but to his credit he is ever mindful of American opinion. It is too bad that Netanyahu lacks the same sensibilities and antennae. Life in a political bubble seldom ends well.
Lloyd Green was staff secretary to the George H.W. Bush campaign’s Middle East Policy Group in 1988, and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.