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The Man Fixing Israel’s Blue America Problem

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 [1] 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.  

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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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "The Man Fixing Israel’s Blue America Problem"

#1 Comment By gk0821 On November 10, 2015 @ 1:22 am

As a young voter, thoroughly disgusted by both parties, the seemingly stronger loyalty to a foreign leader than to their own demonstrated by the Republicans in the Iran deal was one of the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in politics. Of all the decisions Obama has made in his six and a half years as president, the choice to attempt rapprochement with Iran was one of very few I agreed with. Although I definitely won’t be voting for Hillary, I’ll be voting for a third party instead of a Republican because their hostility to the idea of diplomacy is too much for me to stomach.

#2 Comment By Philip Giraldi On November 10, 2015 @ 8:18 am

I will not buy this book as I refuse to put any money into Dennis Ross’s pocket, though I suppose I will eventually read it if it appears in the local public library.

Ross has richly deserved his sobriquet as “Israel’s lawyer.” During a cabinet level meeting, Condoleezza Rice once told him that he would certainly be called upon if the Likud perspective were needed.

Ross’s approach to his brand of “peacemaking” is essentially to start a narrative at a point that dictates a certain outcome. For him, that starting point has always been Israel’s “security needs,” which trump any consideration of the same for Palestinians or, indeed, for Americans. That Israel must be somehow protected as a sine qua non determines where one goes from there. This formula has, unfortunately, been embraced by many in the U.S. government and national media, witness the groveling by Barack Obama before Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, which included explicitly blaming the Palestinians for the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine.

As Lloyd Green notes Ross is selective in what he has opted to include in his overview. While he chooses to see foreign policy developments as a concurrence of a number of forces that eventually produce a result, I have never seen him admit to the role of the Israel Lobby in the United States, which might not unreasonably be seen as dominant in the process as relating to the Middle East. That would, of course, imply that America’s love affair with Israel is at its heart not rational and not based on perceivable U.S. interests. Ross is, of course, himself a leading member of “the Lobby” who is personally committed to a perpetual U.S.-Israel “special relationship.”

That Ross might actually become the next Secretary of State is terrifying but I suppose it would be an unsurprising move by the Clintons, given their own debt to the special interests that would hail such an appointment.

#3 Comment By cityeyes On November 10, 2015 @ 9:20 am

PG says it right. Israel will never become Taiwan in the US’s eyes. Hollywood, TV, the mainstream media, and the Amen Choir elected (selected) to Congress will never let this happen. Club see no evil will not give up their strangle hold on real power so easily.

#4 Comment By Clint On November 10, 2015 @ 10:36 am

Ross co-founded, with Martin Indyk, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-sponsored Washington Institute for Near East Policy (“WINEP”) and the vast majority of AIPAC members are Democrats.

#5 Comment By Potomacan On November 10, 2015 @ 11:07 am

“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.”

“Little cost”? Ross won’t get much traction telling whoppers like that.

Two long, exhausting wars and trillions of dollars later, including hundreds of billions in direct aid to Israel and countless expenditures of focus and other resources wasted on the perpetually failed “peace process”, it is blazingly obvious that pursuit of “closer ties” with Israel has been the single costliest blunder in the history of US foreign policy. As to our “standing with Arab states”, I assume he means those Arab states that still exist, as opposed to the ones we have destabilized or destroyed by following the foreign policy prescriptions of people like … Dennis Ross.

Indeed, Ross’s is a record of failure and waste in this very arena. He is as implicated as any neoconservative in the foreign policy disasters of the past two decades, including marquee errors like supporting both the Iraq invasion and the intervention in Libya. His personal associations don’t bear much scrutiny either (AIPAC, WINEP, PNAC etc). Not exactly the kind of record of success and professionalism one looks for in a Secretary of State. Even Hillary Clinton would hesitate to kick off her term with such a needlessly fishy appointment.

Indeed, the fishy smell emanates in part from Ross’s badly dated outlook: why on earth come out with a book about patching up the US-Israel relationship in the year 2015? That world is gone. It ain’t coming back, either.

#6 Comment By Johann On November 10, 2015 @ 11:07 am

Both parties are covered.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On November 10, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

Way, way too much tip-toeing around in this review! My goodness, me — what are we afraid of? The truth?

As an alternative, I recommend reading Akiva Eldar’s review of the same Dennis Ross book. Eldar is an Israeli Jew and a veteran diplomatic correspondent writing in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper – so when it comes to Mr. Dennis Ross (“Israel’s lawyer”), Eldar isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. He writes, for example:

“Ross has never taken responsibility for his role in the Israeli-Arab tragedy. As his deputy, Aaron David Miller told journalist Clayton Swisher in an interview in 2004: ‘You don’t want to give centrality to how you f—ed up. Dennis could never have brought himself to do it, and neither could I’.”

Read the entire Haaretz review:

“Is Dennis Ross Partly to Blame for the Ongoing Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?”

“Former diplomat Dennis Ross ignores, in his new book, the fact that the more Israel moves away from being democratic and Jewish, the less successful U.S. policy is – by its own definition. He was part of the problem.”

“Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama,” by Dennis Ross, 474 pp., Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30

HAARETZ – November 9, 2015 – by Akiva Eldar

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#8 Comment By William Dalton On November 10, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

“… 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.” ”

“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.””

Really? Calling Obama an anti-semite or Kerry a clown is unacceptable to Joe Biden. After forty-five years in Washington? Comments like this from Republicans are common-place. Joe Biden himself has said worse about Republican nominees to the Supreme Court. If American college students take umbrage to traditional political discourse in our country it is because of poor examples being set for them in Washington. Democracy in this country will end if Americans can be scared off by, or worse, be scared off from using, language which expresses their real thoughts and are made to keep them hidden.

There is a place for diplomatic language, particularly in diplomacy, in which restraint may help build confidence, and confidence established in small matters may expand to build confidence sufficient for important achievements. But candor is also necessary in its place. The prospects for diplomatic successes are not enhanced by suppressing it.

“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.”

Israel should wish it could come off as well as Taiwan. Taiwan is an island, with clearly defined boundaries. Its government doesn’t bother neighboring states, much less occupy their territory and terrorize their peoples, least of all that of its nemesis in Beijing. Arab and Muslim governments which have assisted the United States in supporting Israel are a dwindling species and appear to have a short shelf life. If our leaders in Washington are wise, they will cut the cord to both and minimize the damage we are certain to suffer on our present course.

#9 Comment By In Your Heart You Know He’s Wrong On November 11, 2015 @ 10:42 am

Ross is the veritable embodiment of what went wrong with US foreign policy, from the 90s down to the present. Giving him another government job would be like saying “We’re not just stupid and self-destructive, we’re really committed to being stupid and self-destructive”.