Thirteen US presidents, 67 bumpy years

A review of Washington’s relations with Israel by a well-placed insider, Dennis Ross

US special envoy Dennis Ross looks on as prime minister Ehud Barak reaches out to shake hands with Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat at a meeting in a Ramallah hotel, March 8, 2000 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US special envoy Dennis Ross looks on as prime minister Ehud Barak reaches out to shake hands with Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat at a meeting in a Ramallah hotel, March 8, 2000
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IT SEEMS appropriate that Dennis Ross’s book is making its appearance while US President Barack Obama is still in office.
For it just might disabuse some of the president’s detractors from asserting that no president has been worse for Israel.
“Doomed to Succeed” provides a valuable rundown of America’s foreign policy toward the Zionist enterprise.
Its author served as a Pentagon staffer during the Carter years; worked on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council; was director of policy planning at Foggy Bottom for George H.W. Bush; was a Mideast envoy under Bill Clinton; Iran advisor to secretary of state Hillary Clinton; and Mideast policy coordinator for Obama until the end of 2011. He is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and chairman of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.
“Doomed to Succeed” is fluently written, presenting enough of the forest and trees to make sense of the Mideast jungle. This isn’t a kiss-and-tell book; clearly, Ross is not one to burn bridges.
But for all his diplomatic restraint, he is clear on this: Whenever Washington has either pressured or distanced itself from Israel to curry favor with the Arabs, it gets little in return.
Ross begins with a succinct description of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s approach to the Zionist cause. He “juggled” and “equivocated,” telling the Saudi monarch Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud one thing and Nahum Goldmann of the World Jewish Congress the opposite, while promising each, confidentially, that what he told them was his real position.
Harry S. Truman comes through as less devious. Like his secretary of state Dean Acheson, he was unenthusiastic about Jewish statehood. He nonetheless granted Israel de facto recognition. But Truman refused to sell Israel weapons and demanded that Israel pull back from the 1949 armistice lines to the 1947 boundaries envisaged by the UN Partition Plan. He said he was “disgusted” by Israel’s handling of the refugee problem.
Dwight Eisenhower had little tolerance for Israel. His secretary of state John Foster Dulles promised the Arabs that unlike Truman, Ike wouldn’t tolerate Israeli “aggression.” Eisenhower demanded the repatriation of Arab refugees and called on Israel to sacrifice a chunk of the Negev to provide territorial contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank. Disregarding the Arab aggression that precipitated the 1956 Sinai Campaign, he demanded the subsequent unconditional withdrawal of IDF forces from Gaza.
In Dean Rusk, John F. Kennedy appointed a secretary of state who had opposed the 1947 partition plan. JFK unenthusiastically agreed to provide defensive anti-aircraft missiles to Israel.
His scheme for the resettlement and repatriation of Palestinian refugees went n owhere. H e s upported U N condemnations of IDF retaliatory raids and sought to block Israel’s nuclear program, writes Ross.
Lyndon Johnson was a Bible-reading Christian who sympathized with Israel.
Yet, on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War, Rusk warned premier Levi Eshkol not to strike first. After Israel’s astounding victory, Johnson’s UN ambassador Arthur Goldberg crafted Security Council Resolution 242, which ushered in the “land for peace” paradigm. Notably, LBJ was the first to sell Israel offensive weapons, writes Ross.
Richard Nixon’s secretary of state William Rogers saw Washington’s ties to Israel as undermining relations with the Arabs. His “Rogers Plan” would have Israel pull back to the 1949 armistice lines (the starting point of the ’67 war) and grant Arab refugees and their descendants the option of returning to Israel. During the 1967-70 War of Attrition, Nixon grudgingly sold Israel arms.
THE NIXON administration labored to prevent a decisive Israeli victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Nixon and secretary of state Henry Kissinger viewed the fighting as an opportunity to pursue land for peace. Only when Israel was well-bled did they agree to resupply the IDF. Kissinger then introduced the step-by-step peace process, judging a comprehensive solution unrealistic.
Gerald Ford was no less eager to compel a Sinai pullback. When Jerusalem balked, the president announced a “reassessment” of relations and an arms embargo. Israel had little choice but to comply. As a palliative, Kissinger promised – speciously – that the US would not secretly talk to the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Ford’s tenure is further notable for having declared settlements “illegal,” Ross writes.
Jimmy Carter’s animus toward Israel and his consuming obsession with the Palestinian cause is well summed up by Ross. National security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski shared the president’s antipathy.
Carter’s preference was for an imposed solution.
At their first meeting, Carter took an instant dislike to Yitzhak Rabin. When Rabin lost the 1977 election to Menachem Begin, Brzezinski saw a silver lining. It would be easier to distance American Jews from Begin. Anwar Sadat’s November 1977 acceptance of Begin’s peace overtures put a spanner in the works. According to Ross, William Quandt, a member of the White House national security team, worried that his boss appeared “more pro-Arab than Sadat himself.”
Ronald Reagan was surrounded by advisors – with the brief exception of Al Haig – who didn’t much like Israel. Defense secretary Casper Weinberger urged him to fulfill Carter’s promise to sell AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia.
Reagan penalized Israel for destroying the nuclear facility of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
During the 1982 Lebanon War, he criticized Israel’s “disproportionate” bombing. His envoy Phillip Habib orchestrated PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s safe exit from Beirut.
Reagan followed up Arafat’s departure with a September 1982 peace plan that – no surprise – called for an Israeli pullback to the ‘49 lines. “The Reagan Plan would gain us nothing with the Arabs,” Ross writes.
Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir replaced Begin and entered into a rotation arrangement with Labor’s Shimon Peres for the premiership after the 1984 elections.
Unbeknown to Shamir, Ross describes how he negotiated a deal with Peres for an international peace conference (that eventually took place in Madrid in 1991).
To overcome Shamir’s opposition to PLO participation, Ross came up with the fig leaf of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
With the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987, Ross proposed a range of measures to defuse tensions, without notable success. The violence sputtered along until 1993.
The 1989 arrival of George H.W. Bush to the White House ushered in a president who had no particular sentiment for Israel and whose secretary of state James Baker accepted Richard Nixon’s warning that Reagan had been too pro-Israel. “In the Bush administration, I would become part of James Baker’s inner circle,” Ross writes.
Bush and Shamir “would get off on the wrong foot” over settlements. But Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait sidetracked the president from leaning harder on Israel. Ross does not take a stand on whether Baker actually said “Fuck the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway,” but he does mention him telling a congressional committee that if the Israelis ever wanted to get serious about peace they could call the White House switchboard.
America-Israel relations during much of Bill Clinton’s presidency were atypically harmonious because Yitzhak Rabin fully embraced the land-for-peace formula.
In 1993, Israel recognized the PLO.
More or less immediately, Palestinian factions opposed to Oslo carried out a string of deadly attacks. To make matters worse, in February 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron. This left the US scrambling to salvage Oslo.
Ross helped to broker the Gaza-Jericho agreement that in July 1994 brought Arafat in as president of the Palestinian Authority. The PA took control of Palestinian population centers though comparatively little territory.
AFTER RABIN’S assassination, Clinton pushed for Shimon Peres to win the May 1996 elections. The president was shattered when Benjamin Netanyahu came out the victor. He viewed Netanyahu as “grudging about peace.” It took Ross 23 days of shuttling, but in January 1997, Netanyahu took ownership of the Oslo Accords by following through on a mandated pullback in Hebron.
To the administration’s relief, Netanyahu lost the May 1999 elections to Ehud Barak. He was a “big idea” man, writes Ross, pushing for a deal with Hafez Assad and pulling out unilaterally from south Lebanon. Barak pressured Clinton to call the 2000 Camp David summit with Arafat in hopes that the “pressure cooker” environment would force the PLO chief to cut a deal. But it was Barak who caved while Arafat refused to move toward “an end-of-conflict deal” – perhaps, Ross speculates, because he saw what “resistance” had achieved for Hezbollah in south Lebanon.
“What we do know is that the president pressed Arafat very hard at Camp David after finally eliciting Barak’s bottom line.”
The Palestinian chief would not budge, writes Ross.
George W. Bush’s secretary of state Colin Powell had little tolerance for Ariel Sharon who had replaced Barak as premier in 2001. With the second intifada raging, Bush brought in former senator George Mitchell to get to the bottom of why the Palestinians had returned to violence. It was Mitchell, Ross writes, who in his May 2001 report drew “a moral equivalence between terror and settlement activity.”
Under Saudi pressure, Bush made an extraordinary declaration that “the Palestinian people have a right to selfdetermination and to live peacefully and securely in their own state.” It was, writes Ross, “a posture that no previous American president had held: self-determination and statehood for the Palestinians.” US pressure on Israel was reduced by al-Qaida’s 9/11 attack in 2001. Powell nonetheless pressed Bush to announce another peace plan, writes Ross.
Bush was convinced that the Palestinians would reject radicalism if given the chance.
So in a June 2002 speech he insisted that Arafat had to go and offered a roadmap that set milestones toward Palestinian independence.
Sharon staged a countermove: Israel would unilaterally disengage from Gaza in hopes of retaining as much of Judea and Samaria as possible. Bush lent credence to the approach in a subsequent memo embracing a 1967-plus formula. Major settlement blocs need not be uprooted in any final status deal; a “full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949” wouldn’t be expected.
Sharon followed through on his disengagement commitment, but in January 2006 he suffered a massive stroke and Ehud Olmert became premier.
Meanwhile Condoleezza Rice, who had taken over from Powell as secretary of state, pressed for Palestinian elections that resulted in Hamas being elected in Gaza in the same month. These elections proved to be the last ever held.
Bush got on well with Olmert whom he found a good schmoozer. Still, the administration cut him little slack when he conducted military campaigns, twice in Gaza and once in Lebanon.
Ross fi rst met Barack Obama in 2005 when the Illinois senator asked him to brief a liberal group. He accompanied him on a lightning campaign trip to Israel in 2008 where Obama publically implied he would break with Bush’s 1967-plus pledge. This apparently didn’t faze Ross and he “became a strong supporter of his candidacy.” Then, in his June 2009 Cairo address, Obama signaled Muslims he understood their grievances. He also followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, and telegraphed “distance” from Israel, Ross writes. Obama’s early, full-court press for a settlement freeze forced Mahmoud Abbas out on a limb. “Could he, the Palestinian president, care less about settlements than the Americans,” Ross writes.
Reading between the lines, Ross attributes Obama’s distancing policy to the coterie of Rahm Emanuel, Martin Indyk, Robert Gates, Susan Rice, and Denis McDonough. Ross doesn’t tell us which of these anonymously told the Atlantic Monthly journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in October 2014 that Netanyahu was “a chickenshit,” though my money is on Rice. Ross gingerly takes Obama to task. What if the Palestinians are not willing to make peace regardless of Israeli actions? Obama “never seems to ask that question,” writes Ross. He reveals that Netanyahu was ready to offer signifi cant land concessions in return for rock-hard security arrangements. Still, Angela Merkel of Germany, France’s François Hollande, and David Cameron of Britain disdain the Israeli premier, according to Ross. He argues it wouldn’t hurt if Israel got smarter by making its “settlement policy consistent with a two-state solution.” Overall, the lessons Ross draws in “Doomed” are that d istancing the US from Israel seldom results in an Arab quid pro quo; that the Arabs don’t base their relations with Washington on what happens on the Palestinian front; and that resolving the Palestinian conundrum, while desirable, won’t make Mideast turmoil vanish. Ross shows that US policymakers stubbornly refused to acknowledge the pattern and draw the appropriate conclusions.
Ross completed the book before Obama’s Iran deal was announced. He has subsequently called for steps to “create a fi rewall between Iran’s threshold nuclear status and its becoming a weapons state.”
He ends on an obligatory hopeful note. Somehow the US-Israel relationship has fl ourished. “With the right kind of continuing management and commitment on both sides, it will remain certain, if not doomed to success.” 
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist. His study ‘Leverage: How U.S. Presidents Use the American Jewish Community to Pressure Israel’ is available for Kindle. You can follow him on Twitter @JAGERFILE