Friends with benefits or frenemies?

Washington insider Dennis Ross brings 30 years of personal experience to light in a formative narrative of the US-Israel relationship.

PM Yitzhak Rabin and president George Bush Sr. speak to the press at Bush’s seaside retreat in Maine on August 10, 1992 (photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/REUTERS)
PM Yitzhak Rabin and president George Bush Sr. speak to the press at Bush’s seaside retreat in Maine on August 10, 1992
(photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/REUTERS)
In April 1981, Syria moved batteries of surface-to-air missiles into the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. At the time, Syria was occupying Lebanon, which was in the midst of a brutal civil war, and Israel was attempting to tamp down on Palestinian groups there that were using that country to attack Israel.
Israeli leaders told the US that they would bomb the Syrian SAM missiles. The White House sent diplomat Philip Habib to shuttle between Syria, Lebanon and Israel to help bring peace to the area. In July he brought back an agreement regarding a “process” that would make all sides happy.
In the end that agreement, like so many others, “produced none of the outcomes” it was intended to, according to author and former State Department official Dennis Ross. The Israelis trudged along and eventually invaded Lebanon. The Reagan administration made some condemnations, but kept up a close relationship with the Jewish state. The Assad family stayed in power and the Palestinians remained; 1981 could be 2015 – nothing really changes.
Ross, in Doomed to Succeed, his monumental and accessible history of Israel’s relations with the US, wants us to look back at history and gain a more nuanced reading of the present.
“As I began to review the record prior to my time [working in US foreign policy], I was struck by the similarity of the arguments...
I saw the same failure to learn from mistakes or to ask what our erroneous assumptions should have taught our policy makers about what actually drove the region,” he writes.
Ross’s book hits the stands during a time of increased interest in the US-Israel relationship. It comes on the heels of John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, published in 2014, and former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren’s Ally, published this year, which looks at the most recent years of US-Israel relations.
One should pick-up Ross’s book to put some substance in this Judis-Oren sandwich – which literally bookend the point Ross is trying to make: Look at the relationship over the long term and you will see that the arc of history trends toward something positive and good for both countries.
Ross brings to the table a wealth of personal experience working at the highest levels of power in Washington and being an on-the-scenes practitioner of Israel-US relations from the US side. He has written before about the Oslo peace process.
What interests him in this book is how many lobbies and voices influenced US policy against Israel.
WE TEND to see the US-Israel relationship as one that was great and has been harmed by the cantankerousness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama.
“President Truman had to contend with the reality that none of his senior national security officials saw strategic benefit in supporting Jewish aims in Palestine,” Ross reminds us. A cabal of senior officials saw no hope for a Jewish state. They argued “Jewish weakness” would mean the US would have to “rescue the Jews at the expense of our oil interests.”
The Dwight Eisenhower administration put those notions into action in the 1950s, trying to get Israel to allow in 75,000 Palestinian- Arab refugees and give the Negev to Jordan and Egypt. This ill-conceived “Project Alpha” never materialized, but it showed the US was willing to play hardball on behalf of the Arab states, ostensibly in order to keep them in the anti-Soviet camp.
Then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion was livid, writing to Eisenhower: “Every day that passes without our receiving from your country or her allies planes and tanks... brings the danger closer and deepens the feeling that we are being abandoned by our closest friends.” Soviet weapons and advisers were pouring into Egypt, but the US wouldn’t give Israel advanced Hawk anti-aircraft missiles.
Ross weaves an expert narrative through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, in which the US and Israel grew closer. He writes as an American, describing “our intervention in Lebanon” and “we were engaged with [Egyptian president Gamal] Nasser,” as if this book is a policy briefing for future State Department diplomats. His text also suggests how US presidents could have done things better, arguing that Lyndon Johnson should have pressured UN secretary-general U Thant not to accede to withdraw the UN force from Sinai so quickly in 1967, thus delaying the prospect of war that year. Each chapter provides a helpful summation on the administration’s relations with the Jewish state.
There are many personal insights in this text, especially from the 1990s. Ross also records many statements that might have been said today, such as president George Bush Sr. claiming there should be no “new settlements in the West Bank or east Jerusalem” in 1989. Ross shows how AIPAC often lost in its major contests with the US administration, such as over loan guarantees in 1992. He also reveals the insane idea that Israel once considered withdrawing from the Golan in 1993 and having a US army brigade guarantee the peace.
For many readers, the most interesting insights will be about the Obama administration.
Here Ross hedges his bets, perhaps because he doesn’t want to offend those he worked with, or remain relevant for the next administration. He argues that although Obama is “genuinely committed to Israeli security,” he also feels that having distance from Israel will force Israel to make real moves for peace, and create legitimacy among Arab states. Ross holds out US National Security adviser Susan Rice for opprobrium, noting that she felt Israel was hurting US interests and was wary of sharing information about the Iran deal. He seems to imply that Secretary of State John Kerry, an architect of the Iran deal, was keener on Israel. Evidence doesn’t seem to bear that out; Kerry comes across as more of a talker than a doer.
In the final analysis, this is a hopeful and important book. Its basic assumption is that Israel will remain a US ally because of shared values and security and strategic necessities.
However, there will always remain in Washington a deep, committed lobby against the Israel relationship that sees it as sabotaging the supposedly good relations that the US has with the Arab states and Iran.