Dennis Ross and His Perilous Balancing Act on Israel

Doomed To Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama
By Dennis Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 Pages, $30

Israel: Is it good for the Americans? According to Dennis Ross, who has served as a Middle East negotiator or consultant, or both, in four administrations, including the current one, this is a question that has plagued every president since Harry Truman in 1948, the year Israel declared its independence.

Underneath the question is the premise that moving closer to Israel will surely cause or intensify Arab enmity, risk our access to Middle Eastern oil and (at least until 1989) provoke the Arab nations into seeking sponsorship from the Soviet Union.

Lean toward Israel, or lean away from Israel and toward the Arab nations? And at what cost?

The administrations of 12 presidents — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (41st), Clinton, Bush (43rd) and Obama — attempted in different ways to balance the risks of Arab enmity against the security of the Jewish people. Ross’s history, which gives each administration its own chapter, is almost comical, as it follows the rollercoaster of American attitudes toward Israel, with each new administration also using Israel as a way of distancing itself from the last, usually by choosing the opposite policy.

At times, the mind-numbing sameness of these scenarios becomes a political “Groundhog Day,” with all involved doomed to do exactly what they always do, but — here’s a shocker — never making any headway in their quest for peace.

Eisenhower distanced his administration from Israel, having decided that Truman was too accommodating. Nixon, believing that Johnson had been too supportive of Israel, tried to dissociate his administration. George H.W. Bush tried to pull away from the Reagan policy, which he thought was too friendly. Clinton moved back toward Israel, wanting to create a “strategic partnership for peace.” Obama pulled away from the second Bush administration’s policy of “no light between the United States and Israel,” and as a result has sometimes been perceived as neglectful of, or even prejudiced against, the Jewish nation.

Ford broke new ground in distancing when he called the Jewish settlements in the West Bank “illegal.” Carter, whose hostility to Israel was obvious, was happy to follow through. Then Reagan altered our posture, simply calling the settlements “an obstacle to peace.” Recently, Obama once again referred to them as illegal.

But the whole concept is flawed. Throughout America’s entire 67-year history with Israel, there has been only one possible instance where our support for Israel became a defining issue in our relations with the Arab countries. That one exception was the 1973 Arab oil embargo after the Yom Kippur War. OPEC, the organization of oil-rich Arab nations, announced that it would not sell oil to the United States until Israel withdrew its troops to the 1967 lines.

Even this single instance, however, is iffy, though: Ross believes there were other reasons and that OPEC was using Israel as an excuse. Either way, the embargo was rescinded in March 1974 — mostly because withholding oil from the United States meant a devastating loss of income that the OPEC nations became less and less willing to sustain.

When Truman recognized the brand-new State of Israel, there was no outcry. When President Kennedy sold Israel Hawk missiles, again, nobody complained. When America supplied arms to Israel in the 1967 war, in 1973, in 1982 and throughout the various wars with the Syrians, the Lebanese and the Palestinians, the silence was deafening.

The reality is that even when Arab nations blame Israel for every problem in the Middle East, no matter how far-fetched, when it comes to their own survival, these same Arab countries will ignore our friendship with Israel in order to secure our help, and in some instances they have even asked Israel itself for help.

“The number-one priority for the Arab regimes was survival,” Ross writes. “Their preoccupation with survival and security meant those Arab leaders who depended on us for their protection would seek more from us regardless of our ties to Israel.”

Strangely, Ross writes, “no senior official ever wondered why, when the United States pressured Israel, we never benefited with any Arab state.… No one questioned why [the predicted] devastating outcomes did not happen. No one asked what was wrong in our assumptions about the dynamics of the Middle East.”

In September 1970, when several hundred Syrian tanks crossed into Jordan, a desperate King Hussein asked the deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Amman about the possibility of Israeli aid. Ross quotes Henry Kissinger’s memoirs as saying that the deputy chief, faithfully wearing his State Department blinders, responded “with the extraordinary statement that he could not imagine Jordan’s accepting help from its enemy Israel against a fellow Arab country.”

Although the controversy never changes, Ross shows how the relationship between America and Israel has evolved and deepened over the years. Truman and Eisenhower would not supply weapons to Israel; then Kennedy did, and since then, the principle of selling arms to Israel has never been questioned. In recent years, America has collaborated with Israel on military and many other issues (including, possibly, a joint cyber-attack temporarily disabling Iran’s nuclear system).

While reading Ross’s book, I was surprised to find out how many times American politicians mentioned the American Jewish community. The idea that the Jewish bloc can make or break your political career apparently strikes real fear in the hearts of our country’s leaders. Again and again, the vague term “Jewish groups” keeps turning up —ominously, like Keyser Soze in “The Usual Suspects.” Apparently, no one doubts that Jews control our government, not even the people in our government.

My criticisms of Ross’s book are few: There should have been a map, or several maps; the index is less than thorough; the title is silly. Finally, since Ross was personally involved in many of the events he recounts, his reason for leaving the Obama administration is conspicuously missing.

Nevertheless, the book is invaluable for understanding America’s relationship with Israel. If you don’t come away with a clear sense of how each administration dealt with the Israelis, it’s because almost every one of them veered from one extreme to the other over time. What is clear is that each president in turn either chose to get involved in Israel’s fate or was dragged in by circumstances. In other words, ignoring the turmoil in the Middle East has never been a real presidential option.

Nan Goldberg has reviewed books for the Boston Globe, the Jerusalem Post and the New York Observer.

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