National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s failure to cultivate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contributed to a breakdown in U.S.-Israel communication, a former top U.S. official said.
Dennis Ross, who was President Barack Obama’s top Iran advisor from 2009-2011, said frequent communications between the Obama and Netanyahu governments between 2009 and 2012 tamped down the Israeli prime minister’s anxieties about Obama’s Iran plans, with assurances that the president was determined to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In November 2013, Ross – no longer in government – was visiting Jerusalem when Netanyahu summoned him, he recounts in a new book, excerpted Thursday in Politico. Israel had been caught of guard by the acceleration in sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions talks between Iran and six major powers.
“I was struck by how alone Netanyahu felt,” Ross writes of Netanyahu, saying he met with him just after Netanyahu concluded a phone call with Obama. “He believed the United States had given up all its leverage in this deal and the sanctions would now collapse of their own weight, taking all the pressure off the Iranians and freezing the situation. The Iranians would be left as a threshold nuclear state, and Israel would be confronted with unpalatable choices.”
Ross tried to assuage Netanyahu’s fears, but believed that a second call with Obama would go further toward calming the Israeli leader, basing his assessment on previous such crises.
“Had Tom Donilon still been the national security adviser, he surely would have understood that there was a problem, and he would have immediately spoken to his counterpart,” wrote Ross, who worked closely with Donilon in Obama’s first term.
“If the impression was not corrected, he would have had Obama make another call,” Ross wrote. “He had done precisely that in September 2012 when Prime Minister Netanyahu had made public comments, challenging our position on the Iranian nuclear issue. Donilon arranged the call and the air was not only cleared, but there was a meeting of the minds.
“By contrast, now there was no call from Susan Rice, there was no follow-up from the president, and the prime minister did not soften his public criticism two weeks later when the actual Joint Plan of Action with Iranian negotiators was concluded,” Ross said.
Rice, Ross said, was infuriated with Netanyahu’s broadsides against the deal.
“Rice, reflecting her generally more combative mind-set, would say to Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, that in reacting to the Joint Plan of Action, Netanyahu’s posture was outrageous,” Ross wrote. “In her view, the Israeli leader did everything but “use ‘the N-word’ in describing the president.”
That mindset helped damage relations with Israel, Ross said. “We damaged our relationship with Israel far more than we needed to,” he concluded.
The White House, responding to the New York Times, said Rice cultivated close relations with her Israeli counterparts.
“We have long had differences with the Netanyahu government over the agreement to verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear — a deal achieved after Dennis Ross’s tenure in the administration,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told the Times. “However, those differences have never lessened in any way our unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security.”