Ross challenges assumptions in U.S.-Israel relations

American policy toward Israel seems to confirm George Santayana’s warning that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Fortunately, as the title of his latest book shows, Ambassador Dennis Ross has found in his study of U.S.-Israel relations since the Truman administration that the relationship is “Doomed to Succeed” despite that forgetfulness.

Time and again, presidents and their national security teams have made the same mistakes regarding Israel and the Middle East, yet they never seem to question the assumptions that lead to those errors, Ross said.

Dennis Ross has served five presidents, four of them as a political appointee, but says he doesn’t expect to be in the next administration.

Dennis Ross has served five presidents, four of them as a political appointee, but says he doesn’t expect to be in the next administration.

That pattern is more striking, he said, because new administrations so often take office certain that “they get the world in a way that their predecessors do not.”

For President Barack Obama, as with George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower, one fundamental assumption has been that a confrontational approach to Israel would improve U.S. relations with the Muslim nations of the Middle East and ultimately benefit Israel itself. But history has proved that Israel and the Palestinians are at best secondary concerns for their neighbors, who have their own problems they want the United States to address, “Doomed” demonstrates.

“There’s almost something psychological about how these assumptions are embedded,” Ross said. “It’s hard to uproot them. One way is to expose them.”

That’s what Ross attempts to do in his book, released early enough, he hopes, to inform and affect the candidates running to succeed Obama as president. He draws lessons from seven decades of history to give the next president a head start.

That president might be Hillary Clinton, with whom Ross worked under Obama while she was secretary of state. She comes across as more open-minded about the Middle East than Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who favors being combative and keeping Israel in the dark, much like Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. “If we want to affect Israeli behavior,” Ross said, “that’s the least likely way to influence Israel in a positive fashion.”

Obama himself is not anti-Israel, Ross shows. For example, the preface of the book depicts a videoconference call in March 2011 involving Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in which the three European leaders launch an unexpected, unrelenting, viciously personal diatribe against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama stands up for the Israeli, with whom he has had many public disagreements.

“I thought it was interesting to tell the story because it’s somewhat ironic,” given Obama’s perceived anti-Netanyahu feelings, Ross said. “Here he was actually defending Netanyahu.”

The story of that conference call, not published before, is an example of the firsthand knowledge Ross provides about nearly four decades of U.S. policy toward Israel, either because he was part of the administration he writes about or he could call on longtime friends in the United States and Israel who were there.

The situation was different for the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, however, and Ross said he talked to his editor from the start about the challenge of delivering the same quality and insights for those years. “He made the suggestion at the time that one of the things I might want to do is concentrate on creating the connections between the past and succeeding administrations.”

Ross thus finds the threads that run through the full history of U.S.-Israel relations and explores the policy echoes.

One view he hopes doesn’t echo comes from the Carter administration. As the youngest, lowest-level analyst in a meeting, he questions the approach of his colleagues to a discussion about arms sales to Israel. He writes that he could see the thought running through the others’ minds: “He must be Jewish.”

There’s a risk that his advice in “Doomed to Succeed” will be received the same way, and Ross said he’s sure some people will criticize the book without reading it. But he has approached history analytically and wants criticism to be based on facts.

“People frequently act without thinking it through,” he said. “I am highlighting this, showing how assumptions guided policy and how policy is not based on reality.”

He noted that the U.S.-Israel relationship is due for a reality check when Netanyahu visits Obama in Washington on Nov. 9, the day Ross will speak in a free event at The Temple as part of the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center.

He said he expects some fence mending because both men want to defuse the tensions and Netanyahu has an interest in changing his overly partisan image amid the increasing violence in Israel.

“I think they’ll manage,” Ross said, although he expects that any qualitative improvement in the relationship will have to wait for the next administration.

Still, he noted that there’s no question mark in his book title, and he’s optimistic about the long term.

“I do think fundamentally the trajectory of the relationship is on a certain path. It can’t be taken for granted,” Ross said. But given the dynamics of the Middle East and the problems of so many nations there, “Israel stands in such stark contract. Israel is such a pillar for us.”

Doomed to Succeed

By Dennis Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pages, $30

At the festival Nov. 9