Two Middle East experts, Emory scholar Ken Stein and Ambassador Dennis Ross, took the stage together at The Temple for an off-site session of the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center on Monday, Nov. 9.
Ross, who has served under four presidents, ranging from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, talked about his new book on the U.S.-Israel relationship, “Doomed to Succeed.” Ross provided his decades of wisdom on the front lines of high-level negotiations.
Temple Rabbi Peter Berg welcomed the audience to Atlanta’s oldest and largest Jewish house of worship and segued into introducing surprise guest Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who sat on the front row.
“Ross is one of the most important thinkers of our time,” Rabbi Berg said after the talk. “Every time I hear him, I learn new information and how to best convey it in a way that is clever and nuanced.”
Some of Ross’ most memorable points:
- Israel’s peace with Arab neighbors is like a marriage between a Catholic and Jew — “fighting, love, estrangement, resulting in no divorce.”
- Some lessons are never learned. Politicians try distancing themselves from Israel but get no satisfaction from Arab nations as a result.
- Relations with Israel cannot be taken for granted or made into a partisan issue. Over the next 25 years the U.S. population growth will come from Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans who don’t have strong feelings for Israel.
- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite being quite capable in Ross’ eyes, couldn’t be effective because Obama controlled the decision-making. When the president denies the different agencies their input and responsibility, they don’t execute well.
- On the Iran deal, Ross was undecided in public. He now says the United States should have been much stronger in bolstering the terms with the threat of force instead of sanctions, leaving the Iranians a “smaller gap.”
The bottom line for Israel and the Palestinians, Ross said, is a two-state solution in which both sides feel strong enough to compromise. The Arab states don’t trust the United States now, but maybe the next administration will gain that trust.
Ross complimented Bill Clinton for taking responsibility for peace even at the end of his second presidential term. With five days to go, he was still hounding Yasser Arafat.
“If we are doomed to succeed, what should Americans be doing?” Stein asked.
“We must defuse tension,” Ross said. “Israel needs to stop settlements in Area C (which might be part of a Palestinian state), and Arab leaders need to take bold steps like labeling Israel on their maps and in honest recognition. We must not give up hope. If we keep one state, we will keep the status quo that you see today.”
Ross said a friend told his wife that it was inspiring that he was so committed to peace, to which she replied, “Sometimes I think he should be committed.” Ross said, “If leaders like me give up, that will create more hopelessness.”
During the post-talk book signing, Judge Ezra Cohen said, “Ross gave us a clear and balanced presentation.”
“He was optimistic and sadly insightful,” Jan Spector said.
“Ross is one of the most gifted diplomats who served the Middle East in the last 30 years,” Stein said. “I hope we have not seen the end of Dennis in a public position. He is fair and cares about the people in the region.”
During an interview with the AJT in October, Ross was noncommittal about serving another president.
Lawyer Brian Wertheim said, “We are lucky to live in Atlanta to hear two of the most brilliant people on the planet talk about the Middle East and prod us to never give up.”