Dennis Ross: US must move from distance to detente with Israel
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Interview'If you want the Palestinians to have the responsibility of a state, you have to hold them responsible'

Dennis Ross: US must move from distance to detente with Israel

The former Middle East peace negotiator chronicles the rocky history of the US-Israel alliance and calls for a joint committee to oversee full implementation of Iran deal

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Dennis Ross at the 2012 Presidential Conference (photo credit: Chen Galili/ShiloPro)
Dennis Ross at the 2012 Presidential Conference (photo credit: Chen Galili/ShiloPro)

WASHINGTON – Veteran United States diplomat Dennis Ross claims there is one consistent argument within presidential administrations, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

“There is a remarkable continuity over the concern that too close a relationship with Israel will harm US ties with the Arabs, so there is always a constituency in each administration that feels the US needs to create distance with Israel to gain responsiveness from the Arab world,” said Ross, who most recently worked in the Obama administration as an adviser on the Middle East.

That historical perspective sits at the core of Ross’s new book, “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama,” which provides a history of the relationship, deconstructing each administration’s policies on the Jewish state.

The most comprehensive and lively chapters are about the administrations in which Ross worked, most notably, that of President Barack Obama. Ross, a religious Jew, gives a personal account of the fissures within Obama’s inner circle and the debates over how to manage the US relationship with Israel.

Perhaps the most provocative moment of the book is when National Security Adviser Susan Rice complains to Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “did everything but use ‘the n-word’ in describing the president” during an angry phone call in November 2013 after the interim nuclear agreement was forged with Iran.

The episode, Ross told The Times of Israel this month, reflects the frustration that can erupt when differences are mismanaged, and when there’s an attitude inside the administration that sees Israel competitively rather than collaboratively.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US envoy Dennis Ross, and Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat clasp hands after initialing an agreement on the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank after a meeting at Gaza's Erez Crossing, Wednesday, Jan 15, 1997. (photo credit: AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US envoy Dennis Ross, and Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat clasp hands after initialing an agreement on the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank after a meeting at Gaza’s Erez Crossing, Wednesday, Jan 15, 1997. (photo credit: AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Given the current tension between Washington and Jerusalem following the Iran nuclear showdown, Ross recommended that the US and Israel should form a “joint consultative committee” to oversee the deal’s implementation and monitor Iran’s involvement in the region.

In his Washington Institute for Near East Policy office, where he now serves as the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow, Ross spoke about his new book, the current violence sweeping Israel and about the current state of the US-Israel alliance. He also shared his policy recommendations for the future.

What do you make of the current violence in Israel, this wave of terror?

Well, I think those who are saying it’s another intifada are wrong. The first two intifadas were organized. In the First Intifada, you had the children of the stones, but you also had the Tanzim [the militant faction of the Fatah movement] that really guided the destruction. The truth of the Second Intifada is that [former Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat was behind it to begin with. There was a kind of infrastructure that was behind it, and that’s not the case here.

A Palestinian protester taunts Israeli border police during clashes next to the Jewish settlement of Beit El, north of Ramallah on October 19, 2015. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)
A Palestinian protester taunts Israeli border police during clashes next to the Jewish settlement of Beit El, north of Ramallah on October 19, 2015. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)

What do you think is Mahmoud Abbas’s role?

Abu Mazen hasn’t helped with the things he’s said, and he’s added to the image that’s out there, to the narrative that’s out there, that the Israelis are going to change the status quo at the Temple Mount. And that’s completely fallacious. It’s just — it’s a lie.

But it has taken on a life of its own, and that requires a dedicated effort on the part of Palestinian leadership to say, “It’s completely untrue.” But they’ve refused to do that and we need to get the Palestinians to say very clearly, “That’s not happening.” Whether that could bring this to an end, I don’t know.

What was your response when Secretary of State John Kerry began linking frustration over settlements to the violence?

Cover of Dennis Ross's 'Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama' (courtesy)
Cover of Dennis Ross’s ‘Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama’ (courtesy)

It was a mistake to say that. It was a mistake because it implies that if tomorrow there were no settlements, this issue would be solved. Really? Is that what’s driving them?

The idea that there is frustration against Israelis is true. But there is also frustration against their own leadership. There’s anger that the other Arabs are not paying attention to them. There’s frustration over unemployment. There’s a lot of things affecting Palestinians. And when Kerry said that, it looks like he’s trying to make an alternative explanation or an excuse.

In your book you say that is a tendency of the Obama administration.

Yeah, one of the problems is that the president has been very good when it comes to security issues, but because he looks at the Palestinians as being weak, there is this reluctance to criticize them. “They’re too weak to criticize” is what I say in the Obama chapter. And if they are too weak to criticize, they are too weak to be held accountable, too weak to be responsible. They’re too weak to have a state. Well, if you want the Palestinians to have the responsibility of a state, you have to hold them responsible.

‘Because [President Obama] looks at the Palestinians as being weak, there is this reluctance to criticize them’

Now Kerry’s statement has been walked back, and that’s good. But I’m afraid that it reflects a kind of instinct. The first instinct, instead of criticizing this for what it is, is to want to look for another explanation. And I have a problem with that.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think having a stalemate [in peace negotiations] is something you can take comfort in as never producing these kinds of explosions. But I think, first things first, when something like this happens, you have to say, “This is wrong.” You have to let them know that terror is never acceptable under any circumstances, and that this is going to get the Palestinians nothing.

There’s an old diplomatic adage, “Never waste a crisis.” Do you see a way to take this crisis and turn it into an opportunity?

‘The greatest single problem we have is the growing disbelief on the part of Israelis and Palestinians, alike, in the other, and the purposes of the other’

I don’t know, because I think part of the problem is that there’s such a high level of disbelief. I have worried about and said publicly that the greatest single problem we have is the growing disbelief on the part of Israelis and Palestinians, alike, in the other, and the purposes of the other.

But the American approach ought to recognize the choices are not binary between solving everything or doing nothing. We should be focused on how do you work to diffuse tension? How do you begin to create some sense of belief again on each side? How do you change the realities on the ground? And how do you create the conditions for peacemaking? Because they don’t exist today.

Shifting to President Obama, you say in the book is that there has always been a debate within each president’s administration about whether the US needs to distance itself from Israel to gain responsiveness from the Arab world. And you make the point that Obama made a very deliberate decision to take the approach of distance.

When the president comes in, he thinks we have a major problem with Arabs and Muslims. And he sees that as a function of the Bush administration – an image, fairly or not, that Bush was at war with Islam. So one of the ways that he wants to show that he’s going to have an outreach to the Muslim world is that he’s going to give this speech in Cairo.

‘The idea that there should be a complete settlement freeze, including natural growth, was a mistake’

So he wants to reach out and show that the US is not so close to the Israelis, which he thinks also feeds this perception. That’s why there’s an impulse to do some distancing from Israel, and that’s why the settlement issue is seized in a way.

Now, I had no problem with saying we should limit settlement activity. But the idea that there should be a complete settlement freeze, including natural growth, was a mistake.

Why, exactly?

Well, I was in the State Department at that time and was working on Iran. But the president asked me about it. When [then US special envoy for Middle East Peace George] Mitchell and I go to brief him for a meeting with Bibi, Mitchell lays out the key to the meeting, which was to get the settlement freeze. The president then asked me what I thought, and I said, “You’re asking Bibi to do what none of his predecessors have done. He’s the head of a right-center government and he’s supposed to do what none of the Labor prime ministers have done? What’s he supposed to say? How’s he supposed to justify that?”

The reason why a limitation on settlement activity was preferable was because it was something we could define. A complete freeze puts us in a position where we’re framing an objective we couldn’t achieve. Part of the appeal of the settlement freeze to the president was that it was a way he can show distance from the Israelis in a way that also mattered to the Arabs. And that’s one thing if you can deliver it, but if you can’t, you’re actually worse off.

The West Bank settlement of Kochav Yaakov. (CC BY-SA Jonathan Caras/Wikimedia Commons)
The West Bank settlement of Kochav Yaakov. (CC BY-SA Jonathan Caras/Wikimedia Commons)

Do you think there was also a miscalculation of the Palestinian political dynamic? Because the settlement freeze was imposed by the US and not delivered through Abbas, he couldn’t sell it as a Palestinian victory, so he still looked weak in the eyes of Palestinians.

Not only that. Abbas is then the one who says, “The Americans put me up a tree. I never said that this was a condition. The Americans created this condition.”

Now it wasn’t true that we made it a condition for negotiations. That wasn’t true. But by putting it out there publicly the way we did, how can Abu Mazen go into negotiations when we haven’t produced this? So it became an excuse for him. He didn’t have to do anything until we delivered this.

You talk in the book about the implications of Obama calling settlements “illegitimate” in the Cairo speech. You say you told him later not to use that term because, while past administrations recognized settlements as a political problem, they wouldn’t call them “illegitimate” because it undercuts the American negotiating position, which is that they’re seeking to keep the major settlement blocs in place with mutually-agreed land swaps.

That’s right. The first time I raised that issue to the president it was news to him because it really had not been raised to him before. He used that language in the Cairo speech and I said this to him afterword, in July when I got there. He understands that every administration has had a problem with settlements, which is true. But he doesn’t know that this kind of terminology is really different.

US President Obama delivering his famed Cairo Speech in 2009. The president highlighted the need for social progress in his first major address to the Muslim world. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)
US President Barack Obama speaks in Cairo on June 4, 2009. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)

Since the Reagan administration, the US made a policy that settlements were a political issue and not a legal issue. So he doesn’t use that term in future meetings, but he does put it back in for one of his UN speeches. When I raised an objection, Dennis McDonough [then deputy national security adviser] says he can’t look like he’s retreating. But Obama is much more careful about it himself after that conversation.

What’s your diagnosis of the Bibi-Obama relationship?

Well their meetings would almost always be quite good — at a high level, serious, thoughtful. The problem would always emerge afterword, when one or the other would do something that would make the other feel betrayed over what had been in the meeting itself. So that contributed over time to a kind of mutual distrust.

President Barack Obama listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to the Children's Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to the Children’s Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The other thing is that they have different worldviews. I mean they have fundamentally different worldviews. To give you an illustration, even though the president says this is a transaction and not a transformation with Iran, I think he believes that this deal will not only constrain the Iranian program in a real way that has not been achieved until now, but more than that, it will be empowering, at least potentially, the more pragmatic forces within Iran and those around [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani.

Netanyahu sees this as empowering Iran to do more in the region. In effect, I see them each as seeing this deal as a potential game changer, but they define the game very differently. Obama sees the game as being changed because you may be able to alter the reality within Iran, which will change their behavior over time in the region for the better.

Now I think people tend to focus too much on the personal side, and I’m not saying the personal side doesn’t matter, but for me, as I’ve pointed out, we’ve had previous periods where presidents and prime ministers have had real problems personally.

What are your thoughts on the Iran deal now that it’s done?

The deal itself buys you 15 years. One of my main concerns is what happens after year 15, when they basically can have as large a program as they want, and the gap between threshold status and weapon status becomes very small.

‘If [Iran] is going to dash toward a weapon the answer is not sanctions, it’s force’

To deal with that vulnerability you have to bolster your deterrence in a way that convinces them there is a firewall between threshold status and weapons status. They have to be convinced of that. The more you make it clear that for any misbehavior they pay a price, and it’s the kind of price that matters to them, the more likely they are to realize the firewall is real, and the less likely they are to ever test it.

I would like to see us do things that to create that firewall and the legitimacy of it in the eyes of the rest of the world. So if [Iran] is going to dash toward a weapon the answer is not sanctions, it’s force. And everybody knows that and accepts that, and it becomes legitimate.

Are you worried about the deal’s implementation?

Well, I would like to see a joint consultative committee between the United States and Israel on the implementation. That’s not to replace what’s done with the other members [of the P5+1], but because the Israelis will be looking at everything with a microscope, I think it would be reassuring to the Israelis and it would send a message that we are really going to hold the Iranians to what they are obligated to do.

Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari, left, talks with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Monday, September 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari, left, talks with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Monday, September 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

But I would also like that committee to be a forum for contingency planning to deal with options for when the Iranians ratchet up what they will do in the region. We’re already seeing them ratchet it up in Syria. Everyone is focusing on what the Russians are doing, but Iran is adding significant numbers of Revolutionary Guard forces to the ground, it’s not just Hezbollah forces. I think this is a harbinger of things to come.

Given given the nature and intensity of the divide between the US and Israel on this deal, there has been a lot of rhetoric saying this moment is the worst in the U.S.-Israel alliance —

It’s not.

That’s what I wanted to ask you about. You write in the book about other moments that were considerably worse, during the Eisenhower administration, the Reagan administration after the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 —

‘People who are saying this is the lowest point don’t know the history’

This is the lowest point since the siege of Beirut and then Sabra-Shatila. I mean, look, Reagan threatens the future of the relationship. Reagan, who has an emotional connection. Eisenhower actually contemplates the use of force against the Israelis to get the IDF out of the Sinai. So people who are saying this is the lowest point don’t know the history.

One of the reasons for writing the book is to put everything in perspective, but also to draw the lessons from the past, to apply them to the next administration. Because so many of the assumptions are where we have always started off. This whole issue of distancing. I mean, it’s embedded in the psychology of every administration, at least a significant constituency of every administration, without really seeing the constant pattern that this is not what drives Arab behavior toward the United States.

That psychology seems to be reflected in your depiction of Susan Rice in the book.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

I wasn’t singling her out. I was showing a contrast between her approach and the Tom Donilon [former national security adviser] approach.

What I say is that she reflects a mindset that has been in every administration; it’s not unique to her. It tends to look at Israel through a lens that is more competitive, more combative, that sees Israel more in problematic terms.

The difference is that you had her predecessor [Donilon] whose mindset was very different. He saw Israel through a collaborative-partnership premise and prism.

And what does the N-word anecdote reflect?

The administration thought they had done something good. And the prime minister’s reaction was to call it a “historic mistake” and to look like he’s already campaigning against it. Meanwhile [the administration] thinks they’ve done something that’s in Israel’s interest. Look at what had they been hearing leading up to it. They had been hearing that Iran poses the greatest threat of the 21st Century. The prime minister kept saying, “The clock is ticking, what are you going to do about it?” So they think they have stopped the clock. Then they see this outpouring against it.

Her reaction is, she’s angry. And she’s trying to encapsulate that anger. The way she expresses it is by saying, essentially, “Look what he did in response to us?”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) greets people as the nuclear negotiating committee arrive at Mehr Abad Airport in Tehran on April 3, 2015, hours after announcing they had the ingredients of a historic nuclear deal with world powers. (photo credot: AFP/ISNA/Borna Ghasemi)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) greets people as the nuclear negotiating committee arrive at Mehr Abad Airport in Tehran on April 3, 2015, hours after announcing they had the ingredients of a historic nuclear deal with world powers. (photo credot: AFP/ISNA/Borna Ghasemi)

Now the flip side of that is, I was in Israel that day and spoke to Bibi, who interpreted Obama as saying he had taken the military option off the table. I then say to him, “Look, I know that’s wrong. I know he didn’t say that.” But this is the way the prime minister understood what he heard. Here again I draw the contrast. I contacted Kerry who said he would talk to the prime minister because that was absolutely not the case. But I said, “The problem isn’t you. He thinks he heard this from the president.”

Now, if Donilon had still been the national security adviser, who had this collaborative relationship, he would have known there was a misunderstanding and would have tried to clear it up himself or arranged another phone call. And if misunderstandings aren’t cleared up right away they only get worse. And if you have a difference already and you superimpose a misunderstanding on it, the difference becomes worse.

What are you looking to come out of the Bibi-Obama meeting on November 9?

I do think there will be an instinct to mend fences. Partly because I think, in the president’s case, a lot of the Democrats who stood by him on the Iran deal would like to see him do what he told them he would do. He offered them reassurances that the security arrangement is sacrosanct, that he’s going to maintain the qualitative military edge. I think they’re going to want to see signs that all of these things matter to the president and that he’s going to address them. I also think the prime minister, for his own reasons, needs to show that he really approaches America in a non-partisan way.

Being in the early stages of a presidential election, candidates are starting to flesh out their policy views toward Israel. What’s the biggest reason they should see a close relationship with Israel as a strategic asset for the United States?

Because distancing the US from Israel has never achieved the objective of bringing the US closer to Arabs. Our relationship to Israel is not what drives their behavior toward us.

But the best case is to look at the region. The state system is under assault. The character of conflict is over the most fundamental thing it can be over – identity and who is going to be able to define it.

We need one pillar of democracy and stability in that region, given all the uncertainty, all the conflicts and the terrible nature of those conflicts, of the turmoil we are going to see. Israel is that one pillar.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with US president Barack Obama at the White House, October 01, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with US president Barack Obama at the White House, October 01, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
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