WASHINGTON — With all the diplomatic foresight in the world, former US negotiator, adviser and ambassador Dennis Ross could hardly have found more relevant timing to release his latest book examining the long history of the US-Israel relationship, including an often personal account of the tumultuous relationship between Jerusalem and the Obama administration.
Ross’s book, “Doomed to Succeed: the US-Israel relationship from Truman to Obama,” portrays an administration largely divided between two camps – one that saw, even after the Arab Spring, a Middle East where stability depended on a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian rift, and one that believed that Israel’s interests and needs could be satisfied through negotiations but saw no regional domino effect triggered by the success or failure of those efforts succeeded. These same camps could also be divided among those who believed that “cooperation and collaboration – and drawing the Israelis close to us – would serve our interests and theirs, and make the Israelis more responsive” and those who saw a “largely competitive relationship that was basically a one-way street. Sharing with the Israelis offered little and cost much.”
Susan Rice, first as ambassador to the United Nations and much more critically, as national security adviser, is portrayed over and over as a naysayer if not entirely a spoiler of efforts by Ross – usually backed up by some combination of then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, first-term national security adviser Tom Donilon, and Vice President Joe Biden – to find accommodations on any number of crisis points that would satisfy Israeli concerns.
When Rice took over from Donilon at the National Security Council, Ross says, she was both less invested in US-Israeli dialogue and “had very different instincts about the Israeli relationship altogether.”
Rice, unlike her predecessors, “viewed the Israelis more competitively. She was prone to see them acting without regard to US interests and frequently undermining them.” While she was responsive to Israeli needs as United Nations ambassador, Ross says that in internal administration debates, Rice “nearly always took the view that the Israelis were hurting us and never took our needs into account. She embodied the mind-set that we needed to be wary of Israel and not let it exploit differences within the administration. The less we shared with them, the better.”
Ross claims that Rice and McDonough alike believed that Israel should not be allowed multiple channels into the administration, so that they could not exploit them. “Suspicion was the point of departure for Rice – and other key figures, like McDonough,” Ross concludes.
From the outset, this factionalism on Israel characterized nearly every choice presented to the president. Ross pushed for a landmark speech to the Muslim world delivered from Cairo and then immediately followed by a trip to Israel, but was overruled by Obama aides Dennis McDonough and Ben Rhodes, who convinced the president to forgo an Israel stop on that trip, arguing that it would be “too traditional.”
The Cairo speech itself launched another such debate – over Obama’s use of the term “not legitimate” to describe settlements rather than the traditional US formula of “an obstacle to peace.” Ross argued that the new formula made settlements into a “legal problem” while the old terminology emphasized settlements as simply a “political” one. Once again, Ross found himself at odds with McDonough, who argued that once the president had used the term once, any change would be seen as backtracking.
The tough-on-Israel position, however, did not always win in administration debates. In 2011, the administration faced a challenge as to whether or not to use the first UN Security Council veto of the Obama presidency to defeat a Palestinian-pushed resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity as illegal and setting the stage for sanctions. According to Ross, Rice opposed vetoing the resolution, arguing that doing so would set the administration back in its relations with the Arab world and with the international community. Ross – and Biden – believed that the Arab world was much more concerned with the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East, and that the veto would have little to no impact. After deliberations – and a call to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – Obama decided to accept the latter position and exercise the veto.
Although he had already left the administration – reportedly due to internal disagreements – by the time talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis resumed in July 2013, Ross says that Rice also stymied Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to salvage those talks last year.
With a nine-month deadline expiring, Kerry offered a package including the release of Jonathan Pollard and a commitment by Abbas to delay taking his case to international forums in exchange for Israel releasing prisoners and limiting settlement activity. With his interlocutors balking, Kerry, says Ross, “faced opposition from the White House.” Quoting unnamed Israeli and American officials, Ross says that “Kerry could not provide answers to the Israelis because Rice was micromanaging every detail from the White House.” Ross says that one Israeli official asked him if he was meant to conduct two sets of negotiations — first with Kerry and then with Rice.
Ultimately, Ross argues, it was Abbas who failed to respond to overtures but the administration “offered no criticism of him. On the contrary, it gave him a pass by effectively blaming his ‘shutdown’ on Israeli settlement policy.” Abbas, Obama believed, was “too weak to criticize.”
The timing of Ross’s book release on the day of the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday is compelling, given his portrayal of Clinton. He reiterates and expands upon the degree to which she was sidelined at the State Department, writing that although “her talent and capabilities were clear from day one,” she was stymied by the fact that “the Obama administration from the outset was White House centered and driven.”
Although Clinton, Ross said, was “more sensitive to the Israeli reaction,” she also “felt it was futile at the outset to fight what she saw as a collective mind-set around Obama.” Only after her first year in office, according to Ross, did Clinton begin to challenge the administration’s policy of putting “daylight” between the US and Israel, arguing that “the approach was not working and we needed to show greater sensitivity toward the Israelis.”
It was not any particular initial animus toward Israel, Ross argued, that put US-Israel relationships on a collision course, but rather the fact that “the Obama administration’s national security priorities almost guaranteed that Israel would be a problem.” Ross repeatedly cites European sympathy with Palestinian statehood coupled with Obama’s desire to restore good ties with European leaders as one such influencing factor. In addition, the new-found emphasis on “international norms” and on reaching out to the Muslim world led administration figures to believe that pressuring Israel was an almost inevitable policy.
Ross’s portrayal of the Obama administration – and Obama in particular – is not monochromatically negative regarding Israel. He stresses that “from my perspective as an original author of strategic cooperation back in the Reagan administration, I can say that the scope of the security collaboration [between Israel and the US during the Obama administration] went beyond what any previous administration had put in place,” particularly during Obama’s first term in office.
Obama, Ross stresses, “was a friend of Israel,” and “was a president who genuinely worried about Israel and our ability to prevent its isolation internationally.”
At the same time, Ross says, the president’s “instinct to see the Palestinians as the victims in the conflict remained too strong” to accept an “uncritical embrace” of Israel.
In trying to reset relations with the Muslim world after taking office in 2009, Obama believed that the conflict “compounded our troubled relations with Muslims” and Ross notes that Obama’s “impulse to distance the United State from Israel at the outset of the administration fit naturally with those who tended to see Israel in competitive terms.” Ross also emphasizes at a number of junctures Obama’s deep dissatisfaction with continued building in settlements.
Ross offers details into more stalled attempts at achieving comprehensive solutions to the conflict, including one in early 2009 – before the Cairo speech – when Obama personally attempted to get Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to offer concessions to Israel in exchange for a settlement freeze. Abdullah, Ross says, flatly refused.
In some cases, the souring of the US-Israel relationship stemmed from unanticipated outcomes.
The former ambassador highlights the summer 2012 chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad as a turning point in the administration’s standing in the Middle East – one that rivaled, albeit unintentionally, the Cairo speech for its impact.
In that case, says Ross – who had by then left the Obama administration – the president’s wavering over whether to launch military strikes against Assad “had a devastating effect on the United States’ friends in the region,” including to the Israelis, for whom it was “a profound and unsettling shock.”
Ross recounts that “almost immediately after the president completed his statement, I received a call from a senior Israeli official” who told him that Obama’s announcement that he would wait for congressional authorization for a strike was “a disaster – and particularly for those of us who say that we can count on the US.” The US ended up not launching strikes at all, but rather negotiating to turn over Assad’s stocks of chemical weapons. Israeli, Saudi and Emirati leaders all came to the conclusion, Ross says, that “the Obama administration was not reliable” and would not guarantee their safety when push came to shove.