After the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016, David Makovsky turned to his colleague at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former ambassador Dennis Ross, and proposed that they team up again to write a book that would encourage a troubled public.
Ross and Makovsky joined Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz onstage on January 6 at a sold-out event at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem to discuss their new book on four powerhouse Israeli prime ministers. The book, “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny” delves into the decisions made by four prime ministers — David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon — and the characteristics that shaped these men.
“I went into Dennis’s office and said, ‘People think that the problems are too hard and they don’t even remember the leaders of the past.’ So we thought, let’s connect them to Israel and these historic leaders,” Makovsky said at the library event.
By the end of the evening, it was clear why Makovsky, a former journalist, tapped Ross: Ross was essentially both the fly on the wall and the US point person throughout many history-changing discussions with main players in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
After over 12 years of playing a leading role in shaping US involvement in the Middle East peace process, today Ross is the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and is also a professor at Georgetown University.
During his years in government, Ross worked with the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the US point man. He also served three years in the Barack Obama administration, most of that time as special assistant to the US president, responsible for the broader Middle East.
Once a noted journalist based in Israel, Makovsky is now the Ziegler distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute, and director of the institute’s Project on Arab-Israel Relations. He is also an adjunct professor in Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Makovsky, too, spent time in the US government and in 2013-2014 he worked in the Office of the US Secretary of State, serving as a senior adviser to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.
At Tuesday’s event, the authors explained why they felt the need to write this book, at this time. For both it was the “fatal choices” facing the State of Israel combined with the fading possibility of a viable two-state solution, as well as an apparent leadership crisis in both the US and Israel.
The pair felt it was time to emphasize the notion of what it takes to be a true leader, which includes the increasingly rare action of standing up to allies and disagreeing with a voter base when the fate of the country hangs in the balance — to give the public what it needs, not what it wants. The four chosen leaders, said the authors, demonstrated the willingness to take this step.
The title of the book, “Be Strong and of Good Courage,” reflects this difficult situation, but also lends optimism to the leaders’ plights. Ross said his wife named the book, based on a biblical passage, “Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee,” found in Deuteronomy 31:6.
Makovsky explained that while it is certainly paramount for Israel to be seen as strong in the Middle East, other characteristics such as “courage and wisdom are also important.”
In addition to taking on his political base when necessary, a leader also must try and educate the public and lead it, not follow it. “When you’re producing broad consensus, you’re not making big decisions,” said Ross.
The declassification of government documents, both in the US and in Israel, greatly enriched the authors’ work. Makovsky described spending countless hours poring over Hebrew minutes from cabinet meetings following the 1967 war, in which it was basically decided not to decide on the issue of the Palestinian people living in the newly occupied territories.
Makovsky recounted a situation in which Israeli leaders needed to answer US president Lyndon B. Johnson, who asked what they planned to do with the territories. “Begin in some ways was a 19th century liberal in the 20th century,” said Makovsky. He said that while in 1967 minister Begin was willing to give the Palestinians the vote and ability to purchase property in the State of Israel, then-prime minister Levi Eshkol basically said, “I don’t want the land and I don’t want the people.”
Makovsky related that interestingly, it was former Supreme Court justice Aharon Barak — painted today as a raging liberal — who objected to Begin’s belief that civil liberties and Palestinians were compatible.
Today, neither Ross nor Makovsky feels that the two-state solution is on the horizon, but as “gradualists” they hope Israel will take steps toward it, not away — such as seen in the increased building in the West Bank outside of settlement blocs.
“When everybody in this room reads our book, as I know they will,” joked Ross, they will know what the authors suggest, as laid out in the final chapter.
“We’re not asking Israel to run a risk on its security. We’re saying, look, preserve the option of separation. Stop building to the east of the barrier, one. Two, create financial incentives for people who live beyond the barrier to move back into the blocs or into Israel. Declare that there won’t be Israeli sovereignty to the east of the barrier, consistent with Israeli security needs. So you don’t give that away,” said Ross.
“Open up Area C for 60 percent of the West Bank [where Israel maintains administrative and military control, and most of the Israeli settlers are located] for economic activity for Palestinians so you preserve the potential of two states, and yet you don’t have to move the IDF, you’re not putting your security at risk, but you’re not creating a situation where by adding four to five thousand settlers a year beyond the barrier, you cross the tipping point and then you lose the option. Tactical decisions made now will have a long-term strategic consequence,” said Ross.
Ross said two-states may require a different psychological landscape and that those leaders trying to make it happen need to stretch their minds.
“It may well be that we need to come up with other kinds of models. But don’t put yourself in a position where you only have one state, one person for one vote,” said Ross.