Book Review

Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.- Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama

Dennis Ross

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

It is difficult to find anyone more qualified to analyze the complex American-Israeli relationship during the past seven decades than Dennis Ross. As director of policy planning in the State Department under president George H.W. Bush, Ross played a critical role in persuading Arab and Israeli leaders to participate in the 1991 peace conference in Madrid. Later, as Middle East envoy under president Bill Clinton, he facilitated the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994, helped Israelis and Palestinians to conclude the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, brokered the Hebron Redeployment Protocol in 1997, and assisted in drawing up the so-called Clinton parameters that were the focus of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in late 2000. In early 2009, he served as special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and in June 2009 he joined the National Security Council as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for the central region.

As an academic and Middle East scholar, Ross has written several outstanding studies, including The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace; Statecraft: How to Restore America's Standing in the World; and Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East. In Doomed to Succeed, Ross examines how and why each administration from Harry Truman to Barack Obama dealt with Israel and the broader Middle East region. Focusing on key policies of each administration, he identifies every president's basic mind-set toward Israel and the fundamental assumptions that steered the national-security establishment in forging American policy toward the Jewish state and the Middle East in general.

Ross's systematic analysis reveals three persistent, but basically flawed, assumptions that have guided at least part of the national-security apparatus — high-level officials in the Department of State, the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, and the National Security Council — in their approach to Israel and the Mideast. First, the United States needs to distance itself from Israel in order to secure Arab responsiveness to our interests. Second, and related to the first, America's close cooperation with Israel entails very high political costs. Lastly, resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is the key to enhancing our standing in the Middle East.

The belief that America would benefit by distancing itself from Israel was especially prevalent during the Eisenhower and early Nixon administrations. Both Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought the United States could compete successfully with the Soviet Union in the Middle East and build cordial relations with the Arabs by denying Israel's requests for arms, excluding Israel from membership in any regional-defense pact, and threatening Israel with force and severe sanctions following Israel's reluctance to withdraw from the Sinai in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez war. Ross maintains that none of the anticipated benefits materialized; worse yet, after the Suez war, America's position in the region weakened significantly while the Soviet Union forged ever-closer relations with Egypt and Syria.

Likewise, during the first two years of his administration, President Nixon and most of his advisers believed that denying Israel's request for F-4 Phantoms — despite a massive Soviet arms buildup in Egypt — would help restore our severed relationship with Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the same time, the Nixon White House sought to appeal to Arab states with the Rogers peace plan, which proposed complete Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai without adequately addressing several of Israel's security needs. Ross maintains that such distancing from Israel produced no benefits for the United States. On the contrary, by withholding the Phantoms from Israel, the Nixon administration was signaling that there were no costs for the Soviet arms build-up in Egypt. Furthermore, America's relations with Egypt improved only after the change of leadership from Nasser to Anwar Sadat. Ironically, Sadat had made it clear that he was determined to ally himself with the United States precisely because our close ties with Israel gave us influence over it, and not because we had distanced ourselves from it.

Ross also amasses considerable evidence to debunk the myth that decisions to support Zionism and cooperate with Israel invariably harm American interests and imperil relations with our Arab allies. For example, in late 1947, many of Harry Truman's security advisers warned that U.S. support for the partition of Palestine would endanger our access to Arab oil, open up the region to Soviet penetration, embroil us in a war on behalf of the presumably weaker Jewish side, and result in the loss of military bases in the Middle East. Yet none of these dire costs ever materialized, and after Truman recognized the new state of Israel in May 1948, Saudi Arabia expanded its relationship with Washington and increased its oil exports to the United States.

Likewise, the United States was able to retain its friendship with Arab allies in the Middle East following President John F. Kennedy's decision to sell Hawk antiaircraft missiles to Israel in 1962. Nor were these relationships harmed after Lyndon Johnson approved the sale of 210 tanks and 48 Skyhawk bombers to Israel in 1965 and 1966. In a similar vein, the formation of a Joint Political Military Group with Israel, marking the beginning of unprecedented strategic cooperation during the Reagan administration in 1983, had no negative impact on our security relationships with any Arab state. Quite to the contrary, as U.S. strategic and security cooperation with Israel has grown, so has the level of America's military presence significantly increased in several Arab Gulf states.

Along the same lines, Ross contends that none of the pro-Israeli policies of the Bush 41 administration (joint development of the Arrow ABM defense system, provision and staffing of Patriot missile batteries during the Gulf War, repeal of the Zionism is Racism resolution at the United Nations, support for direct negotiations among Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states through the Madrid Summit and its aftermath) resulted in costs for the United States with the Arab countries. Similarly, America was able to sustain friendly relations with its Arab allies despite the significant upgrading of U.S. security cooperation with Israel that took place during the Clinton administration. As a matter of fact, while Clinton was prepared to conclude a formal security pact with Israel, several Gulf states also started to collaborate secretly with Israel on security matters during the 1990s.

Ross finds no support for the most enduring assumption held by the national security establishment: the presumed centrality of the unresolved Palestinian issue as a determinant of America's standing in the Middle East. He contends that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has generally not been a top priority for most Arab leaders. Instead, their priorities involve ensuring domestic stability and securing protection from regional rivals. It is these values rather than our relationship with Israel and our stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians that primarily determine Arab states' responsiveness to the United States.

For example, while the Eisenhower administration regarded our relationship with Israel as the main reason for the reluctance of the Arab states to cooperate with us against the Soviet Union, Soviet penetration efforts into the Middle East were not a priority for Arab leaders at that time. In 1953, the Egyptians were determined to end the British occupation of the Suez Canal Zone and much less concerned about Israel and the USSR. Likewise, in March 1974, the Saudi government abandoned the OPEC oil embargo for its own economic and political reasons, despite our failure to attain progress on the Palestinian issue. In a similar vein, in November 1990, two months before the outbreak of the first Gulf War, then Secretary of State James Baker secured assurances from our Arab allies that they would look the other way if Iraq struck Israel and the Israelis retaliated. Again, in 2011, when the Obama administration vetoed the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements activities in the West Bank, there was no Arab reaction.

Time and again, Ross criticizes the foreign-policy establishment for continuing to adhere to the various fallacious assumptions that have shaped American foreign policy in the Middle East. He laments the constant failure of high-level officials to inquire and determine why predictive positive results do not materialize, and why the anticipated negative consequences do not occur. He suggests that problematic arguments tend to survive from one administration to the next because "too often our policy makers did not understand the fundamental realities in the region" and hence they have been unable or unwilling to draw the requisite lessons.

Ross presents a good deal of evidence to challenge the controversial claim of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt — authors of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy — that pro-Israeli interest groups have exerted undue influence on American policy toward the Jewish state. He notes that the Israeli lobby was unable to prevent the increased flow of U.S. economic assistance to Egypt under Kennedy, and it could not compel Johnson to fulfill the prior commitment to Israel after Nasser blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba in late May 1967. Likewise, Jewish lobbying organizations were unable to prevent Nixon from withholding arms resupplies during the first week of the Yom Kippur War when Israel was suffering huge losses. In addition, the lobby could not stop the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia during the Reagan administration, nor could it prevent the elder Bush from blocking loan guarantees to Israel. Most recently, the Israeli government, its allies in Congress, and its supporting pressure groups were unable to prevent Obama from concluding the nuclear deal with Iran.

Ross discerns two additional yet generally valid assumptions regarding Israel that have been held by American officials beginning with the Nixon administration all the way to the present: reluctance on the part of Israeli governments to reveal to us their bottom lines, and their concomitant failure to take U.S. interests into account.

Ross attributes the hesitancy of Israeli governments to reveal their bottom lines to fear that whatever positions they tell us would not be enough. In particular, during the Bush 43 and Obama administrations, Israeli officials frequently suspected that if the United States were to reveal to the Palestinians Israel's red lines regarding the key issues of borders, security, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem, the Palestinians would simply pocket these proposals and demand more concessions from Israel, with additional pressure from the White House.

To break this problematic pattern, Ross suggests that American officials recognize Israel's fears and clarify what concessions we will and will not ask of the Israeli government. Specifically, if Israel is willing to go as far as the United States deems necessary on key issues, and the Palestinians reject these offers, then Washington ought to assure the Israeli government in advance that we will not demand from it additional concessions. We must then adhere to that stance and publicly hold the Palestinians responsible for the ensuing diplomatic deadlock.

American distrust of Israel has also been a frequent feature of the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. For example, John Kennedy and his top advisers suspected that Israel was prone to undertaking actions that harmed U.S. relations with the Arabs. That is why, in 1961 and again in 1963, Kennedy warned Prime Minister Ben-Gurion not to seize the West Bank from Jordan and not to exploit the inter-Arab regional conflicts after the breakup of the UAR, and following the fruitless unity talks among Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Likewise, during its first two years, the Reagan administration was constantly surprised by various Israeli actions, including the destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq and the bombing of the PLO headquarters in Beirut in mid-1981. To avoid such surprises, the White House required Israel to commit itself to avoid taking unilateral actions inimical to U.S. interests before concluding the strategic cooperation agreement between the two countries. Similarly, presidents Carter, the elder Bush and Obama were often surprised and irritated by the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In order to avoid surprises and maintain mutual trust, Ross recommends that in-depth and regular strategic discussions be held between the Israeli and American national security advisers, along the model established by Tom Donilon and General Yaakov Amidror during Obama's second term. Such dialogue would encourage both sides to clarify distinctions between those issues that pose existential threats to Israel and those that do not. Such forums would also enable each party to communicate their concerns, seek clarification of policies, and exchange views about proposed actions. As Ross points out, "Being honest with each other is crucial. Avoiding surprises is essential. Direct and regular communication between the president and the prime minister is important, but it needs to be buttressed by a trusted back channel of close advisers."

From Truman to Obama, the U.S.-Israel relationship has evolved from a somewhat hesitant friendship to a complex web of American commitments to the Jewish state. That relationship could be placed on a firmer and more amicable base, according to Ross, if Israel were to undertake any credible peace initiative, such as agreeing to limit settlement construction to those areas in the West Bank that would become part of Israel in return for territorial swaps with the Palestinians. While Ross concedes that such an initiative is unlikely to come from the current Netanyahu government, he might have paid more attention to the impact that American diplomatic, military and economic support of Israel has had on Israel's protracted occupation of the West Bank, its continued construction of settlements, and its failure to resuscitate the moribund peace process. As noted by Scott Anderson, the respected Middle East war correspondent, "As for the Americans, the traditional overseers of this contest, their tepid response to the settlements issue adds constant fuel to Palestinian rage — and obstinacy — while their military support further enhances Israel's sense of security, giving it even less motive to negotiate." ("Quagmire Diplomacy: A Career Policy Maker Takes a Historical Look at Middle Eastern Geopolitics," New York Times Book Review, October 25, 2015, p. 15).

Overall, however, Ross deserves plaudits for providing an informative, thoughtful and provocative analysis of the forces that have shaped America's evolving relationship with Israel since 1948. If we are to avoid past mistakes and learn to manage this complicated yet important relationship in a rapidly changing Middle East, then Doomed to Succeed is a must read and an indispensable guideline for whoever occupies the White House next January.