Ambassador Dennis Ross comes to Jacksonville to discuss U.S. and Israeli relations
BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Federation Communications Director
In late October, former Middle East Ambassador Dennis Ross came to Jacksonville to talk about his new book, 'Doomed to Succeed, the U.S. Israeli relationship from Truman to Obama'. Before his speech at the Jewish Community Alliance, he took time out of his busy schedule to sit down and answer questions from the editorial board at the Florida Times Union as well as the Jacksonville Jewish News. The following are his thoughts and opinions on a whole host of issues ranging from his first person interactions with political leaders and presidents in the U.S. and abroad to a historical context to present day U.S./Israeli relations
Former Middle East Ambassador Dennis Ross …
On why he chose 'Doomed to Succeed' as title for his new book.
"The book is entitled 'Doomed to Succeed, the U.S. Israeli relationship from Truman to Obama'. People have asked me why that title, and the real story of the title relates to someone who worked for me. During the first Bush administration, he used to say to me, 'Dennis we are doomed to succeed on this one', meaning no matter how much we messed up, it would work itself out. So I began to write this book and I thought, you know, if you look at the history of this relationship and where it's come from, it was a extremely humble beginnings where the whole national security establishment was against recognition of the state. It takes until Kennedy before we even provide arms to Israel, so the first two decades of Israel's existence, the U.S. provides a very small amount of assistance to Israel. It's the French who become their main military partner and it’s the Germans who through reparations help to build their economic infrastructure beyond what existed prior to the happening of the state. The doomed to succeed part is ultimately because we share values. They (Israel) are the only democracy in the Middle East. We share interests because basically we can count on the Israelis when it comes to our interests because we share threats. Those who threaten us, also threaten them. This relationship has evolved because if you look at the region now, it is one that will be characterized for I would say probably up to 20 years but certainly not less than 10, as a struggle that will be so violent. It is this way because what is the most fundamental thing you can have a fight over? That's identity. When you're in a war to determine who gets to shape the identity, nothing could be more basic, therefore nothing could be more fundamental and the violence tends to be more extreme. In the midst of that, Israel will stand in a very sharp contrast, so partly I wanted to tell the story of what really emerges.
When I began to write this book, I had in mind sort of a different path because it was going to be on the U.S./Israeli relationship but I wasn't going to do a chapter on every administration. What happened was, I had several wow moments where I discovered not just the same debates, but I found the exact same words being used. It was on a couple of different areas, and one was on the peace issue, where starting in '91 Kissinger has the same conversation with (Israeli minister for foreign affairs) Abba Eban that Hillary Clinton has in 2011 with Benjamin Netanyahu, 'tell us what you can do, we are not going to tell the other side.' And by the way I have the same conversation with (Ehud) Barak, when he is Prime Minister, and this is repeated over and over again, so the Israelis are reluctant to tell us because they are convinced that whatever they tell us, when we go to the Palestinians or earlier to the Arabs, it won't be enough and then we'll come back to them because the other side says no. Obviously there are ways to remedy that but the irony is that no one has learned the lessons over time because we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. The reason I begin to cover every administration is because that the assumptions that endure are assumptions that turn out to be wrong and each administration doesn't learn from the previous one. This book is explicit about the nature of assumptions that have endured over time and that have been wrong, so the real reason I wrote the book was for the next administration."
On his role during the Obama administration
"In the Obama administration, they put me in charge of something called the central region, which to be fair was not small and encompassed the area from Morocco to Bangladesh, so I had all the conflicts in between. The President asked me to come over in July of 2009 and I had been doing Iran for (Sec. of state) Hillary Clinton and the administration previously, but he said 'I need you over here because everyone does not know how these issues fit together but you do'. With Israel, he (Obama) said 'we give, we give, we give and we don't get', and at the time I recall sitting in a situation room meeting with Robert Gates and he (too) said 'we give, we give, we give, but we don't get' … but the truth is that we always do get. If you look on the technical side, intelligence, counter terror , how to fight urban warfare, even and technology. The drone technology we have got largely from the Israelis as well as active armor, which protects our tanks and APC's (armored personnel carriers) that we got from the Israelis when we modified our equipment. In technology and some of the new high tech areas, we do in fact get, but they were both reflecting upon was that we didn't get what we wanted. What we wanted was for them (the Israelis) on the peace issue to transform the region, but we know today if you had a breakthrough tomorrow on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, it would not be a game changer for the region. It wouldn't stop one barrel bomb in Syria, it wouldn't change the reality of ISIS, it wouldn't stop the civil war in Yemen. It should be important in its own right but not because it transforms the region, but the assumption has been throughout that it does."
On the relationship between President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu
" They've each done things that have led the other to distrust them and there are several episodes that contributed to it. In Netanyahu's case, when he came for his first meeting with President Obama, after he was elected, in May of 2009, he felt blindsided by the insistence of a complete settlement freeze. He felt that didn't take into account his political realities and he's being asked to do what none of his labor prime ministers had ever done. In a sense this was not understood by the (Obama) administration because the truth is I was over to brief the President for his meeting with Netanyahu on the Iran part of the meeting. I was there with Mitchell, who was explaining to him the key on being able to move on what we were trying to do was get a complete settlement freeze. Any time I was over in the White House, prior to the time he actually asked me to come over, he always asked me a question on the Israelis. So I am sitting there and I am supposed to brief him on Iran, which I did subsequently, and he says, 'what do you think Dennis?' And I said, 'well you are asking him to do what none of his predecessors have done, so what's his explanation supposed to be? He supposed to do what Rabin didn't do, what Peres didn’t do, what Barak didn't do?' So he turned back around to Mitchell and said, 'well we are trying to get the Arabs to reopen the liaison offices in different countries and we're trying to get over flight for El Al over Saudi Arabia'. He turned back to me and I said, 'the liaison offices, we opened in the 1990's, so there is no drama there and over flight no one can see, so if you're asking him to do what none of his predecessors have done, you need to produce for him drama from the Arab side that justifies doing something unprecedented'. The President listened but then he still insisted with Netanyahu that he do this when he came, so from Bibi's standpoint that contributed. In Obama's case, there were a number of things, but one thing is that when (Vice President Joe) Biden is over there and I'm with him and they (the Israelis) announce a large number of new buildings in Ramat Shlomo, which is within Jerusalem. The President and (chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel thought this was like putting a thumb in our eye and was provocative and embarrassing and so each of them can point to things that the other did, either directly or indirectly."