Thursday, July 20, 2017
Doomed To Succeed by Dennis Ross - A Review
Ross explains how some American Presidents and their administrations have sought to distance U.S. policy from Israel. Included in this category would be Eisenhower, Carter, Nixon, Bush Sr. and Obama, as well as others to a lesser extent. Ostensibly, the goal of those administrations was to avoid upsetting the various Arab governments in the region. Ross also explains that some of those administrations held the belief that if they would only pressure Israel, that would lead to Mideast peace.
Along the way, Ross canvasses some key aspects of those policies. The Eisenhower administration's refusal to provide military equipment to Israel even in the face of Soviet supply of Israel's enemies. Nixon's refusal to supply Israel with weapons even in the face of an existential crisis during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (until it was almost too late). Reagan's decision to supply Saudi Arabia with some of the most sophisticated weaponry available, even where that weaponry could be used against Israel. And of course, Obama's decision to skip Israel on his Mideast tour at the start of his presidency to send a message to Israel about the "new Middle East."
There are many other examples and discussions of these various incidents and events.
By way of contrast, Ross looks at the efforts of other Presidents, including Clinton and Bush Jr., who were generally more sympathetic to Israel's concerns and advanced the Israel-U.S. relationship in significant ways. Some presidents like Truman, Reagan and even President Obama are portrayed has having a mixed record.
Ultimately, Ross suggests that those presidents and administrations who have sought, primarily, to distance Israel from the U.S. have made it more difficult to advance the cause of peace. If the U.S.suggests that it is prepared to guarantee Israeli security and international standing as part of a peace deal, it is logical to assume that the U.S. would demonstrate to Israel that Israel can count on that guarantee. Otherwise, asking Israel to take significant security risks without appropriate assurances would be suicidal for Israel.
Perhaps Carter was the exception here, in that he managed to arrange a peace deal even while distancing the U.S. from Israel. To this point, Ross seems to suggest that the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal may have happened with or without Carter, given the significant role that both Sadat and Begin played. While he acknowledges the significant efforts made by Carter and does not downplay that role, he does seem to suggest that Carter may have been able to do more with the other parts of the conflict if he had built up more confidence with the Israeli administration.
Ross also challenges the notion that it has been Israeli intransigence that has caused the lack of a peace deal. He repeatedly cites Arafat and Abbas' espousals of only "maximalist" bargaining positions and their failure to compromise to get a deal. Even President Clinton, who built up the confidence of the Israeli administration and extracted significant concessions from the Israeli side was unable to obtain sufficiently reciprocal concessions from the Palestinian side.
That is not to suggest that Ross lays all of the blame on the Palestinians. He suggests in no uncertain terms that Israel would need to agree to a Palestinian state to resolve the current conflict. He suggests that Israel should refrain from building in those areas of the territories which are not likely to be held by Israel as part of a future peace agreement. But he also suggests that the Palestinian side has quite a number of issues to address itself. Those include recognizing that the Palestinians will only be able to solve their refugee problem within their own future state; that they will need to stop inciting and paying for terror attacks; and that they will need to build a culture of peace rather than a culture of animosity if a two state solution is ever to become a reality.
Reviewing the major historical events over the course of Israel's statehood, as Ross has presented it, one is left with the clear understanding that only Israel has been able to guarantee and take responsibility for its own security. From the early wars of 1948 and 1956, in which Israel scrambled to find weapons suppliers, through the 1973 War, Israel has had to rely on itself, first and foremost. Even decisions which were opposed by U.S. administrations, from the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor to the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor seem, in retrospect, to have been both important and successful for Israel. In this respect, Begin, Netanyahu and even Shamir are all portrayed sympathetically, at times.
Ross's coverage of the 1973 War may be exceptional here. His analysis implies that Nixon intended to hold back on resupplying Israel for long enough to ensure that the Arab attackers caused sufficient damage to Israel to restore the "Arab dignity" after their disastrous war loss in 1967. But Ross's version ignores other historical accounts which suggest that the U.S. only began to resupply Israel after Gold Meir made significant military threats against Cairo in which Israel would use all appropriate means to defend itself. This account, if accurate, would fit in more appropriately with Israel's record of, ultimately, defending its own interests without really being able to rely on the U.S.
That is not to say that the book does not criticize Israel. The 1982 Lebanon War is largely characterized as a debacle. In later years, some of Netanyahu's interactions with Obama and others are roundly criticized. Other Israeli actions are also assessed critically.
But I think it is fair to say that Ross strongly prefers the view of those who would advocate for a special relationship between Israel and the U.S. Given that Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East, that it is one of the only countries, if not the only one, with a truly independent judiciary, a respect for the rule of law, and protection for its religious, ethnic and other minorities, Ross argues that it is very much in the U.S. national interest to foster a close relationship with Israel. He also argues that there is no evidence that a close U.S.-Israel relationship has damaged the U.S. relationship with its Arab allies. On the contrary, Ross argues that Obama's efforts to tilt towards Iran and away from Israel and some other traditional Arab allies of the U.S. had significant and detrimental consequences to the U.S. relationship with its Arab allies. Ross argues that Obama tilted back towards Israel later in his presidency, though the book seems to have been completed before the misguided U.N. resolution at the conclusion of the Obama presidency.
Ultimately, I suppose one must be skeptical about some of what Ross has written. It is after all the view of someone who was very much involved in the process and there is a natural inclination to smooth over one's own shortcomings. You would probably need to cobble together at least two or three different accounts of many of the historical events to be able to come to conclusions about what really occurred. But Ross tries to be reasonably objective and, at times, cites areas of disagreement between himself and others. In that respect, the book seems to have a reasonable degree of balance.
Overall, as someone with an interest in Middle Eastern history (and history in general), I enjoyed the book. It covers a great deal of ground (disputed territory mostly) and provides much to consider. We can only hope that the title was chosen for dramatic effect rather than as a statement about the likelihood of a future with a more peaceful Middle East.