Review of Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama by Dennis Ross. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 512 pp. $30 ($17, paper).
If there is one person who most deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for effort it is Dennis Ross. No one has labored longer to bring peace to the Middle East. Sadly, Ross is probably unknown to the Nobel committee, but those in the know are aware of his Sisyphean efforts to achieve a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.
In Doomed to Succeed – which would be more accurately titled, Doomed to Fail--Ross documents the history of America’s mostly misguided peace efforts dating back to FDR. The early history is a rehash of well-known facts, most of which is covered in my book, The Arab Lobby, but it is obligatory for a comprehensive study and reinforces his thesis that misguided Arabists have adversely influenced U.S. policy. The book really gets interesting, however, when Ross provides eye-witness accounts of policy-making in administrations from Reagan to Obama.
For example, Ronald Reagan, despite being revered as one of Israel’s best friends in the White House, was the most punitive president when Israel angered him. George H.W. Bush’s attitudes as Vice President foreshadowed his animus toward Israel. The Carter administration’s failure to pay attention to the events unfolding in Iran led to the difficult position we are now in with the radical Islamic regime. Hoping to reset relation, Obama opened a back channel to “moderate” Iranian President Rouhani and administration officials subsequently lied about pursuing secret talks.
In case there ever was any doubt, Obama’s antipathy toward settlements comes through loud and clear. His views were so entrenched that Clinton didn’t bother to challenge his decision to call for Israel to freeze settlement construction because she knew the depth of his feelings on the subject.
Forget dealing with Israelis and Palestinians, anyone who could survive the personal and bureaucratic landmines across those administrations is one heck of a diplomat. Despite his tact, Ross was often ostracized or impeded by the nefarious Arabists that permeate the intelligence agencies, as well as the State and Defense Departments, who promote the specious notions that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the root of all problems in the Middle East, and that our relations with Israel endanger our troops in the region and undermine our ties with the Arabs and Muslims. He was also suspect because he is a proud pro-Israel Jew, which led Israel’s critics to accuse him of being Israel’s lobbyist.
Not surprisingly, the Obama State Department, which hoped to reverse the perception that George W. Bush was Israel’s lawyer, successfully prevented him from getting the peace process portfolio. Ultimately, Obama’s disastrous early missteps, which were a combination of the president’s hubris, naiveté, ignorance of the Middle East, and bad advice from his advisers, led Obama to bring Ross back to handle the Israeli-Palestinian issues. Even Obama recognized Ross was the one person who had the institutional memory, the regional knowledge, tact and personal relationships to recalibrate the administration’s policy, at least temporarily, and undo some of the damage done in Obama’s early initiatives.
It should not come as a surprise, except to the Arabists, that the Arab states do not particularly care about the Palestinians. “The Palestinian issue has indeed been a centerpiece for Arab leaders,” Ross observes, “but more to use as leverage against us or against each other. Rarely has any Arab leader done much for the Palestinians.” Therefore, basing our policy on the false proposition that pressuring Israel, or even achieving a peace agreement, will improve our relations in the region is a myth.
Ross’s conclusion, which he writes in the preface, is the most damning statement of the deficiencies in U.S. Middle East policy. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “too often our policy makers did not understand the fundamental realities in the region – and seemed unwilling or unable to learn lessons. We not only made basic mistakes, but we repeated these over time. Those past mistakes, and their rationales, continue to echo today.”