On a Sunday evening last November, a few days after Daesh’s attack on Paris, a hundred Jewish seniors packed into a lecture theater at Winnipeg’s Rady Jewish Community Centre (RJCC) to hear Dennis Ross talk up his new book, Doomed to Succeed: the US-Israeli Relationship from Truman to Obama.
Mondoweiss readers are familiar with Ross. The veteran US diplomat and political adviser has held a variety of positions at the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council in every administration since Jimmy Carter, with pivotal roles in the Israel-Palestinian “peace process” since the earliest days of the Madrid and Oslo talks.
These days, Ross is a “Distinguished Fellow” at the AIPAC-affiliated Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and teaches at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, as a Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy.
It isn’t every day Winnipeg Jews get to listen to as distinguished a friend of Israel’s as Dennis Ross – someone fellow negotiator Aaron David Miller may have had in mind when he coined the term “Israel’s lawyer.” I had phoned in advance to see if could arrange an interview with the eminent and distinguished Mr. Ross. His schedule was very tight, an unfriendly voice on the other end of the phone told me, and would not have time to speak with me.
Might I be put in touch with whoever arranges Mr. Ross’ schedule, I asked? We are arranging his schedule, the woman on the other end of the phone curtly replied, nor were there any tickets left, her voice tightening, but perhaps I might find one at the door. Well-heeled donors sometimes don’t show up.
Heeding her advice, I hopped on my bike and rode to the Rady Centre. The lobby was buzzing when I arrived, filling with people, most of them in their sixties and seventies. Thankfully, extra tickets were available, and I sat in the very front row, my audio recorder on the seat between my legs.
Finally, the lights dimmed, an enthusiastic young man introduced Ross, and onto the stage the distinguished diplomat strode, every inch the academic, in brown corduroy pants, knit vest and casual jacket. For the next forty-five minutes, he wandered freely across the stage, microphone in hand, regaling the audience of senior citizens as he does his students.
Ongoing violence in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank may have slipped to the back of people’s minds in the wake of the Paris attacks, but Ross immediately connected the dots.
Palestinian “terrorism” is “incited by social media; they’re angry,” Ross explained. “One of the sources of their anger is that nobody is paying attention to the Palestinians, and what just happened in Paris is going to reinforce that.”
Palestinian knife attacks are actually worse than Daesh’s Paris outrage, Ross told his silent audience. “It’s bloodletting, and you see your victim,” he explained. “What you saw in Paris was just shooting at anybody you can see, but they’re faceless people; but not what you’re seeing with the stabbings in Israel. The stabbings are an intimate form of terror.”
“What we’re seeing in Israel right now is not an organized effort at terror,” Ross continued. “Not like the First Intifada; not like the Second Intifada, where you actually had a structure, a leadership, an organization, an affiliation for those who were carrying out attacks. Now what you’re seeing are fifteen to twenty-five year-olds; we’ve seen, in fact, an eleven year-old responsible for a stabbing.”
But why are Palestinian youth up in arms? Ross asked, rhetorically. I leaned forward on the edge of my seat. How would Ross explain Palestinian rage? Would he broach the occupation?
“They’re alienated from their own leadership,” said Ross. A recent Palestinian poll indicates that eighty percent of Palestinians feel that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt, and that sixty-six percent of them want Abu Mazen to resign.
“They see the Arabs paying no attention to them; they see the world not paying attention to them! And what’s happening in Paris will reinforce that.
“And they’re angry at the Israelis.”
Now I was truly on the edge of my seat. Was Ross about to utter the word “occupation”?
“All these things are coming together – plus the false scenario related to Israel somehow changing the status quo on the Haram-al-Sharif; the Temple Mount,” Ross went on. “So, I suspect that what we’re seeing will go on for some time. I’m afraid it’s going to be a new normal for some period of time.”
Nothing about the occupation. Just Palestinians enraged at being ignored. Then, Ross turned to the Obama administration’s response to this most recent bout of senseless Palestinian violence.
“First it was to refer to it as ‘violence’ and to call for an end to the ‘cycle of violence’.”
Here, Ross paused for three or four seconds, to let the absurdity of the notion he’d just conjured up sink in. A few satisfied chuckles rose from the audience.
“An end to the ‘cycle of violence’. So, you have terror stabbings, and an initial reaction is to call for an end to the ‘cycle of violence’. There was no cycle! … I mean, on the one hand, calling for calm is natural, but the idea that when you see acts of terror of the sort taking place you don’t call it terror, but instead you talk about a ‘cycle of violence’, it reflected a mindset that finds it difficult to be critical, or condemn the Palestinians and not somehow bringing the Israelis into it.”
Ross had reached a critical transition, the perfect segue into the central theme of his book: the history of US-Israeli relations since Harry Truman, and the counterproductive mindset that has troubled the “Special Relationship” for so many years.
“This mindset that tends to look at the Palestinians and the Arabs as being something we have to be careful around. That if we’re going to be criticizing and responding to them, it’ll create a backlash against us … this is a mindset that has existed in every administration from Truman to Obama; Every single administration from Truman to Obama has had a constituency in the national security establishment that has looked at Israel through a lens where they see Israel as a problem rather than a partner; in every administration.”
The time had come for a quiz. In all the years since Harry Truman, Ross declared – striding towards the edge of the stage, microphone in hand – only once has this sort of Israel-critical constituency exerted no influence. Which one was it, he asked the audience?
“LBJ!” someone shouted out. “John Kennedy!” another voice piped up. “George Bush!” someone chimed.
Then … “Jimmy Carter!”
Ross leaped, almost apoplectically, at Carter’s name. “Carter?” he asked incredulously. “Carter?” The audience laughed appreciatively, as Ross uttered Jimmy Carter’s name once more, enjoying the game, but unclear about the nuances of US foreign policy. “That was the only constituency that existed!” Ross chortled.
George W. Bush was an excellent guess, explained Ross, pedantically – but wrong. Ariel Sharon’s courageous withdrawal from Gaza, followed by Ehud Olmert’s extremely generous offer to improve on Bill Clinton’s historic “Parameters,” were themselves responses to that troubling US political constituency in the Bush administration who argued that we’d never win the war on terror without solving the Palestinian problem.
The audience was now hooked. Obama? Eisenhower? No, Eisenhower was the worst! Ross replied, provoking loud, appreciative laughter from the delighted crowd.
Finally – with a tinge of frustration in his voice – Ross relented and gave the audience the correct answer: Only in the Clinton administration had the “Let’s Get Tough on Israel” constituency existed, but with no influence, Ross patiently explained. Bill Clinton believed America was Israel’s only friend, and that creating a wedge would make things worse.
The quiz being over, Ross launched into his book about the Special Relationship since Harry Truman, dropping great names: Clark Clifford vs. George C. Marshall over arms supplies to the Zionists; John Foster Dulles’ vow not to let US policy be affected by domestic politics, and that “We will counter Israeli aggression.”
“Were there settlements then?” Ross asked his audience, irritation in his voice.
“No! No!” several voices in the audience called out.
Ross continued with his history lesson, citing a long list of seminal events: the US-sponsored Security Council resolution condemning Israel for its attack on Egypt (that the UK and French vetoed). “They’re in league with the Israelis,” Eisenhower had muttered, threatening to sanction the Jewish State; to expel Israel from UN! “Seek the good will of your neighbors,” Eisenhower told the Zionists.
It got worse, said Ross, darkly. Richard Nixon suspended F-4 phantom sales to Israel in order to cozy up to Egyptian president Nasser; Ronald Reagan refused to sell F-16s to the Israelis after they bombed Syria’s Osirak reactor. Whispers of recognition filtered through the crowd.
But in the wake of Hezbollah’s bombing of the US marine barracks in Lebanon, the Hollywood film star (who had seen early film footage of the Nazi death camps) “finds his roots” and concludes that Israel is a “partner, rather than a problem,” and everything has been more or less okay since then.
Q.E.D. Ross had proven his point. With just a few moments left in his talk, the time had come to sum up key lessons about the US-Israeli relationship – as explored in greater detail in his new book which he would be glad to sign. America’s relationship with Israel has been guided by three enduring assumptions, all of which are wrong: 1) If you distance yourself from Israel, you gain with the Arabs; 2) If you cooperate with Israel you alienate the Arabs; 3) The perennially star-crossed Middle East situation will never be transformed until you solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Swiftly, Ross dispelled each of these myths. The priority of Arab leaders is their own security and survival. They will never base their relationship with Washington on US-Israeli relations, the status of their regional rivals being far more critical. They want America as their guarantor, and see Israel as irrelevant.
So here was Dennis Ross’ good news: Arab leaders don’t care about Palestinian self-determination, just their own self-interest. America’s tireless efforts to achieve “peace” in the Middle East are thus “doomed to succeed,” and certainly worth the effort.
Because Israel is worth it. “There’s one state,” Ross explained, “that actually has institutions; a rule of law; a separation of powers; an independent judiciary; regularly and irregularly scheduled elections, where the loser accepts the outcome; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; artistic freedom; women’s rights are accepted; gay rights are respected. If you want to know why this relationship will continue to evolve, either with ups or downs, it’s because Israel is the only democracy in this region … And that’s why the title of this book is Doomed to Succeed.”
The audience burst into applause. I stood up, arms at my side. Beside me, an elderly Jewish man was putting on his coat. “Israel’s lawyer,” I muttered, shaking my head. The elderly man didn’t understand and looked at me quizzically. “Israel’s lawyer,” I repeated, louder this time. A frown descended over his face.
I walked out of the room and downstairs, past tables spilling over with books about Israel and Judaism, including Ross’, that were quickly being snatched up. Outside, Ross sat behind a table signing copies. I patiently stood to the side until the last copy was signed, then walked over and asked if we could speak for five minutes. A lady stepped in – possibly the same one who’d been crabby to me over the phone. Did we have time for an interview, Ross asked the woman? Who was I with, she wanted to know, sizing me up and down, suspiciously. Oh, the local university radio station I quickly said (It’s true). This pleased her, for some reason, and she told Ross it would be okay. He and I stepped away from the crowd.
So here I was, face to face with one of the most distinguished, perspicacious and effective diplomat-negotiators ever to work for a White House administration. I quickly launched into my questions. He had said nothing about the occupation in his quick analysis of recent Palestinian violence. Might seventy years of dispossession and subjugation be a motivating factor behind this troubling wave of knife attacks, I asked?
Ross quickly took issue with my numbers. “Seventy years?” he asked, confusion in his voice. You know, the Nakba, I said. “There was dispossession, for sure,” Ross replied, quickly qualifying this with the argument that the Zionists had bought land fair and square.
Okay, I said, realizing there would be no time to discuss the Nakba. Forget that. Fifty years. Since 1967. Fifty years of “brutal occupation.”
“Brutal by Middle Eastern standards?” Ross queried, drilling down into his subject. “Obviously not by Middle Eastern standards. Nothing like Syria. Nothing like Syria.”
How about all those home demolitions? Doors smashed down in the middle of the night; a million Palestinian olive trees uprooted or burned down.
“It does not compare to the rest of the region,” Ross insisted. “Look, there’s no such thing as a benign occupation,” he added, but the Palestinians are ultimately the ones to blame. “Does it have an impact on Palestinians? Absolutely it has an impact on Palestinians. Have Palestinians had a chance to end this conflict? Yes. But they’ve never taken the chance to end the conflict. They said no to the Clinton Parameters in the year 2000; they said no to the offer that Ehud Olmert made in 2008. In March 2014, President Obama presented Abu Mazen with a set of principles to end the conflict, and he gave no answer. So unfortunately, the Palestinians have been victims, for sure, but when they’ve had opportunities to end the conflict, they’ve also not taken those opportunities.”
“Is the two-state solution dead?” I asked.
“It better not be,” Ross shot back.
But Netanyahu is categorically opposed to a two-state solution!
“No, that’s not true,” Ross countered. “He just said next to the President that he’s for ‘two states for two people’. He said in the UN that he’s for ‘two states for two people’.”
“Kind of an apartheid state,” I interjected, but Ross disagreed. “It’s not a systemized ideology of subjugation of a minority over a majority.”
I cited the recent report of the UN committee overseeing adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that Israel maintains a “three-tiered system of law,” with Jews on top and stateless Palestinians on the bottom. Isn’t this apartheid, I asked?
No way, Ross insisted. “Apartheid was an ideological system of a minority subjugating a large majority … an ideological system of a minority subjugating a large majority; mandating where they could live; mandating what kinds of jobs they could have; mandating what kind of education was available. That’s not what exists there.” (Later on, I kicked myself for failing to quickly say that minority rule definitely reigns in the West Bank).
But many people refer to the current situation as apartheid, including Israelis, I added, but Ross insisted that a double-standard was being applied.
“There is an occupation. It should end. There should be a way to end it. But Palestinians also have to be willing to end it. Palestinians also have to be willing to accept a two-state outcome.”
But, why should there be negotiation if the occupation and settlements are illegal, I asked? Why shouldn’t the occupation just be made to end?
Not possible, said Ross, as long as the Iranian leadership and Revolutionary Guard call for Israel’s destruction. My eyes must have rolled. Ross retorted:
“Well, they say it! You can deny that! You don’t want to accept it! But they say it! Read what they say! The Supreme Leader says they won’t exist in twenty-five years; the head of the Revolutionary Guard says they’ll be wiped off the map. So, Israel should dismiss that? You think radical Islamists are prepared to accept Israel’s existence?”
With Ross now clearly in a lather, I figured it was time for my last question: How will US policy finesse itself away from a two-state solution, towards an inevitable single state outcome? Ross didn’t fall for the trap. A two-state solution is still at hand, he insisted. After all, Jewish settlements only occupy two percent of West Bank land.
“But Area C accounts for sixty percent of the West Bank!” I countered. Ross agreed. That’s right, so Arabs will have to play a role in achieving the desired outcome, he said.
How could this be, I asked? The US is opposed to internationalizing negotiations. It wants to be the sole arbiter.
Ross had an answer to this too. The Bush administration didn’t play arbiter (How about Condoleezza Rice’s Road Map?), and didn’t stop anyone else from doing so, he said. In the end, only America can influence the Israelis (although twenty years of failed negotiation, guided by negotiators with as vast a skill set as Dennis Ross, clearly suggests otherwise). Let’s see what happens in next administration, said Ross.
My interview with Dennis Ross had come to an end. Although I had scored six minutes and forty-nine seconds of time from one of America’s most distinguished diplomat-negotiators, I felt cold and depressed as I rode my bicycle back home. Listen to our conversation here, and decide if you feel the same.