Categorized | Books & Poetry, Middle East, USA

Ross offers primer on Israel and U.S. Presidents

Doomed to Succeed: The U. S. – Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama by Dennis Ross, Fareerar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, © 2015, ISBN 978-0-374-70948-8, p. 408 plus notes and index, $30.00

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D. 

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California –  Did Obama’s communication to America’s UN ambassador, directing her to abstain on a vote condemning Israel for constructing homes in “occupied” territory, sending shockwaves through the country’s Jewish community and cries from Congress, reveal a shift in eight decades of American policy toward Israel, or might it simply have been an irrational Trump-like vendetta against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu?  Is Obama attitude about Israel different from other presidents?

In Doomed to Succeed, author Dennis Ross, formerly a policy and planning director under President George H. W. Bush, Middle East planner under President Clinton, special adviser on the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, to the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offers an insider’s view of behind-closed-doors discussions and negotiations among American presidential administrations, heads of Arab nations, and the governments of Israel, in chronological order, beginning with Truman’s recognition of the fledgling state, against the advice of the State Department, moments after the UN’s vote to partition Palestine into two states—one Arab and one Jewish.

Ross lays out the milieu in which each new president finds himself, the values and beliefs he holds about the Middle East, the governmental and public pressures he feels, the reasons for his final actions, and his degree of success. Truman concentrated on rebuilding Europe and the growing Soviet menace. Eisenhower and Kennedy focused on the cold war and Viet Nam bogged down the Johnson Administration. Yet, Middle East politics drew in each of them, and not always benefiting Israel, such as when Eisenhower failed to intervene after Egyptian Prime Minister Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The Kennedy administration, recognizing growing Soviet influence in the area, became the first to sell Israel weapons, which continued though succeeding administrations.

Ross describes the Carter’s administration’s relationship with Israel an “irony,” as no other president has yet to exceed Carter’s desire for a peaceful Middle East, even brokering the region’s first peace treaty; yet “no administration was more consistently critical of Israel in public and private.” Reagan’s presidency differed enormously from Carter’s. The destruction of the “evil empire” consumed much of his time, but he saw Israel, with which he had an emotional attachment, as a natural ally; the first president to do so. Bush 41’s thinking differed: Israel needed our protection, but it was not special, nor should it hold a unique relationship.

Clinton and Rabin had a special connection. Clinton perceived Rabin as an individual willing to take risks to achieve peace and Clinton did all that he could to support him. In the wake of Rabin’s assassination, “the president felt he now had a duty to finish the job Rabin had started.”  No other Israeli Prime Minister has held such as close relationship with another American president. To the contrary, the animus between Obama and Netanyahu became a public spectacle. Bush 43 moved closer to Israel after 9/11, recognizing the similar situation between America and Israel in its fight against terrorism, and Obama, drawing the opposite conclusion, saw Israel as the aggressor against a hapless Palestinian population.

Ross notes that many administrations had advisors with diverse opinions, asking Israel for restraint, flexibility, and compliance, but through all the years the country’s State Department held assumptions, which were “fundamentally flawed,” including the belief that America must distance itself from Israel, an idea receiving support from Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, and Bush 41.

American presidents have demonstrated time and again that Israel has no stronger ally than America, but allies differ in both tactics and outcome, and Israel gave the White House pause on many occasions. For instance, Kennedy backed a UN resolution condemning Israel for retaliation following attacks by Syria, acrimony existed between Begin and Carter, and Reagan became the first and only president to suspend aircraft deliveries to Israel as punishment for Israel’s recalcitrance.

As a key player with direct experience in the negotiation process and extensive knowledge of State Department beliefs and culture about the Jewish state, Ross tells a compelling story of the international affairs consuming the attention of each administration and how those concerns weighed on its actions toward Israel, particularly how American presidents bully, or at least try to bully, Israeli governments and how “stiff-necked” Israeli governments present a stumbling block for the White House to carry out American interests in the region.

The story, of course, is not over. There is a new president in town, declaring he wants to move America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, offering a lukewarm condemnation over new Israeli settlements in disputed territory, and although not committing to a two-state solution, will steadfastly find “a great peace deal.” Whether or not he can deliver remains to be seen, and whatever the fate of his administration’s policies might be, Doom to Succeed is a must read and marvelous primer about the rocky relationship between two allies.

*

Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil Calendars; Public Education in Camden, NJ: From Inception to Integration; Ancient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and a fiction book, Reclaiming the Messiah. The author may be contacted via [email protected].

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