A Bit More on Dennis Ross

by Ali Gharib

By way of a brief update to my recent post on Dennis Ross’s Blame America First outlook on the rocky US-Israel relationship, I think it’s worthwhile to come up to speed on a couple of late-developing points. First, I’d like to point to Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker‘s recent write-up of Ross’s book (which I haven’t read and, frankly, probably won’t). In the course of a review of a book about the killing of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Filkins takes four paragraphs to discuss Ross’s book. Here’s the whole passage:

It’s jarring to contemplate the assassination of Rabin and then read Dennis Ross’s “Doomed to Succeed” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a detailed account of U.S.-Israeli relations since 1948. In four hundred-plus pages, there is almost no mention of the changes that have transformed the Israeli polity in the past six decades, and surprisingly little discussion of the steady growth in the settlement population, which now exceeds half a million. For Ross, who was the State Department’s director of policy planning under President George H. W. Bush, the special Middle East coördinator under President Bill Clinton, and an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the settlements are evidently problematic only insofar as they present an obstacle to a smoothly functioning bilateral relationship. The United Nations and most foreign governments consider them illegal, but for him they are a political difficulty to be finessed. There is no talk of justice. Pressure on Israel—by Palestinians, by Europeans, by President Obama—appears to Ross bewildering and unreasonable.

Ross describes a situation, in 2010, when Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, refused to negotiate with Netanyahu unless he agreed to extend a moratorium on settlement construction, and the Obama Administration tried and failed to broker a compromise. His conclusion: Abbas “showed little flexibility and squandered the moratorium.” And Ross criticizes President Obama for “putting the onus on Israel.” This sort of analysis makes sense only if you regard the expansion of Israeli settlements and the Palestinian objections to them as morally equivalent.

Ross is as impatient with Palestinian efforts to gain a more sympathetic hearing at the United Nations and elsewhere as he is sensitive to the political needs of Israeli Prime Ministers. Yet he says almost nothing about the political realities that have shaped the situation, or how those realities might be changed. He evinces almost no sympathy for similar pressures on Abbas and others at the Palestinian Authority. Only near the end of the book does he bring himself to criticize Israel. Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation from John Boehner to address the House of Representatives, thereby defying the White House and inserting himself in a domestic political debate, was, Ross says, “a mistake.” He writes repeatedly that Israeli leaders will make concessions only when they feel secure. This may be true, but where does this leave American policy? And where does it leave Israel?

The highest compliment Ross seems able to pay an American President is to say that he is a “friend of Israel.” But how can an American President help an ally steer away from a potentially disastrous course when that ally, by the nature of its own domestic politics, isn’t able to do so by itself? Ross doesn’t say.

That’s pretty devastating.

I also noted in my last post that Ross faulted Obama for not accepting Netanyahu’s walk-back of his election-timed remark that there wouldn’t be a Palestinian state on his watch. I suggested that perhaps Ross wasn’t giving the Obama administration enough credit. The administration seemed, to me at least, to be denying Netanyahu the opportunity to just walk-back his remark because it didn’t believe him. I don’t know why any one should believe Netanyahu—about anything he says—but Ross obviously does.

In this context Netanyahu proclaimed this week that the Palestinians don’t want a state as a resolution to the conflict, but for its perpetuation. That’s very, very close to what Netanyahu said around the time of the last Israeli elections. It seems the Obama administration was quite right in its apparent deduction that Netanyahu’s walk-back was a political calculation, and that his real position remains to deny a Palestinian state. Ross thinks there’s some kind of precedent that presidents accept foreign leaders’ walk-backs. But Netanyahu’s opposition to a Palestinian state has been remarkably consistent in deed, if not always in word—though sometimes, as during the election and again this week, that, too.

Photo of Dennis Ross at an AIPAC seminar courtesy of Reuben Ingber via Flickr

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.