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No quick fix – Dennis Ross speaks his mind on Washington and its recurring mistaken assumptions about the Middle East



When the wave of stabbings, car rammings and random shootings hit Israel on October 1, 2015, it took the US administration more than a week before it was willing to condemn the terrorists, and not talk about a “cycle of violence.” According to former US diplomat Dennis Ross, the reason has to do with a mindset that penetrated the Obama administration that maintains that you don’t only criticize the Palestinians, and that to do so would create a backlash not only among them, but also among other Arabs. Thus there was a need to talk about a “cycle of violence,” something that created equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians.

This mindset, said Ross, who noted that the jargon changed after the first seven to 10 days of the terrorist wave, is not unique to the administration of President Barack Obama. Rather it has existed in every administration since that of Harry Truman.

Ross knows something about Mideast mindsets in US administrations, having worked on Middle East issues in various positions during the administrations of five US presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Every administration since that of Truman, Ross said in Jerusalem in March at a speech to the Jewish People Policy Institute, has had a significant constituency within it that maintained that the association with Israel had to be qualified, and which saw Israel as more of a problem than a partner.

ROSS, AUTHOR of a recent book on the history of Israel-US relations from Truman to Obama called Doomed to Succeed, maintained that only Clinton’s administration did not have within it a camp with this attitude toward Israel. Unlike Obama, who famously told a group of Jewish leaders in 2009 that a lack of daylight between Israel and the US was not a good thing, Clinton’s approach was that while there may be differences with Israel, there was no need to broadcast them. This would magnify the problem, and create a wedge with Israel that would strengthen Israel’s enemies, weaken deterrence and make peace less likely, he said of the Clinton Administration mindset.

Even the administration of George W. Bush, widely seen as very pro-Israel, had a camp with the Israel-is-a-problem mindset, he maintained. Indeed, soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks struck the US, one of Bush’s first calls was to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, pressing him to meet with Yasser Arafat.

Even as the second intifada was roiling Israel, Bush was pressing Sharon to call Arafat. Though Bush would never have dreamed of talking to those responsible for the terrorist attacks that hit his country, he was pressing Sharon to do so with the man responsible for the attacks striking his.

The reason, Ross said, was because the president was prevailed upon by those in his administration who saw Israel more as problem than as partner, and whose arguments claimed that the US would be unable to enlist Arab countries in Bush’s war on terrorism unless Israel moved on the Palestinian track.

This was part of three assumptions that Ross maintains have been embedded in America’s approach toward Israel since the beginning.

The first assumption is that if the US would distance itself from Israel, it would gain from the Arabs.

“Five administrations have done it: Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, [George H.W.] Bush and Obama,” he said. “Every single administration that engaged in distancing never produced what they expected from the Arabs; rather than gaining from the Arabs, they typically produced more Arab demands.”

The quintessential example of this, he said, was Richard Nixon. Nixon suspended the delivery of F-4 Phantom planes to Israel in 1970, not as punishment, but because he was trying to reach out to then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“He thought that by suspending the F4s it would strengthen our ability to get Nasser to move toward the US,” Ross said. The result, he noted, was significantly different, as Nasser “blows off” Nixon’s envoy Joseph Sisco who went to visit him, and the Soviets then sent thousands of military personnel to Egypt.

“Every time this [tactic] was tried, it did not produce results,” he said. “In every administration where this was tried, it didn’t produce what was expected and anticipated.”

The second assumption made in almost every administration, a corollary to the first, is that “if you cooperate with Israel, you lose with the Arabs.” This, too, has proven false, Ross said, since the Arab regimes are interested in a close, strong relationship with the US because it ensures their own security and survival.

John F. Kennedy, Ross said, was the first president to send weapons systems to Israel, sending the Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, which were purely defensive in nature. But even this triggered a colossal debate inside the administration, with all the ambassadors to the Arab world saying the “sky would fall,” and then secretary of state Dean Rusk saying that “this will set a terrible precedent and cause grave damage to ties with the Arabs.”

None of that transpired, Ross pointed out, stressing that when Kennedy met Saudi King Faisal about a week later, he didn’t even raise the issue, worried instead about the Nasserist coup in Yemen at the time, and concerned about Washington’s overtures to Egypt.

“One of the things that these two assumptions embody is a view of the region that what matters most to the Arabs is Israel,” Ross said. “In fact, what matters most to the Arabs is their security and their survival. I’m not saying that they like Israel, I’m not saying that our relationship with Israel is always something easy for them, but they didn’t see it as a threat to them.”

Arab leaders are concerned about their continuance. “They view the US relationship as something essential for their security and survival. They were never going to make our [America’s] relationship with Israel something that would undercut their relationship to us, because that would undercut their security and survival. We consistently misread what had been the most important priority to the Arab leaders.”

The third assumption, which recent events in the region have also proven to be false, is that “you can’t transform the region, or America’s position in the region, unless you solve the Palestinian issue.” Ross said that this, too, is mistaken, and that if the Palestinian issue would be solved tomorrow, all the other issues plaguing the region would still remain.

Ross said that there was a need to continue trying to solve the Palestinian-Israeli issue for the sake of Israel and the Palestinians, but not because of an expectation that the US can “fix” the region by a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. That alone, as events over the last few years has shown, will simply not do the trick.

The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference has become a central platform for Israeli and American politicians, security officials and Jewish leaders to address issues that concern Israel and the Jewish world before an audience 1,500 people, who hold Israel dear to their hearts. The 5th Jerusalem Post Annual Conference, will take place on May 22 2016, at the Marriott Marquis on Times Square in New York City.

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