Is Dennis Ross Partly to Blame for the Ongoing Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Former diplomat Dennis Ross ignores, in his new book, the fact that the more Israel moves away from being democratic and Jewish, the less successful U.S. policy is – by its own definition. He was part of the problem.

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Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, with Dennis Ross in 1994.
PM Rabin, left, with Ross in 1994. The diplomat has virtually ignored Israel’s violations of basic Palestinian human rights and the expansion of settlements.Credit: AP
Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

“Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama,” by Dennis Ross, 474 pp., Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30

At the end of his new book about U.S.-Israeli ties, American diplomat Dennis Ross asserts, “Those in the early years of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations who saw in the emergence of Israel only doom and gloom for the United States were wrong.” Ross, one of the chief facilitators of Arab-Israeli negotiations in recent years, goes on to predict that, “With the right kind of continuing management and commitment on both sides, it will remain certain, if not doomed to succeed.”

“True enough,” concurred Elliott Abrams, who served as a senior Middle East adviser in the administration of George W. Bush, in his review of Ross’ book in The Wall Street Journal. The conservative Jew even asked “Why is this reassuring work entitled ‘Doomed to Succeed’ rather than ‘A Blessing in Disguise?’”

Still, both former senior Middle East advisers agree on the word “succeed.” But how does one measure the success of the U.S.-Israel relationship?

In the eyes of most Israelis the equation is simple: Count the number of dollars the U.S. puts in Israeli pockets; add to this the number of vetoes the U.S. has used to protect Israel in international organizations, saving it from sanctions and condemnations; and tally the number of hours that Ross, Abrams and their associates spent in futile negotiations that left Israel with more settlements and less peace. The result is an “unshakable relationship.” To be sure, even such steadfast relationships have their ups and downs.

But there are also Israelis, and others who care very much about Israel, who strongly believe that almost 50 years of living under occupation (yes, the occupier also lives under occupation) is to a great extent a result of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel. They believe that a true friend of Israel must use its influence to save the country from turning into an apartheid pariah state. Many liberal Israelis blame American politicians for spoiling and coddling Israel, for turning a blind eye to its self-destructive interests.

By refraining from using its leverage to stop the expansion of settlements, the U.S has been practically a partner in turning the Jewish state into a de facto binational state – all this, in order to score points with the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, and to receive generous donations from pro-Israel philanthropists.

But is it in the real interest of both countries to maintain their special relationship?

Slow, painful death

The “successful” ties between the superpower and the small Jewish state remind me of the story about a surgeon who comes out of the operating room and tells the family that the operation was very successful, but unfortunately their loved one has dead.

In terms of political, military and economic relations, it seems that the two countries have been able to recover from numerous afflictions. They are largely immune to strategic crises, conflicting interests and personal mistrust between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers. However, over the last 48 years the Zionist state has been dying a slow, painful death. In 2015 there are fewer Jews than non-Jews living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Israel’s democracy is growing sicker and the “peace camp” is becoming increasingly isolated and less relevant.

Official U.S. policy has always favored the idea of a safe and democratic Jewish state living side by side with an independent Palestinian state. The further Israel moves away from being democratic and Jewish – terms that contradict the creeping annexation policy in the occupied territories – the less successful American policy is, by its own definition.

Ross completely ignores this serial blunder, preferring to focus on the “successful” bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Israel. The essence of his analysis is what he terms “three wrong perceptions” that the State Department has held from 1948 until this very day.

The first one is “the need to distance [itself] from Israel to gain Arab responsiveness.” The second mistake is “concern about the high costs of cooperating with the Israelis.” Their third error is “the belief that resolving the Palestinian problem is the key to improving the U.S. position in the region.”

Ross is no stranger to the State Department; he served as director of policy planning there under President George H.W. Bush. He was the special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, and a special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Thus, he was not a bystander, watching the leaders falling into the “trap” of these misconceptions; Ross himself was part of the problem.

Having followed Ross’ conduct for many years, and the perceptions he injected into every administration he served, I strongly believe that he is largely responsible for the notion that the U.S needs to put Israel’s interests before those of the Palestinians. He maintained that the Arabs must take into consideration the domestic constraints of Israel’s electoral system.

Throughout his diplomatic career, Ross kept reiterating that the U.S. must tailor its policy regarding the Israeli-Arab diplomatic process to fit those constraints, while ignoring the Arab regimes’ limited maneuverability when it comes to Jerusalem’s holy sites and the settlements policy. At the same time, he virtually ignored Israel’s violations of basic Palestinian human rights and the expansion of settlements.

In the book, Ross recounts that when he was a senior official on President Clinton’s team, working toward a final status-agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin confided to Ross that perhaps he had squandered the opportunity to remove the most radical settlers from the heart of a major Arab town. This was just after Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in 1994. Instead of evacuating the Jewish troublemakers from Hebron, Rabin vacated the Palestinian market in the old city of Hebron, in order to prevent revenge attacks by the Palestinians.

Both sides are paying the price of that mistake to this day, as the Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron remains a flash point in the occupied territories.

During his time in the Clinton administration Ross also played a role in the affair concerning Har Homa – the first new Jewish neighborhood erected in East Jerusalem by Israel after it signed the Oslo Accords. President Clinton dispatched his adviser to Jerusalem to ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to put the project on hold. Despite the fact that then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat told Clinton that such a new settlement would sever East Jerusalem from Bethlehem – Ross came home empty-handed: Instead of putting a blueprint on the table, he kept pressing the Palestinians and the Syrians to adopt more “confidence-building measures,” in the hopes of creating a “better atmosphere,” while Israel kept building settlements, creating more facts on the ground and poisoning the atmosphere.

Criticizing Obama

Ross, meanwhile, criticizes President Barack Obama for putting the onus on Israel, even though Netanyahu agreed at one point to impose a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas showed little flexibility in peace talks and wasted the opportunity to make progress. Still, it is hard to believe that Ross forgot that by freezing settlement construction Netanyahu didn’t do anything that requires reciprocity.

This is one of the commitments that Israel took upon itself in accordance with the “road map” for peace, presented by President G.W. Bush in 2013. In return, the PA was to make every effort to rein in terrorism – efforts that American, European and even Israeli officials praised. (Even Hamas and Islamic Jihad have used the PA’s security cooperation with Israel to slam the authority and accuse it of collaborating with the “Zionist occupation.”)

Ross argues that because Israel got nothing in return from the Palestinians, Israel refused to extend [the moratorium].” What should Abbas have done? What could the occupied give the occupier? Ross writes that Obama believes that, as the stronger party, Israel can and should do more for peace. However, he doubts if the president has ever asked, “What if the Palestinians were not prepared to move?”

That question, or observation, is in a nutshell the essence of Ross’ misguided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a view that has brought his bosses to one impasse after another.

The PLO made a historic move in 1988, by accepting UN Resolution 242 and abandoning the military struggle in favor of a diplomatic process that would allow them to have their own state, based on 1967 lines. Israel’s response was the expansion the settlement enterprise. The PLO agreed to swap land for the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The Israeli response was to drive deeper into the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods in the city's Holy Basin.

Ross has never taken responsibility for his role in the Israeli-Arab tragedy. As his deputy, Aaron David Miller told journalist Clayton Swisher in an interview in 2004: “You don’t want to give centrality to how you f---ed up. Dennis could never have brought himself to do it, and neither could I.”

Akiva Eldar is a senior columnist for Al-monitor. com Israel Pulse and was Haaretz diplomatic correspondent. He is co-author of the book “Lords of the Land, the War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007,” Nation Books (2009).