Monday, October 12, 2015

Palestinians, Israelis and the United States - A new book: reviews and interview

With the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis heating up in violent attacks, there is a new book "Doomed to Succeed" by US negotiator and diplomat Dennis Ross on  the subject. Below are extended excerpts from and links to two reviews from different perspectives, the first  in the Wall Street Journal by Elliott Abrams, the second in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg.

"Mr. Ross’s portrait reinforces the recent account by Israel’s former ambassador, Michael Oren, in his book “Ally.” Six years of Mr. Obama get more pages here than eight years of Messrs. Clinton or Bush, and the author writes that “the president’s distancing from Israel was deliberate.” Though he credits Mr. Obama with deep sympathy for the Jewish state, the incidents he recounts contradict him.

For example, in 2009 the administration pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to undertake a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the hope of getting negotiations started, at considerable political cost to the Israeli leader. The moratorium brought the Israelis nothing from the Palestinians, so they refused to extend it. As Mr. Ross writes, “though [Palestinian leader] Abu Mazen had shown little flexibility and squandered the moratorium, President Obama . . . put the onus on Israel.”

Mr. Obama kept calling on Israel to take risks for peace. “But,” Mr. Ross adds, “he said nothing about what Abu Mazen had to do; the responsibility for acting was exclusively Netanyahu’s.” Even when Mr. Netanyahu accepted difficult American terms for a new negotiation in 2014 and then Abu Mazen rejected them, the administration “gave him a pass,” instead blaming the continuing construction of Israeli settlements. Mr. Obama believed that as the stronger party Israel could and should do more for peace. “But what if the Palestinians were not prepared to move? . . . He never seemed to ask that question,” Mr. Ross writes.

In Mr. Ross’s view, Mr. Obama fell for the oldest preconceptions about the Middle East, views that the State Department had been putting forward since 1948. There were principally three: “the need to distance from Israel to gain Arab responsiveness, concern about the high costs of cooperating with the Israelis, and the belief that resolving the Palestinian problem is the key to improving the U.S. position in the region.”

In chapter after chapter, Mr. Ross documents how these arguments affected policy over decades and failed to predict Arab behavior—yet were very rarely challenged. The reason they failed is simple, he says: “the hard truth is that [the Palestinians] are not a priority for Arab leaders. . . . The priorities of Arab leaders revolve around survival and security”—not Israeli-Palestinian relations or U.S. policy toward Israel.

What’s striking in this account, and in the history of U.S. Mideast policy, is why these three canards keep reappearing and gaining such wide support. When we move away from Israel, Mr. Ross observes, “our influence does not increase; our ties to the conservative Arab monarchies do not materially improve."

For the rest of this review see:

Here is the Ross - Goldberg interview/review:

"Ross spends a good deal of time refuting (successfully, in my opinion) the notion, advanced by the so-called realist camp of foreign policymakers, that Israel has consistently been a drag on America’s reputation and standing in the Middle East. Among other things, Ross expertly dismantles the “linkage” argument, advanced by generations of diplomats and analysts, which holds that an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty is a prerequisite for solving the Middle East’s many other problems. Reality, as Ross told me, has debunked this idea....

The most cataclysmic moment in their relationship may have occurred during a 90-minute phone call between the two men shortly before the interim agreement was announced. Ross writes that the call was so tense and uncomfortable that Susan Rice, the U.S. national-security advisor, told Abe Foxman, then the head of the Anti-Defamation League, that Netanyahu did everything but use the “n-word” in addressing Obama. Here is Ross describing the incident:
I was certain two leaders speaking the same language had talked past each other. I contacted Secretary [of State John] Kerry to let him know that the prime minister had formed an impression about the U.S. position that needed to be corrected. Kerry quickly followed up with a call. But the problem was a White House problem—and not one Kerry could easily correct. Had Tom Donilon still been the national security adviser, he surely would have understood from the call that there was a problem and he would have immediately spoken to his counterpart. If the misimpression was not corrected, he would have had President Obama make another call.
He had done precisely this in September 2012 when Prime Minister Netanyahu had made public comments challenging our position on the Iranian nuclear issue. Donilon arranged the call and the air was not only cleared but there was a meeting of the minds. By contrast, now there was no call from Rice, there was no follow-up from the president, and the prime minister did not soften his public criticism two weeks later when the actual Joint Plan of Action was concluded. Instead, Rice, reflecting her generally more combative mind-set, would say to Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, that in reacting to the Joint Plan of Action, Netanyahu’s posture was outrageous. In her view, the Israeli leader did everything but “use ‘the n-word’ in describing the president.”
Ross, in our conversation, said he does not believe Netanyahu is racist, and he also said that Rice doesn’t believe that Netanyahu is racist.

(I’ve asked Rice, through her spokesman, for comment, and will update this post when I get an answer. UPDATE: A senior administration official e-mailed me the following statement Friday morning: “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s opposition to the negotiations to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon long predated any conversation with the President. And Dennis Ross’ attempts to characterize Ambassador Rice’s ring hollow given that Ross had left the Administration by the time Ambassador Rice took on her current role. To be clear, they’ve never worked closely together in this Administration, and he’s making accusations from afar without firsthand knowledge. Finally, the whole issue of accusations of racism is, frankly, mystifying. We have legitimate policy disagreements with the Netanyahu government over the Iran deal, but those differences have nothing to do with the color of anyone’s skin. The alleged quote from Amb. Rice speaks to those differences after an especially frank phone call.”)

Ross went out of his way to praise Rice for vigorously defending Israel while serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but he told me that he places her in the camp of foreign-policy experts who see Israel as a burden: “Susan represents a mindset and a constituency that has existed in every administration ... every administration has had within the national-security apparatus a constituency that looked at Israel as a problem.” Rice, he said, has been unwaveringly suspicious of Netanyahu’s intentions, and feels Netanyahu and his ministers tried to undermine Obama numerous times.

For what it’s worth, I disagree with Ross on his understanding of Rice’s suspicions in the following way: While I take his point that constant communication would help resolve most diplomatic misunderstandings between friends, it is hard for me to dismiss Rice’s suspicions that Netanyahu was out to damage Obama as the paranoid fantasy of an official organically hostile to Israel....

Goldberg: There is a belief on the part of some people around Obama that Netanyahu is very condescending toward the president—that he treats him as a naive, not very intelligent person. Do you agree that Netanyahu is condescending to Obama?

Ross: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s condescending, and I don’t think he’s condescending towards Obama. Look, many of their meetings were characterized by a very high-level discussion—serious, intellectual, thoughtful. Oftentimes, each of them would walk out of meetings feeling that that was a serious meeting, and then one or the other would do something afterwards that would be perceived as, “Oh, there they go again.”

Goldberg: Do you think that Obama believes that Netanyahu has racist feelings toward him?

Ross: I don’t think so.

Goldberg: You’ve talked to the president about Bibi quite a bit—

Ross: Here’s the way I think he reads Bibi—he looks at Bibi and he thinks, “This is a guy who sees no possibilities in ever changing anything, and is kind of down in the bunker.”

Goldberg: They admire each other’s intelligence?

Ross: Yes.

Goldberg: Why did you report this in the book, if you don’t think that Rice is correct to interpret Bibi’s interactions with the president as insulting and condescending?

Ross: I did it for one reason only, because I was trying to encapsulate the anger that describes their reaction to Bibi’s view of the deal. In my mind, there were few ways to better encapsulate how angry they were over his reaction. And of course, he was angry, because he felt that Israel has been largely blindsided by this. I know this not just from Bibi, because I happened to be over there at the time. I know it from the security people on their side, including the intelligence people on their side, who were saying they were being briefed, but that there was no indication that the kind of deal that suddenly emerged with the Joint Plan of Action was about to emerge."

For the rest of this see:

And here is an additional review: