JLIFE MAGAZINE RECENTLY caught up with Ambassador Dennis Ross to discuss the past, present and potential future relationship between the United States and Israel. Specifically, as it applies the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process efforts and stability in the region.
In your book “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama,” you touch on the ebbing and flowing nature of America’s support for Israel. In particular, you mention that the administrations of Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, George H.W. Bush and Obama all pulled back on their support for Israel in hopes of eliciting a positive response from the surrounding Arab nations. We now have a different administration… how do you feel about President Trump’s policies towards Israel (to-date) and could it bring different results for the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians? You are right that in the book I describe how five different administrations—Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, Bush 41, and Obama—distanced themselves from Israel, believing that in doing so, they would gain with the Arabs. They never did. What they all failed to understand is that what mattered most to Arab leaders then and now is their security and survival. They saw the U.S. as key guarantors of their security and that is why they were never going to make their relationship with the U.S. dependent on our relationship with Israel. So, what does that suggest about the Trump Administration and what we see of its approaches to the Middle East? In many ways, it is too soon to know. The administration rightly understands that being perceived as close to Israel is not going to drive the Arab states away from it. Ironically, because the Saudis, Emirates, and others are keen to have the United States stay in the region and be their main guarantor of security, and, at a minimum contain, Iran and the threat from its Shia militia proxies, the Trump administration has potential leverage. For the leverage to be real, the administration must be prepared to play this security role and stop the expansion of Iranian power in the region; should it do so, it can ask for these states to help discredit ISIS and also help fund the reconstruction needs after its defeat. Because President Trump has made it clear the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a priority for him, he can also ask these Arab leaders to reach out to Israel and provide cover for the Palestinians. At this point, I don’t see much evidence that the administration is doing these things, but I remain hopeful that it will.
The Palestinians are themselves divided. You have Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip (considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel) and on the other hand you have Fatah controlling Judea Samaria (and negotiating with Israel). How does Israel square this problem and broker a single peace agreement with two seemingly opposing parties? There is no easy answer to the division between Hamas and Fatah and that clearly affects Israel and its choices. There is the reality today: even if you could reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, (PA) on a two-state outcome, there is no way to implement it because Hamas controls Gaza and no one has an answer to that. Hamas won’t willingly give up power. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, is trying to squeeze Hamas now by reducing the payments to those who were part of the administration in Gaza and is also no longer paying Israel for the provision of electricity to Gaza—meaning there is only about three hours a day of electricity throughout the Gaza Strip. He hopes to make life so difficult that Hamas will invite the Palestinian Authority back into Gaza. The danger is Hamas will decide it has little to lose and even hope to divert attention away from its inability to govern by triggering a conflict with Israel. Neither Israel nor Hamas may want that at this point, but it could happen. While the division between Hamas and Fatah and between Gaza and the West Bank cannot be solved right now, there is a near-term humanitarian issue that needs to be resolved in Gaza and a longer-term issue of dealing with the electricity, power and water infrastructure needs in Gaza—focusing on a way to address that may at least make conflicts less likely. Recall we have seen three conflicts—2009, 2012, and 2014—between Israel and Hamas and none were easy.
What is the effect of the Arab Spring on the peace process? In your opinion, does it change any preconceived ideas Israel and America may have had on how to approach negotiations? First, the term “Arab Spring” was always a misnomer. It implied that democracy was going to spring forth in Arab states within weeks, the way flowers blossom in the spring time. The problem is that democracy is not just about elections but about a political culture, institutions, a rule of law, a free press, etc. None of these—and the very practice in any democracy of accepting differences—were going to emerge overnight. What we had was not a “spring” but an “awakening” and loss of fear of Arab publics. But almost everywhere, with the possible exception of Tunisia, where we saw the “awakening,” we also saw a backlash and even war erupt. The awakening of Arab publics was not about the Palestinians, it was about the rights of those who rallied in squares—it was about their own dignity, their ability to shape their destiny, and their relationship with those who ruled them. Clearly, the expected results they hope for have not materialized. I say all this because the so-called Arab spring was never about the Palestinians; if anything, it highlighted that there were other sources of conflict and instability in the region.
In the past, it seems that the peace process was approached from the standpoint that Israel should first make peace with the Palestinians and that peace could potentially be expanded to the entire Arab world. Now it seems President Trump is taking the reverse approach… a Sunni Arab/ Israeli peace first and then the Palestinians. Do you agree or disagree and what could this mean for the process? I actually don’t agree that the Trump administration is approaching the peace effort through the Arabs first. There is very little sign of that. The effort that is being made right now is very much Israeli-Palestinian focused. I do think there is a necessary Arab dimension because the Palestinians are too weak and divided to do anything on their own. The Palestinian Authority cannot contemplate any concessions unless it has an Arab cover. Israel needs something from the Arabs to rationalize making any concessions to the Palestinians—indeed, most Israelis believe that no concession to the Palestinians will produce anything from the Palestinians so if they are to consider concessions to them, the Israelis need to know what they will get from the Arab states in return. Again, this does not seem to be the direction the Trump administration is currently going, but here again, I hope we will see this change. By the way, not because I think the Arabs can solve the conflict, they cannot, but because both Israelis and Palestinians alike need cover from the Arabs.
Who is a bigger threat in the Middle East today to the United States and Israel? ISIS or Russia? The biggest threat is Iran. ISIS will be defeated. The problem with the Russians is that they are abetting Iranian power in Syria. The recent agreement announced after the Trump-Putin meeting calls for a ceasefire in southern and southeastern Syria. Prime Minister Netanyahu has voiced his concerns that the agreement will embed and make permanent the Iranian presence in Syria. Iran is trying to create a land corridor from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. It seeks, using tens of thousands of Shia militias, to control Syria’s borders with Iraq, Jordan and Israel. I would have more faith in the ceasefire agreement if I thought the Russians would actually live up to it. There have been four such agreements with the Russians and they have lived up to none of them, acquiescing in violations by the Assad regime. They need to impose on Assad and the Iranians—and I suspect they will only do so if they know that we will impose a price if they fail to do so. At a minimum, this ceasefire agreement must not allow the Iranians or their proxies close to the borders.
UN resolution 2334 was adopted by 14 votes with the U.S. abstaining, what are your views about this resolution? Does it at all change your opinion about the Obama administration’s approach to Israel as reflected in your book? I thought 2334 was a terrible resolution—particularly because it reversed language we had introduced into peace-making. For example, the idea that the Israeli/Palestinian border of 1967 lines and mutually agreed swaps meant that June 4, 1967 could not be the default border. By saying 1967 and swaps, it meant the settlement blocs needed to become part of Israel. But the resolution made 1967 the default border again. Similarly, by saying that settlements are a “flagrant violation of international law,” how do you then justify settlement blocs? Settlement blocs of roughly 5% of the West Bank permits more than ¾ of all settlers to be accommodated within Israel and they give you a way to resolve the border and absorb most of the settlers. So, I had a problem with the resolution and the Obama administration abstention. When you read my chapter on the Obama administration, it very much explains the attitudes that would have helped produce such a posture. As I point out, the president was good on Israeli security issues but tended to look at the Israelis as being strong, the Palestinians as weak, and, therefore, he always put the onus on the Israelis to act.
Considering the current climate in the region, is moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem a wise move? Why or why not? President Trump has decided not to move the U.S. Embassy at this point. He has said he expects to do it at some point but not now. I believe if the embassy is going to be moved, the ground needs to be prepared and we need to explain what we are and are not doing. Jerusalem is a highly emotional issue for all parties. We don’t want to make it easy for the enemies of peace and our enemies to misrepresent what we are doing. We should start by saying simply that no one questions whether West Jerusalem will be part of Israel. (Even the June 4, 1967 lines—which the Palestinians say the border should be—would make West Jerusalem a part of Israel.) Because West Jerusalem will always be a part of Israel, we plan to move the embassy there at some point. Our move to Jerusalem is not a statement about the final status of Jerusalem, it is simply a statement about reality. We are not prejudging negotiations or what they would produce on Jerusalem, we are simply moving the embassy because it is long overdue. The reason to say this and repeat this for some time is to get everyone in the region used to this; to reduce potential problems, we should get some Arab leaders to acknowledge the reality of what we are doing.
The idea has been floated in some Israeli circles that Jordan is the solution for the Palestinian state. Do you believe this to be a good or a bad idea? It is a terrible idea. First, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will never accept it. Second, Jordan has the longest border with Israel of any state and there is close security cooperation between the Israelis and Jordanians—and that would likely be put at risk with this idea.
You write in your most recent book, “Doomed to Succeed…” that with the exception of the Clinton administration, the U.S. State Department has historically not been wholly aligned with the its administration’s views towards Israel and the peace process. Do you feel that this is still the case today? Yes, I do. Maybe my view will change, and I would be open to changing it if circumstances warrant. But let’s remember we are very early in the Trump administration. Let’s see what happens over time. What is happening in Syria gives me pause.
I know that you extended your last position by an additional year and have happily excused yourself from diplomatic involvement. However, if you were to receive a call tomorrow saying, “We need you to come back, there is a chance at a breakthrough in the peace negotiations…” Would you return to governmental work? I have no desire to go back into the government, and there are plenty of people who would like to go in. By the way, my practice has always been not to say “No” to jobs that have not been offered.
What is keeping you busy these days? My base is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and I do a lot of writing. In addition to lots of op eds, I am also working on a new book entitled “Fateful Choices.” It will look at Israel’s past to see if it can provide a guide to the decisions Israel will need to take to ensure it does not become a binational state. I also teach at Georgetown and co-chair the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem. So, I stay busy.
Ambassador Dennis Ross- A Brief History
Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Prior to returning to the Institute in 2011, he served two years as special assistant to President Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and a year as special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
For more than twelve years, Ambassador Ross played a leading role in shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process and dealing directly with the parties in negotiations. A highly skilled diplomat, Ambassador Ross was U.S. point man on the peace process in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He was instrumental in assisting Israelis and Palestinians to reach the 1995 Interim Agreement; he also successfully brokered the 1997 Hebron Accord, facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and intensively worked to bring Israel and Syria together.
A scholar and diplomat with more than two decades of experience in Soviet and Middle East policy, Ambassador Ross worked closely with Secretaries of State James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright. Prior to his service as special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton, Ambassador Ross served as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. In that capacity, he played a prominent role in U.S. policy toward the former Soviet Union, the unification of Germany and its integration into NATO, arms control negotiations, and the 1991 Gulf War coalition.
During the Reagan administration, he served as director of Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff and deputy director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. Ambassador Ross was awarded the Presidential Medal for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President Clinton, and Secretaries Baker and Albright presented him with the State Department’s highest award.
A 1970 graduate of UCLA, Ambassador Ross wrote his doctoral dissertation on Soviet decision making, and from 1984 to 1986 served as executive director of the Berkeley-Stanford program on Soviet International Behavior. He received UCLA’s highest medal and has been named UCLA alumnus of the year. He has also received honorary doctorates from Brandeis, Amherst, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Syracuse University. Ambassador Ross was named a 2016-2017 senior fellow by Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
Ambassador Ross has published extensively on the former Soviet Union, arms control, and the greater Middle East, contributing numerous chapters to anthologies. In the 1970s and 1980s, his articles appeared in World Politics, Political Science Quarterly, Orbis, International Security, Survival, and Journal of Strategic Studies. Since leaving government at the end of 2011, he has authored many op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other papers and magazines. In addition, he writes monthly columns for US News and World Report, the New York Daily News, and the Middle Eastern newspaper Asharq al-awsat.
Ross is the author of several influential books on the peace process, most recently “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, October 2015). That book was awarded the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for history. Previously, he coauthored “Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East” with Institute peace process expert David Makovsky. An earlier study, “The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004), offers comprehensive analytical and personal insight into the Middle East peace process. The New York Times praised his 2007 publication, “Statecraft, And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), as “important and illuminating.”
For more information please visit: www.washingtoninstitute.org
Tracey Armstrong Gorsky is a contributing writer and editor to Jlife magazine.