Exploring the U.S. and Israel's Complicated Relationship

This review first appeared in The National Book Review.

By Jim Kaplan

Doomed to Succeed: The U.S. - Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama

By Dennis Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 496 pp. $30

Few people in the world are in a better position than Dennis Ross to write an illuminating exploration of U.S.-Israel relations. A self-described "lifelong Democrat," he has nonetheless worked in every administration since Ronald Reagan's on Middle East issues and often, when it is alive, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Ross has the experience and perspective to see the enduring themes in the U.S.-Israel alliance, and to be able to deemphasize (or even ignore) the stuff that is temporary or transient.

What Ross sees is a longstanding duality. Every president, more or less, has been drawn into a close relationship for the same set of reasons: shared values, commitment to democracy and the rule of law, regret for the Holocaust and America's inadequate response to German aggression and anti-Semitism in the 1930s, U.S. domestic political considerations, and even close personal and family relationships with American Jews.

At the same time, every president since Harry Truman, who aided greatly in the original recognition of Israel in 1948, has feared, to a greater or lesser extent, that closeness with Israel would endanger American interests by alienating Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East, to whom the U.S. is also critically linked by the economics of oil, and by the perpetual strategic competition with the Soviet Union, now Russia and more recently, China.

Viewed this way, there is truly nothing new about the "bad chemistry" that exists between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, or the "new beginning" that President Obama announced in his now legendary speech in Cairo in 2009, in which he avidly embraced the Muslim world (or at least the one that he wanted to believe existed) and by implication distanced himself from Israel.

As Ross points out, this "distancing" has, in fact, recurred in every U.S. administration, to a greater or lesser degree, since 1948. And the "distance" between the U.S. and Israel at any particular moment is not always a pure reflection of the views of the current president. To be sure, some administrations - Dwight Eisenhower's and Jimmy Carter's were notable examples - had little use for Israel, and probably would have been far less even-handed than they were it not for domestic political considerations (mainly, the political organization and influence of American Jews).

Other administrations, like Ronald Reagan's - which launched the concept of Israel as a permanent "strategic partner" - or Bill Clinton's, which uniquely established Israel as a full "partner for peace" in the region - were much more sympathetic, even devoted, to a close U.S. relationship with Israel.

Nonetheless, Reagan and Clinton each had their moments of strong disagreements with Israel. For Reagan, they revolved around Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the U.S. arming Saudi Arabia with AWACS early warning planes in 1981, which Israel felt threatened its historic military advantage in the region. For Clinton, conflict centered on Netanyahu - yes, he was prime minister even then - and his adamant refusal to cooperate with Clinton's vision of two states for two peoples (Israeli and Palestinian).

In short, the views of a particular president matter, but only to a point. George H. W. Bush was no great emotional friend of Israel, and apparently despised his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. His trusted Secretary of State, Jim Baker, was notably pro-Saudi. Still, Bush provided Israel with U.S.-operated Patriot anti-missile systems, saving countless lives when Israel came under a SCUD missile attack in the 1991 Gulf War.

Carter had perhaps even less innate sympathy with Israel - as some of his subsequent comments have made clear -- but he provided critical support for the Camp David accords in 1979, the lynchpin of Israel's stability on the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts to this day.

Ross believes the reason the views of particular presidents do not matter more is the basic duality he describes, which is always in place: the pull of Israel because of one set of powerful interests and common values, and the conflicting pull of Arab states for a different set of reasons.

In Ross's view, this leads to a second, equally important, theme of U.S. Middle East policy since 1948: the constant overestimation of how much the "Palestinian question" really means to the Arab and Muslim states in the Middle East, and the constant underestimation of how important issues of stability and security are to those same states.

In general, Ross contends the Palestinian question ranks pretty far down the real Arab priority list. Right now, for example, survival of Arab regimes in the face of Islamists and terrorists is of much greater concern, as is the regional rivalry with Iran, and the military and economic security of each nation's citizens, which in turn, leads to the popularity (and continued survival) of the local regimes.

Of course, lip service must be paid to the Palestinian cause, in the Arab view. But the real push on the Palestinian question these days comes from Turkey and the European Union states well away from the frontline with Israel, all of whom seek to curry favor with their sizable (in the case of Turkey) or growing (in the case of the United Kingdom, France and Germany) Muslim populations and electorates.

America's friendship with Israel, far from alienating the Arab frontline states, is and always has been a reason why the U.S. is a desirable ally from the Arab point of view -- both because the U.S. alone has the underlying and economic power to ensure the Arab regimes' survival and prosperity, and because the U.S. alone has the ability to influence Israel to take actions favorable to those Arab frontline regimes.

Rather than follow a path of creating visible space between Israel and the U.S., Ross contends that the best policy from a U.S. point of view is to remain a visible and clear supporter of Israel, while also rewarding Arab regimes that recognize U.S. interests in the Middle East, and who are also willing to act as forces for stability in the region and peace with Israel.

All of that brings us back to the headlines of today, of course, which include the Netanyahu government's reluctance to trade territory for a formal peace with the Palestinians, as well as Israel's staunch opposition to the proposed Iranian nuclear deal. Ross has a good bit to say about both issues.

His views are very much drawn from his overall views about the region, which seem to be that a peace deal with the Jewish State's Palestinian adversaries -- or a nuclear deal with the Jewish State's Persian adversaries -- can only succeed if the U.S. backing for Israel (and in the case of Iran, for the Arab adversaries of Iran, like the Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt) is clear and unmistakable.

Seen from this perspective, the Iran negotiations were bound to be difficult for the U.S. politically. The "P5+1" that sat in the room had only one party that was deeply concerned about the Iranian nuclear threat -- the U.S. The rest were either largely indifferent (China and Russia) or had a "balanced" view of the matter, wanting to be protected against a nuclear Iran which, after all, is not likely to be aiming its weapons at them, but at the same time desiring the end of sanctions so they could freely trade with an enormous emerging market of more than 75 million people.

In this case, the structure of the discussion determined the tepid and, at least in the U.S., politically controversial outcome -- one that Israel and its frontline Arab neighbors (whatever they say in public) feel is highly threatening to all of them.

Full as it is with insights such as these, Ross's book is essential, bedrock reading about U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East. He lays out the history in a convincing and non-partisan fashion, shows the recurrent themes and the equally recurrent misunderstandings, and provides a convincing path to making actual progress on some of the world's most intractable problems. The key, as he makes very clear, is deciding to embrace and learn from history, rather than disown it.

Jim Kaplan is a corporate lawyer at Quarles & Brady LLC in Chicago, and is a member of the American Jewish Committee's Chicago Region Board of Directors and the former Chair of Chicago AJC's International Relations Commission.