Ross to JFSA crowd: U.S.-Israel complexities go back 60 years

Dennis Ross speaks at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona “Together” event Nov. 18 at Congregation Anshei Israel. (Martha Lochert Photography)

“I was a political appointee for two Republican presidents and two Democratic presidents. … What that makes me is an extinct species,” Ambassador Dennis Ross told a crowd of more than 850 at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s “Together” campaign kickoff on Nov. 18 at Congregation Anshei Israel.

Ross — who served as director of Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan, as director of policy planning in the State Department for George H.W. Bush, as Bill Clinton’s Middle East peace envoy and as a special assistant to the president under Barack Obama — opened his presentation in the context of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.

“This was probably planned in advance to be timed after ISIS suffered a setback. They operate on a premise that they’re invincible,” he explained, referring to the leaders of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, “because they represent a purity of the Islamic faith, the way they define it.”

When ISIS begins to suffer setbacks, that undercuts their appeal and shifts attention away from them, Ross said, adding, “We have to find a way to inflict setbacks and to blunt their capacity to do what they just did.”

Ross then addressed the current “wave of individualized terror” in Israel, saying, “It is being driven by individuals. It is being incited through social media. Those who carry out the attacks are almost exclusively between the ages of 15 and 25.” He said these attacks were motivated by the promotion, primarily through social media, of a false narrative that Israel wanted to change the status quo on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, to make the Al-Aqsa Mosque a facility shared by Muslims and Jews, like the Tomb of the Patriarch and the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. That lie has been debunked, but the attacks continue.

He also attributed the wave of terror to a high degree of anger among young Palestinians toward Israel, toward Arab states for ignoring them, and also toward their own leadership. Ross cited a recent poll indicating that 80 percent of Palestinians see the Palestinian Authority as corrupt and 66 percent want President Mahmoud Abbas to resign.

Noting that the Obama administration initially referred to this wave of terror as a “cycle of violence,” Ross attributed this instinct to “a mindset that basically feels we can never condemn or criticize only the Palestinians, because if you do that, it creates a backlash against us.”

According to Ross, this mindset has existed for the last six decades. “There’s been a constituency in every administration from Truman to Obama that was fearful of too close an identification with Israel and that looked at Israel as a problem and not as a partner.”

Referencing chapters in his new book, “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama,” Ross pointed out how this constituency has shaped policy towards Israel over the years. He outlined the three assumptions behind this mindset:

1. If you distance from Israel, you will gain benefits with the Arabs.

2. If you cooperate with Israel, you will lose with the Arabs.

3. You cannot transform the American position in the region or the region itself unless you solve the Palestinian issue. This last assumption is also shared by some who see Israel as a partner.

Ross gave examples to underscore the fallacies behind these assumptions. He noted that Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all distanced themselves from Israel, thinking that they would gain traction with the Arab countries, but none of them did. He said what is important to the Arab states is their security and their survival. “They will never make their relationship with us dependent upon what we do with Israel,” Ross said. “Israel’s not the threat to them. It’s their regional rivals who are.”

Ross said he has worked for the past 30 years trying to solve the Palestinian problem, not because he thought it was a game changer in the region, but because it is important in its own right. “If tomorrow the moshiach arrived and we had peace between Israelis and Palestinians, it wouldn’t stop one barrel bomb in Syria,” he said, using the Hebrew word for messiah. “It wouldn’t roll back ISIS one meter in Syria or Iraq. It wouldn’t end the proxy war in Yemen. It wouldn’t stop the existential struggle that El-Sisi faces in Egypt. It is important in its own right, but not because it will change the region.”

Ross said his book exposes these assumptions and emphasizes that our relationship with Israel will remain strong because it is the only country in the Middle East that shares America’s values, interests and threats. With the Arab state system under attack, the instability and struggle over who defines identity in the region will continue for the next 10 or 20 years. “The battle with ISIS is all about that. It’s not just a battle about the soul of Islam. It is a battle about who is going to define this region among the Arabs. When you’re fighting over identity, the violence is always extreme.

“There is one country in this region that has a rule of law. There is one country in this region that has a separation of powers. There is one country in this region with an independent judiciary. Israel is resilient because it is a country based on law. It is a country where there’s freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, where there’s artistic freedom, where there’s a vibrant civil society, where women’s rights are respected, where gay rights are respected. Israel stands in stark contrast to the rest of the region, and that contrast will become even more stark. And that is why the title of this book is ‘Doomed to Succeed.’”

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is an award-winning writer and editor living in Tucson.

Sidebar: Regarding ISIS, be disruptive; for the Palestinians, foster calm

Dennis Ross took a few minutes before his presentation at the “Together” event to meet with the Arizona Jewish Post.

In the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he told the AJP, “we need to look at what more we need to be doing to keep ISIS in a position where they can’t be planning operations like this because they become so preoccupied with their own security. We need to think about what we can do to be disruptive.” This might include more military involvement, he said.

Regarding prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Ross said that because the level of disbelief between the two sides is so great right now, as is distrust of the Palestinian Authority among Palestinians, we need to think differently about how to approach negotiations. “We need to think about how to calm the situation, and then what steps on the ground could re-create a sense of possibility. And then you have to probe quietly with key Arabs to see if they are prepared to assume responsibility with and for the Palestinians to make certain adjustments and compromises.”

Asked about the impact of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on the U.S.-Israel relationship, Ross said, “It’s in Israel’s interest to blunt the delegitimization movement by making its settlement policy consistent with a two-state outcome …. You don’t build east of the security barrier. And then you shift the focus onto the BDS movement. BDS is against the international consensus on two states. Their position is ‘no Israel,’ but nobody knows it because they keep the focus on settlements. We should be delegitimizing the delegitimizers.”