‘Doomed to Succeed’ by Dennis Ross
Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obamaby Dennis Ross. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp. $30).
This account of United States-Israel relations by Dennis Ross, perhaps the preeminent American diplomat specializing in the Middle East, is actually two books in one—and one that has just been awarded a National Jewish Book Award for history.
The first “book,” covering the years from the administrations of Harry S Truman though Ronald Reagan, is a balanced account of the slowly developing strategic partnership between the United States and Israel during the Jewish state’s first 40 years. Ross succinctly recounts the struggles of the relationship, particularly in the early years: Many top officials under Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were wary of building closer ties with Israel¾some “seemed to be on a mission against the Jewish state,” he writes¾in part because they didn’t want to antagonize the Arab world. (Ross sidesteps the direct question of whether anti-Semitism played a role in their views.) Indeed, the first United States arms shipment to Israel didn’t take place until President Kennedy sent Hawk missiles in 1962, and no Israeli prime minister set foot in the White House until Levi Eshkol visited President Johnson in 1964.
In the second “book,” readers are in for a treat: Ross provides personal insight into his detailed accounts of diplomacy; he served in key Middle East-related positions in four successive administrations, beginning with the George H.W. Bush and ending with Barack Obama. Although he tempers his language, Ross isn’t shy about offering opinions: The first President Bush never trusted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir after he believed Shamir lied to him about building in the West Bank; the desire of Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state for the second President Bush, to find a balance between Israel and the Arab world “was driven by her identification with the Palestinian sense of victimhood”; and Susan Rice, President Obama’s second national security adviser, often didn’t trust Israel, viewing Israel as “acting without regard to U.S. interests and frequently undermining them.”
Ross artfully threads together a few themes in Doomed to Succeed. For example, he distinguishes between presidents, such as Nixon, Reagan and Bill Clinton, who felt a personal tie to Israel, and those, such as Eisenhower, the first President Bush and Obama, who lacked that emotional link and viewed Israel as more of a strategic partner. Not surprisingly, the latter group of presidents has often had more contentious relationships with both Israel and the American Jewish community, even as they maintained staunch support for the Jewish state.
The diplomat offers some advice for American policymakers. He disputes the long-standing view that a tight relationship with Israel harms United States status in the Arab world. This idea, he says, is “fundamentally flawed”; Ross uses historical examples to demonstrate that when United States-Israel ties have intensified, overall United States-Arab relations have not suffered. Ross also argues against always putting the Palestinian question at the “fulcrum of regional politics.”
Ross also provides some recommendations for Israeli officials. Israel should work on improving dialogue with European countries, refrain from building in areas that may become part of any future Palestinian state and do a better job of distinguishing existential threats, such as a nuclear Iran, from those that are not. When a respected veteran diplomat like Ross offers such guidance, readers—and American and Israeli policymakers—would be wise to listen.