Definitive appraisal

by | Sep 4, 2016 | Book Reviews

Doomed to Succeed The U.S.-Israeli Relationship  from Truman to Obama
Dennis Ross
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2015
474pp., $30
ISBN 978-0-374-14146-2 

Dennis Ross must be doing something right. He has been criticized by both israelis and Palestinians, by Republicans, as well as Democrats. He was once described as being more pro-Israel than the Israelis; others have praised his meticulous balance.

Doomed to Succeed, published in 2015, is conceivably the definitive appraisal and explication of the relationships between our Presidents and Israel from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. Dennis Ross, a Distinguished Fellow at the Washington institute for Near East Policy and a Distinguished Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, has been an “inside” player more than four decades. He was the director of policy planning in the State Department under George H.W. Bush, was Bill Clinton’s Middle East peace envoy and served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama.

Not an easy summer read, by any means, Doomed to Succeed is arguably the best one-volume history of the frequently frenetic relationships among White House staffs, accompanying State Department and security leadership, and the presidents themselves, with the Israeli government, including its political and security advisors, as well as her prime ministers. Giving all due credit to President Harry Truman for his courageous decision to recognize the State of Israel despite the objections of Arabists in the state department and the vehement opposition of Secretary of State General George Marshall, Ross faults Truman for growing cool to Israel and blocking much needed assistance during the 1948 War for independence.

The Eisenhower/Foster/Dulles administration never quite got the message that the Arab states were prepared to overlook our relationship with Israel as long as we “had their backs” against aggression. However, Ross says, “Eisenhower failed on most of the objectives he set for himself in the Middle East. He was unable to keep the Soviets out of the area. instead of being strengthened, U.S. and Western influence was weakened.” Eisenhower’s decision to intervene in the Suez War severely damaged our relationships with our allies and left the Arab states convinced we would not come to their aid if needed.

The first president to recognize that the U.S. had a special relationship with Israel was John F. Kennedy, who demonstrated our ability to arm Israel without losing our rapport with the Arab Middle East. Thus, Israel took on the position of being the major confronter of the Soviets in that region. As subsequent administrations struggled with Vietnam and Cold War issues, Israel’s key role emerged. The U.S. confronted the Soviets in three areas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. in Europe and Asia we spent 44 and 22 billion dollars each year, respectively, and stationed 70,000 troops overseas. in the Middle East, we gave Israel two billion dollars, mostly in military hardware, and stationed no troops there.

Ross acknowledges the achievement of the Carter administration in the Camp David Accord, establishing peace between Israel and Egypt, but avers that in the final analysis, the President, too much concerned with the Palestinians, created significant tensions with Israel while being unprepared for the growing anti-American Iranian sentiment and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

Younger readers will find the early chapters an excellent historical grounding, right through the Reagan, Clinton and Bush years.

It is expected that Ross, when he visits in September, will speak of President Obama’s early belief that Israel could have done more toward peace. But he will, in fairness, recognize Obama’s concern for Israel’s security as well. Clearly, the President’s concern for the Palestinians is rooted in his uncertainties about Israel’s demographic problem, and his conclusion that if there is a price to be paid for Israel’s policies, so be it.

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.