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'Doomed To Succeed' Examines Inevitability Of Close U.S.-Israel Relations


After a career working on Mideast policy in several administrations and many years trying to mediate a Middle East peace, Dennis Ross has written a book about U.S.-Israeli relations, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DENNIS ROSS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Your book is called "Doomed To Succeed," the irony being that, as you see it, U.S.-Israeli relations are very close despite lots of foreign policy establishment thinking that close ties to Israel are detrimental to U.S. interests. First, it's been a very eventful year. What is the current state of U.S.-Israeli relations in your view?

ROSS: Well, this is certainly not a high point in terms of those relations. The relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is not a close one. It's, I think, mostly a function of the two not really trusting each other. I think they will try to keep the relationship within bounds. I think when they meet on November 9, they will try to mend fences because the region is in such turmoil. The last thing you need at a time when the region is really unraveling, the state system is under assault, there's a conflict over basic identity is for us to have a problem with the Israelis, who represent the one country in the region that is really based on institutions, separation of powers and independent judiciary and the like.

SIEGEL: In your telling of the ups and downs of U.S.-Israeli relations, you frequently see misunderstandings in Washington about what Arab states will do as opposed to what they might say they will do. What, typically, is that misunderstanding?

ROSS: I think there's a tendency to believe that somehow, our relationship with the Arabs depends on what our relationship with Israel is. So you've had administrations who felt they had distance themselves from the Israelis. Those that did it actually never gained with the Arabs. The best example of that is Eisenhower in the 1950s, who went out of his way to distance from Israel.

SIEGEL: An arms embargo.

ROSS: An arms embargo, in fact, and even threats during Suez to expel Israel from the U.N. And we gained nothing with the Arabs.

SIEGEL: One example of a misunderstanding of Arab motives comes during the Carter administration when an American official recalls a Saudi telling him, can you please get your government never to ask us for permission? The U.S. had asked for permission to resupply the strategic petroleum reserve.

ROSS: Yes, it was James Schlesinger, and this is in oral history. And he's describing a Saudi saying this to him because he said, look; we're a weak country. When you, as strong country, ask permission, you're putting all the pressure and the responsibility on us. Don't do that. You assume that responsibility. We're counting on you. When it shows you're reluctant to do that, it raises question whether we can count on you.

SIEGEL: But let me put this counterargument to you, which is that Arab countries that manage peaceful, pragmatic relations with Israel have populations that deeply oppose those very policies. Our relationship with Israel being so close oddly puts us opposed to even the possibility of greater democracy because, in the Arab world, the first election would elect people to say stop the peaceful relations with Israel.

ROSS: There certainly is that paradox, and it's a function of having a lot of regimes that don't have great legitimacy. And so they've used this issue as a way of trying to deflect attention away from themselves and to build legitimacy on an issue that is seen as reflecting a kind of historic injustice. Having said that, one of the things you want are governments, also, that are prepared to tell the truth to their own publics. The more they're prepared to face up to what's in their interest and that peace is actually in their interest - I do think that can have an effect over time.

SIEGEL: You have described yourself has having been in a camp within the Obama administration, along with Hillary Clinton, that was more willing than the Pentagon to back up its policy on Iran's nuclear program with at least the threat of the use of force. Then-secretary of defense, Robert Gates, and then-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen - Admiral Mullen - both tell The New York Times that that exaggerates their opposition to a resort to military force.

ROSS: What I am basically saying is, in the debates, they were certainly against Iran having nuclear weapons, but they also let their concern about the possible escalation into a conflict with Iran be reflected in public. Frequently, they were each saying the cost of a war with Iran would be terrible. Now, if you're saying that publicly, the message you're sending to the Iranians is, we're not prepared to use force. Now, while the president can say all options are on the table, the message you're sending undercuts the diplomacy. Coercive diplomacy works best if the Iranians believe that, in fact, the threat actually is one that we are prepared to act on.

SIEGEL: There's a kind of conversation that you describe in your book that recurs between U.S. and Israeli officials where a U.S. policymaker asks the Israelis, look; we'll try to pursue some kind of peace here, but you have to tell us - what do you really need? Where is your - show me something about your bottom line so that we can have a process that you can support ultimately. And each time, the Israelis waffle, can't quite describe what it is that they really want.

ROSS: Right. And there are conversations with Henry Kissinger and Abba Eban in 1971 that is almost exactly the same as the conversation the Hillary Clinton had with Bibi Netanyahu in 2011. The reality is that the Israelis are always afraid that if they give us a bottom line, when we go to the other side, it won't be good enough. And then we'll come back to them, and we'll say, sorry, not good enough. And so they hesitate about going down a slippery slope.

And I try to suggest, well, maybe one way for us to deal with that in the future is, if what we think the Israelis can do falls short of what we think it will take, we should tell them upfront and say, look; don't ask us to go sell an idea that we really think isn't going to work.

On the other hand, if it turns out that their really doing what we think meets the need and should meet the need, then we should be prepared to make a commitment to say, we will not go beyond that. And if the other side isn't prepared to embrace it, we'll say they're not prepared to embrace and be prepared to be public about it.

SIEGEL: Dennis Ross, thanks for talking with us.

ROSS: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Former Middle East policy advisor Ambassador Dennis Ross, whose new book is called "Doomed To Succeed." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.