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

  • Review
By – December 16, 2015

Direc­tor of plan­ning in the State Depart­ment under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton’s Mid­dle East Envoy, Mid­dle East advi­sor to George W. Bush, and a spe­cial assis­tant to Pres­i­dent Oba­ma on Mid­dle East Affairs, among his many oth­er titles, Den­nis Ross is unique­ly qual­i­fied to write this bal­anced and informed his­to­ry of US-Israel rela­tions from the Tru­man admin­is­tra­tion to his role in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. What emerges from this indis­pens­able book is Ross’ con­tention that over the decades since the found­ing of Israel, pol­i­cy mak­ers in the State Depart­ment and advi­sors to pres­i­dents have for the most part argued that too close a rela­tion­ship with Israel will harm our ties to the Arab world and dam­age our posi­tion in the region. Ross argues that the record is far dif­fer­ent, that these pre­dic­tive out­comes have not hap­pened, yet they have not been dis­cred­it­ed. From the Tru­man admin­is­tra­tion, when Gen­er­al George Mar­shall and the State Depart­ment warned Pres­i­dent Tru­man not to rec­og­nize Israel lest it alien­ate the Arab world, to Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, who believed at the out­set of his admin­is­tra­tion that George W. Bush’s unwill­ing­ness to allow any gap to emerge between the Unit­ed States and Israel had been detri­men­tal to our Mid­dle East rela­tions, pre­dic­tive ter­ri­ble con­se­quences failed to mate­ri­al­ize. Yet, Ross laments, no one ques­tioned why these dev­as­tat­ing” out­comes did not occur.

Ross argues that the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict is not at the top of the agen­da for most Arab nations. Rather, their depen­dence on the Unit­ed States for sur­vival trumps con­cern for the Pales­tini­ans. This cer­tain­ly applies in the case of how the fear of Iran obtain­ing a nuclear bomb has moved Sau­di Ara­bia clos­er to Israel and the Unit­ed States. In dis­cussing his tenure in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, Ross not­ed that “ there were two dif­fer­ent mind­sets in the admin­is­tra­tion on how to deal with Israel. One argued that coop­er­a­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion would draw the Israelis close to us, and would serve both our inter­ests, thus mak­ing them more respon­sive to U.S. poli­cies as they con­front­ed Iran.” The oth­er view, led by Nation­al Secu­ri­ty advi­sor Susan Rice and Chief of Staff Den­nis McDo­nough, reflect­ed the long stand­ing argu­ment that US-Israeli rela­tions was a one-way street, in which shar­ing with the Israelis offered lit­tle and cost much. Tak­ing issue with the lat­ter view, Ross writes:

By any objec­tive mea­sure, we did give to Israel — and we also got from Israel. On a gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment basis, Israeli intel­li­gence, counter-ter­ror sup­port, and mil­i­tary infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed to us con­sis­tent­ly grew over the years. From allow­ing us to assess and work on cap­tured Sovi­et equip­ment to shar­ing in weapon inno­va­tions in active armor and drone tech­nol­o­gy to devel­op­ing the tac­tics on urban war­fare and mis­sile defense — we acquired much from Israel that could not be mea­sured in dollars.

As for Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, Ross informs us that he is a friend of Israel who is gen­uine­ly wor­ried about Israel and worked to pre­vent its iso­la­tion inter­na­tion­al­ly. Although Oba­ma seemed to come into office believ­ing that we need­ed to dis­tance our­selves from Israel, his poli­cies evolved. He defend­ed Israel in inter­na­tion­al forums and wor­ried about the dele­git­imiza­tion move­ment if Israel did not take the ini­tia­tive towards resolv­ing the Pales­tin­ian con­flict. Oba­ma came to real­ize that dis­tanc­ing Amer­i­ca from Israel was not an answer, but reject­ed an uncrit­i­cal embrace. Ross states that Obama’s instinct was to see the Pales­tini­ans as the vic­tims in the con­flict, and if that meant hav­ing the Israelis see that there were con­se­quences for their poli­cies, so be it.” Ross has writ­ten what should be con­sid­ered the defin­i­tive book on the sto­ry of the US-Israeli relationship.

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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