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.