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Conversation with Ambassador Dennis Ross

A highly skilled diplomat who helped shape U.S. policy in the Middle East talks about Russia in Syria, the Iran deal, and the historic relationship between the American presidents and Israel.

By Judie Jacobson

For nearly 30 years, Ambassador Dennis Ross has been a direct participant in shaping U.S. policy towards the Middle East, and Israel specifically.

doomed to succeedA scholar and diplomat, Ross is today counselor and William Davidson Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a distinguished professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. Previously, he served as director of policy planning in the State Department for George H. W. Bush, as Bill Clinton’s Middle East Peace envoy, and as a special assistant to the President under Barack Obama. During the Reagan administration, he served as director of Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff and deputy director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment.

Over the course of his career, he was an active player in the debates over how Israel fit into the region and what should guide American policies. He was instrumental in assisting Israelis and Palestinians to reach the 1995 Interim Agreement; he also successfully brokered the 1997 Hebron Accord, facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and intensively worked to bring Israel and Syria together.

The author of numerous books, articles and op-eds, Ross’s new book, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, October 2015), takes readers through every American administration from Truman to Obama, dissecting each president’s attitudes toward Israel and the region, the often tumultuous debates between key advisers, and the events that drove the policies and at times led to a shift in approach. Along the way, Ross points out how rarely lessons were learned and how distancing the United States from Israel in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Bush, and Obama administrations never yielded any benefits. He also offers compelling advice for how to understand the priorities of Arab leaders and how future administrations might best shape U.S. policy in that light.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Ross about his new book, as well as quickly evolving events in the Middle East.


Q: Can you give us your take on Russia’s recent foray into the war in Syria? What is Putin’s game plan?

A: What Putin is doing is filling a vacuum. It’s not that he’s just shoring up Assad; he’s basically decided to demonstrate unmistakably that whatever happens in Syria he will be an arbiter. He and Iran together are saying ‘nothing can be decided without us.’ Part of that is designed to shore up Assad; part of it is to make Russia a factor in the future of Syria, regardless of how it evolves and to ensure that no one can do anything in Syria without taking Russian interests and concerns into account. It’s a way for him to demonstrate how important he is in Syria; it’s a way for him to demonstrate to the Middle East that ‘maybe the Americans don’t stand by their friends but we stand by our friends even if we don’t like them.’ He pretty much feels that we’ll complain about it, but we’ll adjust to it. This is part and parcel with his broader approach: he pretty much sees how you can use coercive approaches to try to foster your interests.

Right now, the truth is the Russians are effectively coordinating with Iran and Hezbollah; I suspect this is something that was worked out even before the negotiations of the nuclear deal were complete. The U.S. approached the nuclear deal thinking this may be a way to begin to change Iran’s behavior in the region – the Russians decided to pre-empt that – not waiting to see that there might be a change in the U.S./Iranian relations. They are basically staking out a position that they will coordinate with the Iranians; they are basically making it clear that it’s Russian and Iranian interests that are converging in the region, not Iranian and American interests. Again it’s part of Putin’s desire to be a central player in the region and in the world and it’s a recognition as well that if he acts this way others will adjust to it.

He may underestimate how the Arabs will react to this – at least in terms of upping the ante of their support of the forces that he’s bombing – but he’s in a sense making a statement not with words but by putting his forces in there without putting ground forces in there. The Russian presence there in terms of air defense – in terms of air defense radars, air-to-air aircraft as well as air-to-ground aircraft – means they are a military factor you have to take into account now.


Q: You say Russia suspects the U.S. will complain but not act. Is there anything the U.S. could – or should – do?

A: The only thing the United States could do to affect Putin’s calculus would be to probably take steps that we won’t take – which is to decide that we will actually create a safe haven in the north where refugees can go or where an opposition can be organized; in a sense saying, “Look, you want to affect the ground rules for political process? Well, we’re going to do that too.” It would make areas off limits to the Russians, off limits to the Syrians, off limits to the Iranians.

The Europeans could play a role in this and should play a role, because they have an interest in staunching the flow of refugees. The Turks, the Saudis and others have wanted us to do that, so we should require that they actually do something; the Turks could police the area on the ground so ISIS can’t infiltrate it, and the Gulf states could help pay for this, meaning to build the infrastructure for refugees and ensure that there is only one address for all assistance that goes to the opposition. In that way you make the opposition less fractured and more coherent.

But I don’t see us doing that. There’s been a hesitancy for us to get sucked into Syria. Even if we increase our air strikes against ISIS, we’ve been very careful not to do anything against the Assad regime – and the problem with that is it limits the scope of the Sunni opposition that is prepared to work with us. Because the fact is the Sunnis’ main enemy is Assad and if it looks like you’re not prepared to go after Assad in any way then, in a sense, you’re making ISIS the protector of the Sunnis. So, if you want Sunni support to discredit ISIS, which is what you need, you have to be prepared to take on Assad in some fashion. That is what we’ve been reluctant to do and, I suspect, we’ll be very reluctant to do what I’m suggesting.


Q: How does Russia’s move into Syria affect the Israelis?

A: The Israelis clearly are now doing some coordination with the Russians. They put the Russians on notice that ‘there are threats to us and we will act against those threats; don’t get in the way of that.’ And, my guess is the Russians probably won’t get in the way of that. It will remain important for the Israelis not simply to say that once or twice but to maintain a constant threat of action.


Q: Does this help to strengthen Hezbollah?

A: It’s not so much that it strengthens Hezbollah in Lebanon, but it certainly helps what they’re doing on the ground in Syria and, from that standpoint, it strengthens Hezbollah. Hezbollah has lost a lot of forces in Syria and this gives them a kind of air cover that they don’t have now.

In theory, one of the things that’s a source of concern to the Israelis is that this air defense umbrella that the Russians are creating, which covers the core of what Assad still controls, including the area in Syria that connects to Lebanon, clearly complicates things if they want to stop the transfer of advance weapons to Hezbollah into Lebanon. That’s undoubtedly what [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu raised with Putin. My guess is everything will have to be coordinated now, so that the Israelis put the Russians on notice that they’re going after that stuff regardless of whether the Russians are there or not. The Russians have an interest in not getting in the way of that. It’s something that may have to be tested. The Russians may well tell the Iranians and the Syrians “don’t transfer anything to Hezbollah now; don’t put us in that position” – I can certainly imagine the Russians saying that.

The truth is, the focus right now is on how to shore up Assad, and not on how to transfer weapons to Hezbollah. But the shoring up of Assad is the shoring up of the connection of the area Assad has control of today – and that is all right next to Lebanon.


Q: It seems that the dynamics between Israel and the Arab states in the region are improving. True?

A: If you look at Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Morocco – you look at countries that basically share the same threat perception that the Israelis have. So, obviously, there’s a lot that can be done quietly between them. But unless you can really tackle the Palestinian issue in some fashion that’s not going to transfer from being covert to overt. I did a piece [on Oct. 2] for the New York Times in response to what [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen (aka Mahmoud Abbas) said [in addressing the UN last week]. Among other things, it raises the point that if you really want to do something on the Israeli-Palestinian issue now you actually probably need the Arabs to assume a responsibility to help negotiate for the Palestinians, because they’re incapable of doing anything on their own right now.


Q: What are the chances of that happening right now?

A: I don’t know. The big question in my mind is do they care enough about the Palestinians to do something. I don’t mean that cynically. I mean it in the sense that they would have to expose themselves on this issue. They’ve got so many other challenges they face, do they have the interest to do that? It seems to me, they would only do it if they think the issue will create problems for them otherwise. In a sense, the fact that Jerusalem is heating up right now is a problem for them because it’s the one thing that triggers an emotional response that could be problematic for them on their own street, and they don’t need to add to their own problems. Given everything else they’re facing, if they thought that this was an issue that could affect them negatively then they might have a stake in it. And the only way to know that is to probe quietly.

I can’t say that they necessarily will feel this is important enough to trump their other priorities. But it’s worth exploring, because there is a convergence of interests and a convergence of threats and there is also the reality that Abu Mazen basically has no strategy. He’s left in a position where he can’t do much. The Palestinians are becoming more and more frustrated – and that’s one reason you’re seeing not a more organized level of violence in the West Bank but more and more sort of ad hoc forms of violence. These are isolated forms of violence, but there’s a kind of consistency to them.


Q: The U.S. doesn’t seem to be playing a role here at the moment. Should we? Could we?

A: We too are distracted by everything else. Because of the way we’re perceived right now in the region, it raises some question as to whether or not there’s enthusiasm to be working with us on something like this. There’s an interesting reality here: we still have all sorts of capabilities that nobody else has – so we’re not weak – but there’s a perception that either we’re less willing to engage in ways that we have in the past, and a perception that maybe we’re more inclined to disengage. The administration would say that’s not the case; they would say look at everything we’re doing. But there’s a reality that many of our traditional friends in the region don’t have the same faith in us that they once had.


Q: You’ve worked with Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. If she were to be elected president, what’s your take on what her style would be vis a vis the Middle East or world affairs in general?

A: I think her point of departure is a little bit different than President Obama’s in the sense that she still believes that power and force are a significant currency in international relations. President Obama sees them having a kind of bankrupt currency; he wants to emphasize global norms, which is the right thing to do, but if the Russians, the Chinese and others are not respecting the global norms then you have to act in a way where they see the consequences of not doing so. I think she is somewhat more inclined to act in a way that raises the cost to them of not respecting global norms. She is inclined to be somewhat more competitive with them, with the understanding that if you do that it is actually more likely to change their behavior. She uses the term “smart power” a lot – that is, a combination of hard and soft power. You have to know how to employ it. I think she would probably be a little bit more inclined to see the role of coercive diplomacy than I think President Obama does.


Q: In your new book Doomed to Succeed you discuss each American president in terms of his attitude towards Israel. Given the lamentable relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, would you say this was the lowest point in the relationship between the two countries?

A: No. I think there are two periods that were lower. One was at the time of the Suez War, when Eisenhower actually threatened at one point to use American forces to force the Israelis to get out of the Sinai. He threatened sanctions; he had his undersecretary of state threaten Israel with expulsion from the UN. That was probably the lowest point. The next lowest point was probably during the siege of Beirut in 1982 and then, in the aftermath of the PLO’s departure, what happened at Sabra and Shatila; that was probably the lowest point in terms of relations. So, (a) there have been worse periods, and (b) it’s not unusual for presidents and [Israeli] prime ministers not to always get along: Ronald Reagan said about [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin that he made it hard to be a friend; if you read Jimmy Carter’s diaries you’ll see what his attitude toward Begin was even after Camp David; George H.W. Bush did not have a great relationship with Yitzchak Shamir.

So we’ve seen this before – and we’ve also seen the relationship recoup, because I think there are fundamentals that continue to drive us together. The title of the book is called Doomed to Succeed – the reason for the sense of irony is because we have had ups and downs. We have had periods where we disagree. There have been points of tension. But the trajectory of the relationship has always evolved in a stronger direction – and it’s because we share values and we share interests. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Those who threaten the United States always threaten Israel, and vice versa.

Look at the region itself: this is a region that is going to be characterized by enormous turmoil and really the most basic forms of conflicts for at least the next 10 or 20 years because the conflicts are over who defines identity. Everywhere you look in this region you have proxy wars, you have sectarian conflicts, or you have a struggle between radical Islamists and non-Islamists, and that’s not going away anytime soon. In the midst of all that turmoil and conflict there’s one country that has its own set of problems, but it also has a set of institutions to deal with them; it has a separation of powers; it has an independent judiciary; it has regularly scheduled and not regularly scheduled elections in which the loser actually accepts the outcome. You don’t have any other country like that in this region and you’re not going to have it for some time.

So, even though we’ve obviously seen a low point in the relationship, the ties that bind us are still very strong ties and for the foreseeable future they are going to continue to move us in a certain direction. And, when there are problems, there will continue to be an impulse to correct those problems and mend those fences.

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