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

Oct 19, 2015

TV Show


Today, America's ties to Israel are so close that when there are differences, they tend to make the news. But it was not always this way. Ambassador Ross deftly lays out the surprising history of the U.S-Israel relationship. He  goes on to answer questions on U.S. policies and the current worrying situation across the Middle East.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us, including those sitting upstairs in our boardroom and those watching us on the live webcast, and, of course, Russian TV as well.

At a time when U.S.-Israeli relationships are at a low point, we are extremely pleased to welcome to this breakfast program one of our nation's most skilled and wise Middle East experts, Dennis Ross. In his book entitled Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, Mr. Ross provides an insightful history about the sometimes charged, occasionally strained, but always essential relationship between the United States and Israel.

From the beginning, the U.S.-Israel relationship has been traditionally defined in terms of a moral obligation, shared cultural and political values, and common strategic interests, in which Americans have traditionally seen Israel not only as a nation, but as a symbol.

But as Mr. Ross indicates, it hasn't always been easy being Israel's ally. Throughout history there have always been disagreements over America's support of Israel. In fact, many of you may not even be aware, but even from the moment President Truman made the decision to recognize the state of Israel, he faced enormous resistance within his administration, views which have affected policy over decades.

Notwithstanding these ups and downs, Mr. Ross sees the U.S.-Israel relationship as a very close partnership that has been through bad patches before, but has always survived. This is, he writes, in spite of the fact that many in the foreign policy establishment believe that having close ties to Israel would damage U.S. relations with Arab countries in the region. This seemingly tells us more about the thinking of our policymakers than we read about in the papers.

As someone who has been at the center of Middle East policymaking, working in the government for more than three decades, and having spent many of those years trying to negotiate a Middle East peace, Mr. Ross more than anyone has had a hand in shaping the U.S.-Israel partnership. He has worked closely with every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Shamir and understands what has driven our policy towards Israel and the region. In the process, he tells a fascinating story not only about how the relationship evolved over time, but also about the assumptions that continue to shape our views of the region and the lessons we need to draw from this going forward.

At this time, please join me in welcoming a most knowledgeable navigator of the muddy waters of the Middle East, our speaker, Dennis Ross. Thank you for joining us.


DENNIS ROSS: Thank you.

The title, Doomed to Succeed, obviously has a sense of irony in it. The reason for the irony is that there is in this relationship a pattern of ups and downs, but there is also a trajectory. In the end, that trajectory moves us in a certain direction.

I do cover every administration, every president, and I do it with an eye towards trying to identify: What were their assumptions? What was the mindset? Was there unanimity within the administration? Was there division within the administration? What was the essence of the debates, if there were debates? And how do the events of each administration play out and reflect those kinds of assumptions and mindsets?

I was describing just before I came up here the fact that the book is a little different than what I originally intended to write. Originally when I was writing this, I had in mind a kind of overview of the early administrations, and I would summarize the early administrations, then I would do the more recent ones and I would spend more time dealing with them. I changed into writing a chapter on each administration because I had a few "wow moments" when I was doing the initial research.

I found, 40 and 50 years apart, not only the same debates, in a couple of instances—which is why I said wow moments—I found the exact same words being used 47 years apart, including in meetings that I had been in. Once I found that, I felt, all right, I need to be able to describe and show that you have arguments that are recycled, even when you have administrations. Every administration comes in, and in foreign policy the pattern is unbelievable and unmistakable: They are going to reinvent the wheel because they are going to do it better than their predecessor. Yet in this area frequently there have been a number of assumptions that have endured, notwithstanding that impulse to reinvent the wheel.

I am going to do something that I like to do in my classes that I teach, which is, I like to pose questions. For those of you who have seen me before, it is a fact that I can always answer my own questions, as surprising as that may be. But I am going to start.

I am going to start with a premise just, again, to bring some perspective to this discussion. You described quite well the sense that there are ups and downs and the like. But let me start with a reality. In every administration from Truman until today, there has been a constituency that looked at Israel as a problem, as a problem for the United States—not as a partner, but as a problem for the United States. That attitude, that mindset, has existed in every administration.

There was only one administration in which that mindset existed but it had no weight.

There's a pregnant pause there.

In which administration do you think the constituency existed but it had absolutely no influence?

PARTICIPANT: George W. Bush.

DENNIS ROSS: It is an excellent guess. It's wrong, but it's an excellent guess.

I am going to tell you. Who guessed Clinton? It was Clinton. I want to explain both. I want to explain Bush and then I want to explain Clinton.

In Bush's case, just to put this in perspective—it was a good guess. In fact, President Obama comes in, and one of the things he says after he comes in is that for eight years there was never a gap between the United States and Israel, and what did it get us? This is an attitude of President Obama when he comes in. I describe that in the chapter.

But it actually isn't true. The first call that President Bush makes to Ariel Sharon after 9/11, after the president has declared a war on terror, is to push Ariel Sharon to have his foreign minister, then Shimon Peres, meet Yasser Arafat. At the time, you are in the throes of the Second Intifada, where there are bombs going off in Israel. George Bush has declared a war on terror. He would not have dreamed of, in his own administration, having us talk to those who we thought in any way were responsible for bombs going off here. Yet he is pressing the prime minister of Israel to have his foreign minister meet Yasser Arafat. The reason is that there is very strong pressure on him from within the State Department and the intelligence community to say, "Look, the only reason 9/11 happened was because of our connection to Israel and the Palestinian issue. Therefore, you need to push an initiative on peace."

Now, think about that. I was our negotiator under Clinton. Most of the people in the Middle East thought we were very close to a peace agreement. Osama bin Laden and those who planned 9/11 weren't doing it because they thought there was no peace. In fact, they were planning this at a time when they thought there was going to be peace. But the mindset and this assumption was so deeply embedded that the first instinct was to say, "Gee, we ought to be focused on pushing peace. That will be the way to deal with the threat that we have just faced."

Obviously, George W. Bush evolves, and his relationship with Israel does change. He has a different view of Israel as time goes by and he decides they are facing the same kinds of threats we are.

So the guess on George W. Bush was a good guess, but it was wrong.

Now, Clinton views things differently—not that he doesn't think there are differences, not that he doesn't think that we should, in fact, deal with those differences. But he doesn't like the idea that we should ever expose the differences in public, because he thinks the United States is Israel's only friend. He thinks, since the United States is Israel's only friend, if you create a gap or a wedge between the United States and Israel, it will encourage Israel's enemies, and that in itself will make peace less likely. So he has a very different attitude on this issue.

I am going to ask another question, because I liked your answers. Which administration do you think was the hardest on Israel, the toughest on Israel?

PARTICIPANT: George H. W. Bush.


PARTICIPANT: Eisenhower.


DENNIS ROSS: Roosevelt is interesting. You will have to read the book to find out why Roosevelt is interesting. The book is from Truman to Obama, but obviously I had to describe the legacy that Truman had inherited, so I do describe Roosevelt. And Roosevelt is interesting. Roosevelt basically is all things to all people. He tells Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise that he is for a Jewish state. He tells the Arabs that he will never do anything that, in fact, they would disagree with. He is sort of all things to all people.

Eisenhower is the toughest administration. Eisenhower during the Suez Crisis contemplates the idea of actually having U.S. forces expel Israel from the Sinai. He has his under-secretary of state, Herbert Hoover, actually threaten the Israelis with expulsion from the United Nations. He wants to impose sanctions on Israel. This is in 1956.

What is interesting—and I won't belabor this, because I don't want to overstay my welcome, which I easily could—during the course of the war, he is determined to put pressure on the Israelis, but not just the Israelis, on the British and the French as well. This was a kind of coordinated attack that was carried out. He realizes within a week—he doesn't change his attitude towards Israel, but he realizes he has created a vacuum in the Middle East by opposing the British and French.

The net effect of that is, within a week, he is visiting Dulles in the hospital. Dulles has an acute abdominal attack, which turns out to be cancer. He is in the hospital. He goes to see him within a week. He has written out a page and a half of notes. He is focused on, "Gee, now that we have created a vacuum there, we have to do something about it." He is already saying to Dulles, "We need to invite Eden here. I hope that he realizes that—no hard feelings. I hope he will join us in countering 'the bear.'" This is in his notes.

The Soviets, of course, are taking advantage of this. This is the same time Hungary takes place. So Eisenhower begins to regret what he has done vis-à-vis the British and the French, but not towards the Israelis. He has a different view of the Israelis. In fact, the thrust of the Eisenhower administration is to believe fundamentally that not only should we never provide arms to Israel, because that will make things worse with the Arabs, but his advice to the Israelis when they request arms is, "You should rely on the goodwill of your neighbors." At the time, every single neighbor rejected Israel's existence, so it is kind of hard to find goodwill. But that was basically the thrust.

The administration, though, I will say this—Eisenhower does not suspend arms sales because, of course, there were no arms sales. The first administration to provide arms to Israel is Kennedy. He breaks the taboo on that. I am going to come back to that in a minute.

What is interesting is that there is one administration that suspends arms sales to Israel as a punishment. Can you guess which administration that was? Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan suspends arms sales twice, after the Osirak attack, the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and after Menachem Begin in December of 1981 extends Israel's law and administration to the Golan Heights. He suspends F-16s.

By the way, during the Siege of Beirut, his—he does this, even though you find in his diary that he is sympathetic to the Israelis. He actually has a very strong emotional attachment to Israel, but Caspar Weinberger—he pushes very hard for this. Then Weinberger, during the Siege of Beirut, actually advises Reagan and presses for the United States to break relations with Israel. Pretty extraordinary.

The Reagan administration, though, even though it suspends arms shipments to the Israelis, is a transformative administration when it comes to Israel. It is the first administration to treat Israel as a partner and strategic asset. It is the first administration to create an institutional architecture for cooperation. That might seem striking, that we are talking about the 1980s before there is any systematic effort to build a structural form of cooperation—military to military, serious intelligence cooperation, Pentagon to Pentagon, particularly after Weinberger leaves as secretary of defense.

George Shultz, who is the secretary of state, presides over people who forget that Israel, after the [1982] Lebanon War, had an inflation rate of 1,260 percent. It is the Carter administration, because of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, that starts providing $3 billion a year and it is George Shultz, over and above that, who decides, given the Israeli inflation rates, if the Israelis will undertake economic reforms, he then adds $3 billion to what is the existing assistance, and the inflation rate goes from 1,260 percent a year to 15 percent.

The other significant thing about the Reagan administration is that it is the first administration where you have a countervailing constituency that emerges, a countervailing body of experts who view Israel through a very different lens. They view Israel as a partner, not as a liability. They see Israel's assets as something that can be of benefit to the United States, and they take a collaborative approach. From that administration on, you see more of a debate within administrations between these two countervailing kinds of mindsets.

The mindset that was embodied in those who viewed Israel as basically a problem—they were guided by three sets of assumptions. These assumptions became very much embedded in the national security bureaucracy. They really do go back to the Roosevelt time. They are driven by a fundamental premise: that association with Israel is costly. There are three interrelated assumptions that this group has. I will say, the third assumption is one that is shared by the countervailing constituency as well, but not to the same extent.

The first assumption is that for us to do well with the Arabs, we have to distance ourselves from Israel. You have to create a gap. If you create a gap, the Arabs will respond to you.

The second assumption—it is a corollary—is that if you cooperate with Israel, that will cost you with the Arabs. Obviously there is a relation between the two.

The third is that if you could just make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians in particular, then the American position in the Middle East would be great. There would be no problems. Everything would fall into place, not fall apart.

Those three assumptions are embedded, and you see them existing in every administration up until today. One of the things I do in the book is to show that these assumptions were misguided, that they didn't reflect an understanding of the region. They didn't understand the priorities of the Arab states, the Arab leaders, and the like. Because I don't have an enormous amount of time—although if I did, I would spend an enormous amount of time describing multiple examples—I am going to give you a couple that really stand out. I could do the Truman administration, but I don't want to do the Truman administration. I am going to do Nixon.

To highlight this issue that if you distance from Israel you gain, there is a really striking example. In March of 1970, the end of February, the beginning of March, we suspend F-4 Phantoms to Israel. I said Reagan was the only one to suspend arms shipments as a penalty. Nixon suspended arms shipments, not as a penalty, but because he was trying to reach out to the Arabs. He thought that if we did that, we would get Arab responses.

The timing is really striking. For those of you who are students of history, you will recall that at this moment the Soviet Union, for the first time in its history, is shipping military personnel outside the bloc. You think that what Putin is doing is a big deal right now in Syria and you think that the president's response is passive? Compare it to what Richard Nixon did.

Richard Nixon suspends arms shipments to the Israelis at the very moment that the Soviets are crossing a historic threshold. That historic threshold is to send their military personnel outside of the Eastern Bloc. They send 10,000 personnel at the time—it goes up to 20,000—10,000 personnel to basically take over the air defense of Egypt. And at the very moment they are doing that, we suspend arms shipments to the Israelis, with the expectation that that is going to gain us a benefit. The president sends his under-secretary of state, Joe Sisco, to Egypt to see Nasser, saying, "Look, we did this. Pretty good, huh? You should respond to us." Nasser basically—how can I say this in diplomatese—blows off Sisco. He basically just says, "Forget it."

So here we do this and we gain absolutely nothing from it. There are multiple examples of this.

But I am going to go to the second assumption, which was, "Okay, if we cooperate with Israel, we are going to pay a terrible price."

Here again—literally I can give you chapter and verse, but I am only going to give you chapter, not verse—I told you that President Kennedy is the first president to break the taboo on providing arms to Israel. When he does it, he provides the Hawk anti-aircraft missile. The Hawk anti-aircraft missile is a purely defensive system. It is good only against aircraft. Israel has received no arms from us. (I should be very precise—we did provide 100 recoil-less rifles to Israel during the Eisenhower administration.) This is the first weapons system that we provide Israel, and it triggers an enormous controversy within the administration. Dean Rusk is the secretary of state. He says, "This will set a terrible precedent and it will cause grave damage to our relations with the Arabs."

It is interesting that I am here in New York saying this, because the day that the news of this arms sale came out happened to be the same day that Dean Rusk was meeting with the putative leader of Saudi Arabia. I say putative because he was the crown prince, Crown Prince Faisal. At the time, King Saud—this is the son of Ibn Saud—King Saud is soon going to be replaced by Crown Prince Faisal.

The day that the news of the sale comes out is the same day that they are meeting here in New York with the UN General Assembly. Guess what Crown Prince Faisal is focused on? Is he concerned about the arms sale to Israel? Is this his preoccupation? Is this what he is raising because it is going to do grave damage to the relationship with the United States? No. What is he concerned about? He is concerned about the coup in Yemen. The coup in Yemen is backed by Nasser. This is a mortal threat to the Saudis. So that is, in fact, what he addresses. He is not concerned about the arms to Israel. He is concerned about the coup in Yemen.

One week later, Crown Prince Faisal sees President Kennedy. Is he concerned about the sale of hot missiles to Israel? No. He is concerned about economic assistance to Egypt. He is concerned about our outreach to Egypt. He says our economic assistance to Egypt, which is providing at this time about two-thirds of Egypt's bread supply—he is concerned that this economic assistance is freeing up Egyptian resources to cause trouble in the region, change the balance of power in the region, and threaten Saudi Arabia.

I said that in this book one of the reasons I do all these historical chapters is because in each chapter I cite the kinds of echoes that you are going to hear over and over again. Do you hear an echo right now? "Your economic assistance to Egypt is freeing up Egypt's resources to cause trouble throughout the rest of the region and change the balance of power. It is a grave threat to Saudi Arabia." Have you heard anything familiar to that recently? You substitute the word "Iran" for Egypt. Does that sound familiar today? What is the grave Saudi concern today? The nuclear deal is going to provide sanctions relief to Iran, and that is going to cause grave trouble, change the balance of power in the region.

These arguments appear over and over and over again. What do they reflect? They reflect that the priority of Arab leaders has been their security and their survival. Does Israel cause them problems? Sure. Do they like our relationship with Israel? No. Are they ever going to make their relationship with us contingent on what we do with Israel? No. You go though the history and you don't see that, because they have a different set of priorities.

One of my professors was Malcolm Kerr. He was the dean of the American Arabists. He wrote a book called The Arab Cold War. He described the competition among them—how they would use the Palestinian issue not to solve it, but as a club to beat the other over the head with.

It is the regional factors that threaten Arab leaders that are their preoccupation. When the United States is seen as the source of their security, they are never going to put that relationship at risk. And they don't.

They also have a strong need, given problems with legitimacy, never to look like they are completely dependent on us. The argument that without the Israelis and the Palestinians we could have a much bigger military presence there—no. They will have an American military presence when they think that it serves their immediate needs. If you go and look at King Fahd, after Iraq takes over Kuwait, he has to think about whether or not to accept American forces in Saudi Arabia. Does he raise the Israel issue with President George H. W. Bush when he raises it? No. But he does want to know that we are going to leave. This is the one issue that he wants to know, that we won't stay. So George H. W. Bush promises we won't stay.

The key to understanding our relationship with Arab leaders is to understand that there is a frame within which those relations always take place. There is a ceiling above which they will never go and there is a floor below which they don't drop. Good statecraft moves you closer to the ceiling. Our problems today with many of them relate to their perception of our reliability. It doesn't relate to what is going on with Israel per se.

By the way, if you think about it, you look at what is happening today—I wasn't going to talk about what is happening in Jerusalem today, and it is principally in Jerusalem today. One of the things that is driving what is the current violence, aside from social media, aside from the fact that this is not organized—this is what I was just on TV talking about. It is not organized. It is not like the First Intifada and the Second Intifada. Both those had an infrastructure of organization.

That is not the case today. This is being fueled largely by social media. That is what it is being driven by. But one other factor that drives it is, obviously, the anger and frustration of those doing this. They are basically between the ages of 15 and 25. They have lots of different sources of anger and frustration. They are angry at their own leadership, profoundly so. They are obviously angry at the Israelis, profoundly so. And they are angry at the Arabs because no one is paying attention to them. They are consumed entirely by everything else in the region.

The title of this book, notwithstanding the recent tensions that we have had over Iran, obviously—the fact is we have had many previous periods where the relationship between presidents and prime ministers was not, shall we say, golden; there were tensions between them. George H. W. Bush—the only leader that he really personally disliked was Yitzhak Shamir, because he felt that he misled him, lied to him in his first private meeting.

All these differences aside—and even today, the Israeli defense minister was critical of the State Department for saying Israel is using excessive force in response to the current violence—all this tension notwithstanding, the title of the book is Doomed to Succeed. It is not entitled Doomed to Succeed? The reason for that is, when you look at the trajectory of this relationship over time, it has been driven by shared values, shared interests, shared threat perceptions. Those who threaten Israel always threaten the United States and vice versa. It is driven by something else now.

One of the reasons I look at the future and I say, notwithstanding everything that is going on—look at the Middle East today. The state system itself is under assault. The character of the conflict you see today is as atavistic and as fundamental as it can be, because it is frequently over tribe, sect, and clan. Nothing is more basic than that. It makes the violence terrible, because it is over issues like identity and who is going to define identity.

Into this cauldron you have Israel. Israel has problems for sure. But Israel has institutions. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel has a rule of law. It has regularly and unregularly scheduled elections, where the loser accepts the outcome. It has a separation of powers. It has an independent judiciary. It has freedom of speech. It has freedom of the press. It has a very vibrant civil society. It has a very remarkable artistic freedom. It has respect for women's rights and for gay rights. There is no other state in the region that has that. That is what tends to bind us. That is what will continue to tend to bind us. The contrast between Israel and the rest of the region is going to become more stark, not less so, in the coming years.

We can have differences. We can have differences that we are seeing with the current administration and the current Israeli administration. But it is unlikely to change the character of the relationship.

My guess is, on November 9, when the president and the prime minister will meet, they will both have an interest in mending fences. It doesn't mean their relationship is ever going to be a perfect relationship. Their worldviews are really fundamentally different. But my guess is that the next administration will move to again ensure that the trajectory continues on an upward path. That is why ultimately the relationship—while I say "doomed to succeed" implies 'inevitably,' you will see in the concluding chapter, where I talk about lessons from the past and implications for the future, if you believe in this relationship, there are some alarm bells. You shouldn't be complacent. You shouldn't take things for granted. It is very important for Israel to do certain things, which I outline in the last chapter. It is also important to be aware of those kinds of alarm bells.

Israel should not become a partisan issue. If you look historically at the relationship, Israel has not been a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It has been an American issue. The idea that Israel can be a partisan issue and it won't damage Israel ignores again, I think, what the reality is, particularly at a time—if you think about it, America is going to become a majority-minority country in 25 to 30 years, meaning Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and African Americans will make up the majority of the country. Those communities don't have a history of relations or connections to Israel. That means that it is very important for Israel to retain its values. When I said shared values, when I said it is the only democracy, it is very important for Israel to continue to embody those values. It is very important for Israel not to become a partisan issue, given the changing character of the demographics here. And it is very important for Israel, in a sense, to be able to take initiatives at a time when there is a delegitimization movement.

One of the things I suggest in the last chapter is that Israel should make its settlement policy consistent with a two-state outcome, meaning that you only build in what you think is your state, not what would be the Palestinian state, as a way of also exposing the delegitimization movement. The boycott-divestment-and-sanctions movement is able to hide its agenda, which is one state, not two states, because everybody focuses on settlements. If you could deny them that ability to hide who they are, it would make it much more difficult to foster the delegitimization movement.

At the end of the day, however, still, notwithstanding everything I just said, Israel fundamentally is a democracy, is going to remain a democracy, and the contrast of Israel being who it is with what we see in the rest of the region for the next 10 to 20 years is going to continue to ensure a pathway that means the relationship will be doomed to succeed. That's why I titled the book the way I did.

I will stop there.


QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.

Another assumption you were hinting at at the very end of your remarks is that to remain a democracy and to remain the Jewish state, the two-state solution is the only pathway to that. Towards the end of the election in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu said, "It won't happen on my watch." There are members of his cabinet who say it should never happen, ever.

I have two questions. One is, have the Israelis given up on the two-state solution? The other question is, is there another way?

DENNIS ROSS: Let me take the second question first: No.

You probably want me to explain that. No, there isn't. And by the way, the reason there isn't is because there are two national identities. Those who argue for one state, I would suggest to you, look at the rest of the region. Show me one place where there are two separate identities that is at peace. This is a region that is characterized by terrible conflicts precisely because of what? It is over identity. So in a place where there are two national identities, you think you are going to create what is one state and there is going to be anything but ongoing friction? Not a chance in the world.

So there is not an alternative to that. When the prime minister of Israel was here at the United Nations, he said he was for two states, for two peoples. Yes, he has people within his government who don't accept that. I think, at the end of the day, the idea that you want to live in a circumstance where you are facing this kind of ongoing trouble—you are seeing a snapshot of it right now.

The larger question, which was the first thing you asked—the problem we face today is that both publics don't believe it. For the last four years, I have been emphasizing that the problem with this conflict right now is that of disbelief. It has only become worse. Every time you push an initiative that is designed to solve the whole conflict and you fail, you only deepen the disbelief. We have to deal with the sources of disbelief. How do you get Israelis to look at the Palestinians and say that actually they do accept two states? What is it the Palestinians would have to do to show they actually do believe in two states for two peoples? What is it the Israelis would have to do to show that they believe in two states for two peoples?

One of the things I suggested at the end of the nine-month period when Secretary Kerry's efforts failed—I actually made a suggestion: How about doing the following? Don't ever create the impression that our choices are either we solve the conflict or we do nothing. I have the same attitude when it comes to Syria: We are going to put boots on the ground or we do nothing.

When your approach is a binary choice where you are going to solve it or you are going to do nothing, you will end up doing nothing. Then you create a vacuum. In the Middle East we see what happens. Vacuums get filled by the worst possible forces.

What I suggested at the time, which was the spring of 2014, was that Secretary Kerry should make it clear: "I'm staying engaged. We are not walking away. But here's what I'm going to do. I'm prepared to try to solve the whole conflict, but this is what I require. I require each of the leaders to show they are prepared to take difficult decisions. If I see they are prepared to take difficult decisions, then I will stay and I will try to resolve the conflict with them.

"On the Israeli side, it means that the prime minister has to take on basically a constituency that wants to keep building settlements. I am not saying you have to stop settlements. I am saying stop building settlements outside the blocks. Announce that you are not going to build settlements outside the blocks. If you are prepared to do that on your side, what it means is that you are prepared to do the hard things, and I will stick with it."

With Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]: "You say you are prepared to accept two states for two peoples, because you recognize there are two national movements. If you are prepared to say that, I know you are prepared to take on the constituency and make the hard decisions."

If he can't do that, if neither side is prepared to do that, then say, "All right, I get it. You can't do the big things, so let's focus on the things you can do. Let's find ways to defuse tensions. Let's find ways to improve the realities on the ground. Let's create coordinated unilateralism, where parallel steps that can begin to show that each side is serious about creating coexistence will create a different reality for peacemaking later on."

One of the books I wrote was actually called Statecraft. The essence of good statecraft is, if you can't achieve an objective now, what can you do to change the circumstances so you can achieve it later on? That's what the approach needs to be. The idea that you would launch a big initiative right now, given this climate, given this level of disbelief, that is a prescription for another failure. We don't need more failures. This administration doesn't need more failures. The United States as a whole in foreign policy needs a demonstration of effectiveness, that it can actually get things done. On peace, we need a demonstration of effectiveness, not a failed initiative.

QUESTION: I'm Helena Finn, former U.S. diplomat.

DENNIS ROSS: And used to work with me, too.

QUESTIONER: Yes, and also at the Washington Institute, on leave from the department. But that was the Turkey desk.

Of course, we accept that the goal is the two-state solution. What about going back to people-to-people contact—in other words, working from the ground up? When I was at the embassy, we had the Wye River grants. They came from the Clinton administration, but I oversaw them during the Bush administration. That contact, whether it was in emergency medicine, agriculture, water resources, education—meaning getting rid of negative stereotyping and so on—all of those areas put people together from both sides to work on common ground, shared interests, as opposed to putting them together to argue about their differences.

DENNIS ROSS: I was always a deep believer in that. One of the annexes of the interim agreement was exclusively devoted to people-to-people. Today it sounds like an illusion, because today it is only people-to-people fear. We need to get back to that. To push for it right now again would look unrealistic. You are not going to convince anybody. You would look like you are living on a different planet.

The problem is, first you have to defuse the tension. One of the ways to defuse the tension is, you have to stop the mythologies. Among the Palestinians right now, what is on different websites and what has gone viral is this mythology that the Israelis are trying to turn the Al Aqsa Mosque into the equivalent of what you have in Hebron, meaning you have Abraham's tomb and you have the Ibrahimi Mosque. It's not true, but it is being spread and it is believed. A lot of these kids are going out there and they are saying the reason they are doing this is because they are protecting Al Aqsa.

If you spread incitement that way, then you are going to get this. A place to start is—Secretary Kerry was talking about going out there. I would like to see him go to Amman. I would like to see King Abdullah host a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abu Mazan, and I would like the secretary to be there. I would like them to come out with public statements where the prime minister would say, "We are not going to change the status quo," and Abu Mazan would say, "They are not going to change the status quo. There is no truth to what is going on there. We have an assurance," and King Abdullah would say, "The Waqf is responsible for managing the Haram, and that's what it is going to be."

You need something like that to counter this image right now. You have to start by trying to counter what are a kind of atmospherics right now that have mythologies easily believed and spread like wildfire. You have social media images that are just taking off and having a life of their own. It sort of feeds this in a way that—until you can arrest that, you can't get back to doing things like that.

What I mean by "restoring belief" is, if you say you are for two states for two peoples, then have a manifestation that that is the case in terms of your words and your actions. Don't have actions that imply just the opposite.

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece where I identified actually 16 parallel steps that could be taken. Unfortunately, everyone was able to restrain their enthusiasm for those suggestions, and they weren't taken. But the fact is, had they been taken, you would be in a very different place now.

Focus on the things that you actually have a chance to do. Don't focus on big initiatives that have no chance of success right now.

QUESTION: Good morning. My name is Anne Phillips. I'm a board member of the International Peace Institute.

Since Saudi Arabia and Iran are having this conflict, to say the least—competition—and there is such animosity towards Iran and from Iran towards Israel, the relationship of Israel and Saudi Arabia seems to have thawed somewhat. I wonder what you feel the future of that relationship will be.

DENNIS ROSS: First of all, where the Palestinian issue matters is in something—you are not going to get Arab states, including those that have peace with Israel, to be doing a lot overtly with Israel. There is a lot that goes on tacitly right now, because there are converging interests, converging fears of Iranian threats, converging fears of radical Islamists. But the idea that you are going to get overt cooperation so long as the Palestinian issue is out there is not going to take place. The reason is because that is still an issue that creates a sense of historic injustice that has to be addressed.

If you really want to see something like that materialize, then you have to do something on the peace front.

As I said, I don't want to push for big initiatives that are going to fail right now. I would focus on, first defuse the tensions. Then focus on steps on the ground that can begin to demonstrate that each side can make commitments and fulfill them, even if the commitments are to us. Thirdly, then go to the Arabs, after you have changed the climate. The Palestinians today are too weak to make peace. What I mean by that is the political culture right now is so infused with a sense of victimhood and grievance and anger that the idea that you would rationalize making a concession towards the Israelis is seen as fully illegitimate. No Palestinian leader is going to embrace that.

You can't make peace if you can't make a compromise. So the question is, can the Arab states assume that responsibility for the Palestinians?

The reason that makes sense is because the Israelis today so disbelieve the Palestinians that they are not going to make concessions towards the Palestinians unless they get something from the Arabs in return. So you need a kind of Arab umbrella. It is a kind of reversal of the paradigm for peacemaking. Basically, from 1939 to 1973, the Arabs assumed a kind of broader responsibility for the Palestinians, not because they tried to solve the conflict, but because they tried to use it for their own benefit. After 1974, at the Arab summit in Rabat, then the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] became the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians, and the Arab states said, "Okay, it's up to you to resolve your future, not us." Now you need the Arab states to assume the responsibility again, but with the idea of peace in mind.

If I were doing what I used to do—I wouldn't do this publicly—I would privately go to the key Arabs—not now, because this is the wrong time, other than to do what I was saying for defusing tensions, like have a meeting in Amman—I would go and I would say, "Are you ready to do something here?" I don't know the answer to that.

They are so consumed—you talked about Iran and Saudi Arabia. We have two proxy wars, in Syria and in Yemen. You have Egypt consumed by dealing with radical Islamists within Egypt. When I talked about the third assumption being, you've got to solve the Palestinian issue to change the region, obviously that is not true. You should try to solve the Palestinian issue because it is the right thing to do. But if you solve the Palestinian issue, it is not going to stop one barrel bomb in Syria. It is not going to end the war in Yemen. It is not going to suddenly create peace within Iraq. It is not going to end ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. It is not going to produce peace within Egypt.

You should focus on this issue, to the extent you can, not because it is a game-changer in the region. We don't need it as another problem in the region. But I raise this because I don't know today if the Arab states have the interest or the bandwidth to do something on the Palestinian interest issue.

I said one of the sources of frustration of Palestinians is that no one in the region is paying attention to them. How can they? You have 300,000 dead in Syria, 12 million people displaced. The focus isn't on the Palestinians. But I would still see, do the Arabs have an interest in seeing this issue settled? If you say it publicly, you put them on the spot. They are going to give you an answer that means nothing. You have to probe them privately and say, "If you have an interest, what would you need from Israel to be able to assume the following responsibilities in terms of concessions for the Palestinians?" Also security responsibility, security arrangements will have to be part of any deal.

You say to the Israelis, "What do you need from the Arabs to be able to make concessions on the Palestinian issue?"

If it turns out that there is a potential there, then you pursue it. But you don't publicize it until you have it ready. The idea of public initiatives—first of all, when you go public, everybody has to assume their most extreme position, because they are exposed. The essence of diplomacy is understanding how you create the circumstances and the political space to make hard decisions. The essence of diplomacy isn't putting others in a position where they have to explain themselves in more extreme terms, because that is the reality.

This is a longwinded answer to your question, which wasn't directed that way. But I have the floor, so why not?

QUESTION: I'm David Hunt.

Could you give us your thoughts on the consequences of the Russian presence in Syria, please?

DENNIS ROSS: Since Russian TV is here, what a perfect opportunity.

If the Russian presence was truly attacking ISIS as opposed to all the non-ISIS targets, I would say there would be a basis here for creating a more common approach. Right now I don't see it. Why did Russia intervene right now, in league with Iran? Qassem Soleimani goes to Russia, goes to Moscow. Obviously they were concerned about ensuring that Assad wouldn't fall.

Russia is there for lots of reasons. One, in 1971, Alexei Kosygin, then the Soviet premier, said no issue anywhere in the world can be solved without the Soviet Union. So Vladimir Putin is beginning to try to demonstrate that that exists for Russia today.

Two, he wants to be an arbiter of what happens in Syria. I think he genuinely is concerned about what the implications are of a radical Islamist state there. But he wants to preserve a Russian position there.

He wants everyone in the region to realize that if you are going to get anything done in the Middle East, you have to come to Moscow. He clearly doesn't care about whether or not he depopulates Syria, because the bombing right now—where they are bombing is, I think, going to add to the refugee flow. It is not going to reduce the refugee flow out of Syria.

If there is a political process somewhere down the road, first, he is going to have a Russian base. It is going to be clear that Russian interests have to be taken into account. I think that is what is very much driving it.

If you are serious about wanting stability there, then the focus would be on ISIS, on the one hand, on thinking about how you could actually have an opposition that you could actually negotiate with. Bolstering Assad when the vast majority of at least Sunnis within Syria will never make peace with Assad is not a prescription for creating an opposition that could also be capable of negotiating something.

We are a long way from creating that kind of an opposition. It is one of the reasons I favor a safe haven in the north. I favor a safe haven to stanch the flow of refugees. I favor a safe haven where you could actually have territory within Syria where you could begin to create leverage on an opposition and demand certain things of them as well. If you are going to have a political process, you have to have parties who can actually negotiate. That doesn't exist today.

I don't see what Putin is doing, I don't see what Russia is doing as making a political process more likely. I think it makes the partition of Syria more likely. We will have to see whether the partition of Syria over time is something that one can figure out a way to manage.

When you start partitioning these states, it seems to me that is going to add to what I was describing before. If you make this a sectarian conflict everywhere, then the likelihood of sorting things out in this region looks more and more dim.

QUESTION: James Starkman.

You gave a talk about three years ago in which I think you made some very prescient remarks about a no-fly zone being a possible lifesaver. That has turned out certainly to be the case, although there were risks then in going up against Soviet manned anti-aircraft missiles in Syria.

In terms of carving out a safe zone, is some sort of a no-fly zone part of that? What are the risks and what are the probabilities of any kind of cooperative success in such a venture now?

DENNIS ROSS: The answer is, you can't do a safe haven without a no-fly zone. But I wouldn't do it unless I used our leverage to produce it. What do I mean by that? Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar have all clamored for a safe haven. What I would do is go to them and I would say, "Look, if you want a safe haven, we're prepared to do our part. We're prepared to do no-fly. But we are not doing it unless you, Turkey, are prepared to police the area on the ground to ensure it can't be infiltrated by ISIS. We are not doing it unless you, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, and Kuwait, are prepared to finance the infrastructure for refugees. And we are not doing it unless you also will now ensure that we create a funnel for all assistance to go to one address, so that we have one address for the opposition." So you stop the fragmentation, giving monies to multiple groups.

I would go to the Europeans and say, "We are not doing it unless your air forces—you are going to benefit from stanching the flow of refugees; you have a huge stake in this—unless your air forces will work with our air force in terms of producing it."

Once I line that up, then I would go to Putin and I would say, "We're having a safe haven. Don't test it. If you want to cooperate, we'll cooperate. You don't threaten this area. You understand that if artillery gets fired in that, we are going to take out that artillery. It is going to be a safe area. And you should have an interest in it because ultimately this is the way we are going to produce an opposition that can actually be responsible and accountable and capable of negotiating."

When I first proposed the no-fly, it was when we first put nine Patriot batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border. I said you can do a no-fly on the cheap. You can declare that these Patriots batteries—these Patriots have a range of 75 miles. You simply say, "Anything that is flying in that 75-mile range, we're taking down. If Assad wants to lose his air force, he will test that. My guess is he won't want to lose his air force."

But now you are in a different place. You can't do it on the cheap in the same way.

This is what I meant—when you set up two choices where we are putting boots on the ground or we are doing essentially nothing, you invariably will find that your options down the road become worse and the costs higher.

I wrote a piece in The Washington Post last Sunday, where I said that I was part of the administration for three years. It was clear that the president, for understandable reasons—I don't question his concerns about getting drawn into a quagmire. I don't question those. I understand that. But the president was very clear that he didn't want to be drawn into a quagmire. The president was very clear that he didn't want to be involved, to quote him, "in somebody else's civil war." The problem, as I said, is, what happens if that civil war triggers a humanitarian catastrophe? What happens if that civil war triggers a refugee crisis of really huge proportions? What happens if that civil war gives rise to ISIS? What happens if that civil war is going to destabilize the neighborhood? Then you have a stake in that civil war. Not every civil war is the same.

I am not saying, let's go do in Syria what we did in Iraq. I am not saying that at all. I am even saying that because everybody has a shared interest, then look at what the shared interests are and say, "We are prepared to do our part, but this is what it takes for us to do it."

The longer you let this go on, the worse it is going to be. That has been the pattern of this one. When your focus is always on the costs of action—which, by the way, is understandable—the problem is that you tend to overlook the costs of inaction. The debate on this was always tilted in favor of the costs of action, for understandable reasons. The costs of action are immediate. You can identify them. The costs of inaction look to be abstract and hypothetical. The problem is—you said I said this three years ago—this was foreseeable.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you very much for sharing your experience and knowledge. Thank you.

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