Dennis RossBy BERNIE BELLAN It’s not often that Winnipeggers are treated to as senior an insider’s view as audience members at Tarbut were privileged to hear Sunday, November 15.

Dennis Ross served a pivotal role in peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.
As well, he served under Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State in the first Obama administration.
An author of several books, Ross’s most recent book is titled “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S. – Israeli Relationship from Truman to Obama”.
A relaxed and polished speaker, Ross told the sold-out audience Sunday evening that he preferred to walk around when he was speaking, rather than stand at a lectern – which he proceeded to do as he spoke about a wide range of subjects, occasionally engaging the audience in some back and forth repartée.
Ross began his remarks by referring to the topic that was top-of-mind for everyone that evening: the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13. “It is truly a surprising event because the French have been on a high alert since “Charlie Hebdo”; undoubtedly what we have just seen is a serious intelligence failure in France, even though the French were considered to have one of the best intelligence services in the world.”
The terrorists, Ross concluded, “probably did some rehearsals before this”, which makes the failure of the French intelligence service to detect it beforehand all the more serious a failure.
“I have no doubt we will see an escalation of the reaction against ISIS,” Ross suggested, “but unless we ratchet up the level of pressure against Assad as well, we will do nothing to discredit ISIS.” Ross also noted the “need to get Sunni tribes and Sunni states” also to discredit ISIS.
Yet, “the reason they (ISIS) carried out this kind of attack is because they’re suffering setbacks right now,” Ross suggested.
The type of terrorist attack that we have just seen in Paris is connected to what’s been going on in Israel, Ross said, “but not in a direct way. It helps to explain what we’ve been seeing: Young Palestinians – 15-25 – carrying out terror; they’re angry that nobody’s paying attention to the Palestinians.”
But, “what happened in Paris is going to reinforce that” (anger), Ross predicted.
“What we’re seeing (among Palestinians) is going to go on for some time,” Ross suggested: a very intimate form of terror.”
“You see the victim” (as you stab him or her); “it’s not an abstraction.”

What was the Obama administration’s reaction to the latest upsurge in violence in Israel, however? Ross asked rhetorically. “It was to call for an end to the ‘cycle of violence’,” he noted sarcastically, as if Israel had somehow done something to provoke the stabbings.
The American administration also referred to “Israeli settlement activity”, Ross noted, while refusing to refer to what Palestinians have been doing as “terrorist activity”.
We have “to refute a mindset (within the U.S. administration) that finds it difficult to criticize Palestinians – a mindset that has existed in every administration from Truman to Obama.”
At that point Ross asked the audience to name the one U.S. President who didn’t want to maintain a “gap” in the relationship between Israel and the U.S. There were some presidents who vacillated between wanting to maintain close ties with Israel and wanting to exert pressure on Israel, sometimes by delaying or even withholding weapon shipments that had been promised (as was the case in the first Reagan administration). Ronald Reagan, for instance, actually bore a deep affection for Israel stemming from his days as a narrator for Hollywood training films for G.I.’s when he himself was one of the first individuals to see footage from Nazi death camps. Still, that didn’t prevent him from giving into anti-Israel members of his administration such as Secretary of State Casper Weinberger, who wanted to withhold all arms shipments to Israel.
As for George W. Bush, although he proved to be quite sympathetic to Israel, especially during his second term in office, immediately after 9-11, Bush’s first phone call to any other world leader was to Ariel Sharon, then-Prime Minister of Israel, asking Sharon if he could assign then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to meet with Yasser Arafat because there was a strongly held view within some circles of the U.S. administration that the 9-11 attacks were precipitated by Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians.
It was Bill Clinton, Ross declared, who rejected the notion that the U.S. administration should maintain a gap between itself and Israel. Clinton, Ross said, “believed we are Israel’s only friend – and if we opened up a gap with Israel, it would give encouragement to Israel’s enemies.”

If Bill Clinton was Israel’s best friend among all American presidents since Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower was certainly the most hostile. (There is some irony in this, I thought to myself as I listened to Ross’s talk. Just six days earlier, during the Kristallnacht event held in this same room, many of the same people who were in the audience again this evening would have watched a film in which Dwight Eisenhower was lauded for his contribution in helping to bring over 1300 German and Austrian Jews to the Philippines prior to World War II. Hero to Jews one day – villain the next, I thought.)
Eisenhower went so far as to suggest that “Truman was owned by the Jews”, which is why Truman had the U.S. vote to recognize Israel as a state, Eisenhower thought.
“All of Truman’s advisers were against recognition of Israel,” Ross told the audience. The most adamant opponent of recognition was U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, Ross explained. “The State Department’s view was that Israel couldn’t survive as a state more than two years,” Ross said.
But, at a key meeting held in 1947, just before the UN was to vote on the plan to partition Palestine, Truman invited Clark Clifford, his key domestic policy adviser, to attend. The others at the meeting were all foreign policy experts – who were unanimous in their hostility to the idea of a Jewish state, yet Clifford was able to persuade Truman to put aside his own personal reluctance to support a Jewish state and ignore the naysayers in the State Department. Clifford argued that for the U.S. not to support partition and “not to recognize Israel” would prevent Israel from succeeding. Further, Clifford argued, “it will look like appeasement of the Arabs.”
Finally, Clifford dismissed the notion that if the U.S. were to recognize Israel, the “Arabs will withhold their oil. The Arabs can’t drink their oil,” Clifford argued.

The Eisenhower administration was by far the most hostile of any American administration, Ross claimed. Early on its hostility was signaled when Arab countries complained that Israel was drawing water from the Jordan River. (Israel does border on the Jordan River, Ross noted ruefully.)
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles went so far as to say that “We will counter Israeli aggression,” in response to the Arab complaints.
Then, during the 1956 Suez War, Eisenhower threatened to impose sanctions against Israel. Later, when Israel, in the face of the huge infusion of weapons that the Soviets were supplying Egypt and Syria, asked the U.S. administration for weapons, the response was: “You should seek the goodwill of your neighbours,” Ross said.
While Ross didn’t offer any insights during his talk about the Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon administrations’ policies toward Israel (It’s all in his book, he said.), he did discuss at some length Ronald Reagan’s schizoid attitude toward Israel. (See earlier reference to Reagan’s exposure to Holocaust atrocities that left a permanent imprint on him.)
While it is true that Reagan was the only president who actually suspended arms shipments to Israel (F16s, following Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osiris nuclear reactor), and Casper Weinberger actually wanted to break relations with Israel, later in Reagan’s second term, he became “a transformative president” - the first president who saw Israel as a positive player in the Middle East, not a problem.

Until Reagan began to shift his administration’s policies toward Israel, American policy makers had been guided by three assumptions when it came to Israel and the Arabs, Ross said:
1.If you distance yourself from Israel, you’ll gain the support of the Arabs.
2.If you cooperate with Israel, you’ll pay a huge price.
3.You can’t solve the problems in the Middle East unless you deal with the Palestinian problem.

As an example of this naiveté, Ross cited Richard Nixon’s overtures to Gamel Abdel Nasser, when Nasser was president of Egypt. By the late 1960s, not only had the Soviets completely rearmed Egypt following Israel’s devastating defeat of Egypt during the Six-Day War, for the first time ever, Soviet military personnel were stationed in a country outside the Soviet bloc.
Nixon decided to delay shipping Phantom jets to Israel in the hope that would impress Nasser to the point where Nasser would begin to cut his ties to the Soviets. That never happened, of course, and ever since, Ross suggested, successive American administrations should have learned that, for any Arab leader, his first priority is his own security and survival. “They never make their relationship with us dependent upon our relationship with Israel,” Ross observed.
In fact, Arab leaders don’t see Israel as a threat. Take the Saudi obsession with Iran, for instance, Ross said. No, Israel doesn’t even factor into discussions with most Arab countries, who are now preoccupied with their own internal problems or the threat posed by Iran. First and foremost, however, these Arab leaders want “America as their guarantor.” (And, if their perception is that American is failing in that role, they’ll look elsewhere, viz. Egypt’s recent rapprochement with Russia.)

As for the Palestinian issue, while Ross rejected the notion that solving the Palestinian problem is the key to achieving peace in the Middle East, he did qualify his remarks, saying: “Don’t get me wrong. You’re looking at someone who’s spent the last 30 years trying to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians – not because it’s going to bring peace to the Middle East, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
Concluding his remarks, Ross suggested that “the struggle in the Middle East is a struggle over identity – that’s what is going to characterize this region.”
“The relationship between Israel and the United States will continue to evolve,” Ross predicted, “through all its ups and downs, because Israel is the only democracy in the region – and that’s why the relationship is doomed to succeed.”

In the brief time allotted to questions, Ross focused in particular on the recently concluded deal with Iran.
Saying that he was “undecided” about the deal, Ross did say that, “if it’s enforced, it buys us 15 years, but after 15 years, it treats Iran as if it’s Japan or the Netherlands.”
Ross insisted that the U.S. should make it explicitly clear to Iran that Iran won’t be “able to produce highly enriched uranium after 15 years.”
Further, while Iran can be expected initially to abide by the terms of the agreement in order to have sanctions removed, the key to keeping Iran in check will be to “spell out the penalties for even minor transgressions” of the deal once sanctions are removed.
Finally, new sanctions should be imposed if, “after sanctions relief, Iran increases support for Hezbollah,” Ross insisted.
Yet, Ross admitted that, after Iran obtains sanctions relief for complying with the terms of the deal, it is an open question whether the “5 + 1” will be as vigilant in enforcing the remaining terms of the deal.
“The irony of this deal though,” Ross observed, “is that the Prime Minister of Israel was the most vocal opponent of the deal with Iran. Now he’s the most vociferous in favour of its enforcement.”
As for how a future U.S. administration might deal with a recalcitrant Iranian regime, Ross suggested that one way to that would be to arm Israel with the most sophisticated “bunker busting” bombs available, if Iran were perceived as, once again, pursuing acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
“Even if Iranians abide by the agreement along the margins, they’ll continue to make trouble in the region,” Ross warned. “Sending Israel bunker busters would send a clear message” to the Iranians that, even if the U.S. might not be prepared to take military action itself to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon after the 15 year term of the agreement has expired, Israel wouldn’t hesitate to do so.” That, in itself, would be sufficient warning to Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapon even after 15 years, Ross suggested.