In March I wrote that it was US President Obama, and not Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, that was responsible for the deterioration in the relationship between them. At the time I cited the July 13, 2009 meeting between Obama and American Jewish leaders in which Obama told Malcolm Hoenlein, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to
Look at the past eight years. . . . During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”
Goldberg: Go back to the beginning of their relationship. How do you apportion blame for the breakdown?
Ross: The president came in thinking that he needed to distance the U.S. from Israel. You know, he’s not unique that way. This is the fifth administration, the fifth president to try and do that.
Goldberg: Everybody’s looking for a panacea with the Arab world.
Ross: And it’s consistent—all it does is build an expectation and a set of demands that has never produced any response.
Goldberg: Did this president do it in a more obvious way than others?
Ross: No, I think the one who did it in the worst possible way was Nixon. . . . So it’s not the worst. But it was driven by the same impulse, that somehow, if we do this, we’ll gain credit for it. And you never get credit for it. And Bibi is surprised by it. And so I think that gets things off on the wrong foot. So, I think the president bears a responsibility in that regard.
In the same interview, Ross did put a portion of the blame on Netanyahu for his speech to Congress in March of this year. That speech, however, was six years after the President, by Ross’s own account, set to work trying to distance the US from Israel in order to try to gain credibility with the Muslim world.
Ross goes on to call out Obama for putting pressure only on Israel, and for giving the Palestinians what he calls “a complete pass.” Goldberg tries to justify it, by saying that Israel is the one with the power, but Ross doesn’t buy it.
Goldberg: OK, so Obama says the status quo is not sustainable. The status quo in the West Bank is not sustainable; Israel’s legitimacy is eroding; its democracy is going to erode; its demographic balance is going to erode. And what Obama says—he doesn’t call the prime minister a coward—but I think he believes that the prime minister is an ostrich with his head in the sand. What you hear from people around Bibi is, “Who is this naive outsider who is telling us our best interests?”
Ross: Look, I think that Obama asks a lot of the right questions about Israeli policy. My concern about Obama is that he never asks anything about the Palestinians. He gives them a complete pass.
Goldberg: Because Israel has more power than the Palestinians.
Ross: The problem is that it makes it worse for the Palestinians. For the Palestinians, you have a political culture that is driven so much by this profound sense of victimhood and grievance—the idea that they should do anything towards the Israelis, they should make any accommodation towards the Israelis, is completely illegitimate. If it becomes clear that no one is ever going to ask anything of you, then why would you ever take the hard path where you actually have to confront your political culture to do the kind of thing that is necessary for you? When you focus all the onus on the Israelis, you give the other side an excuse to do nothing.
Ross’s response to Goldberg points out the practical problem with his view, i.e., that by asking nothing of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, the US makes it impossible for the situation to move forward. Goldberg’s view, however, is factually incorrect as well. It relies on a framing of the conflict as only between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. It’s not. It’s a conflict between Israel and 50-plus Arab and Muslim states. Hamas in Gaza is funded by Iran. Israel is condemned internationally because members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation manipulate the UN and its so-called Human Rights Council.
With a book about the history of the US-Israel relationship set to be released on Tuesday, I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more from Dennis Ross.