Explaining the Toxic Obama-Netanyahu Marriage
In a new book, the former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross explores just how close Israel came to attacking Iran, and why Susan Rice accused Benjamin Netanyahu of throwing “everything but the n-word” at Barack Obama.
Updated on October 9, 2015 at 12:40 p.m.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington early next month for a meeting with President Obama, he should at least know that he is more popular in the White House than Vladimir Putin. But not by much.
This meeting will not reset the relationship between the two men in any significant way, and not only because Netanyahu has decided to troll Obama by accepting the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute on this same short trip. The meeting between the two leaders will most likely be businesslike and correct, but the gap between the two is essentially unbridgeable. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the hopelessly naive Obama broke a solemn promise to never allow Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. From Obama’s perspective, Netanyahu violated crucial norms of U.S.-Israel relations by publicly and bitterly criticizing an Iran deal that—from Obama’s perspective—protects Israel, and then by taking the nearly unprecedented step of organizing a partisan (and, by the way, losing and self-destructive) lobbying campaign against the deal on Capitol Hill.
One of the closest observers of this toxic marriage is Dennis Ross, the former peace negotiator who worked for Obama on Middle East issues, including and especially on Iran. Ross’s new book, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama, is out shortly, and I spoke to him earlier this week about the Obama administration’s approach to Israel. Full disclosure: I’ve known Dennis for years and I provided a blurb for his book. (And not only did I blurb the book, I read it.)
Ross’s authoritative recounting of the long and complicated dance between American presidents and their Israeli counterparts is worth studying simply as a reminder that every current crisis has an antecedent. Those who argue that Israel-U.S. relations are at a low point are forgetting about many other low points, some brought to us by presidents far less sympathetic to Israel than the current president.
Ross spends a good deal of time refuting (successfully, in my opinion) the notion, advanced by the so-called realist camp of foreign policymakers, that Israel has consistently been a drag on America’s reputation and standing in the Middle East. Among other things, Ross expertly dismantles the “linkage” argument, advanced by generations of diplomats and analysts, which holds that an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty is a prerequisite for solving the Middle East’s many other problems. Reality, as Ross told me, has debunked this idea.
In our conversation (an edited and condensed version of which appears below), we spent a good deal of time talking about why the Obama-Netanyahu relationship degenerated the way it did. We also spoke at some length about what might be the most controversial passage in the book, one that concerns Netanyahu’s reaction to news that Obama’s negotiators had come to an interim agreement with Iran at the end of 2013—and the Obama administration’s reaction to Netanyahu’s reaction.
Recall that much of the Obama administration’s motivation to reach a nuclear agreement was rooted in its fear that Israel would launch a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Ross does a thorough job describing just how close the administration believed Israel came to attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and he describes the huge effort made by Obama to stave off an attack. So the administration was somewhat taken aback by the depth of Netanyahu’s anger over the interim nuclear deal, which Obama felt was in America’s—and Israel’s—best interests.
The most cataclysmic moment in their relationship may have occurred during a 90-minute phone call between the two men shortly before the interim agreement was announced. Ross writes that the call was so tense and uncomfortable that Susan Rice, the U.S. national-security advisor, told Abe Foxman, then the head of the Anti-Defamation League, that Netanyahu did everything but use the “n-word” in addressing Obama. Here is Ross describing the incident:
I was certain two leaders speaking the same language had talked past each other. I contacted Secretary [of State John] Kerry to let him know that the prime minister had formed an impression about the U.S. position that needed to be corrected. Kerry quickly followed up with a call. But the problem was a White House problem—and not one Kerry could easily correct. Had Tom Donilon still been the national security adviser, he surely would have understood from the call that there was a problem and he would have immediately spoken to his counterpart. If the misimpression was not corrected, he would have had President Obama make another call.
He had done precisely this in September 2012 when Prime Minister Netanyahu had made public comments challenging our position on the Iranian nuclear issue. Donilon arranged the call and the air was not only cleared but there was a meeting of the minds. By contrast, now there was no call from Rice, there was no follow-up from the president, and the prime minister did not soften his public criticism two weeks later when the actual Joint Plan of Action was concluded. Instead, Rice, reflecting her generally more combative mind-set, would say to Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, that in reacting to the Joint Plan of Action, Netanyahu’s posture was outrageous. In her view, the Israeli leader did everything but “use ‘the n-word’ in describing the president.”
Ross, in our conversation, said he does not believe Netanyahu is racist, and he also said that Rice doesn’t believe that Netanyahu is racist.
(I’ve asked Rice, through her spokesman, for comment, and will update this post when I get an answer. UPDATE: A senior administration official e-mailed me the following statement Friday morning: “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s opposition to the negotiations to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon long predated any conversation with the President. And Dennis Ross’ attempts to characterize Ambassador Rice’s ring hollow given that Ross had left the Administration by the time Ambassador Rice took on her current role. To be clear, they’ve never worked closely together in this Administration, and he’s making accusations from afar without firsthand knowledge. Finally, the whole issue of accusations of racism is, frankly, mystifying. We have legitimate policy disagreements with the Netanyahu government over the Iran deal, but those differences have nothing to do with the color of anyone’s skin. The alleged quote from Amb. Rice speaks to those differences after an especially frank phone call.”)
Ross went out of his way to praise Rice for vigorously defending Israel while serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but he told me that he places her in the camp of foreign-policy experts who see Israel as a burden: “Susan represents a mindset and a constituency that has existed in every administration ... every administration has had within the national-security apparatus a constituency that looked at Israel as a problem.” Rice, he said, has been unwaveringly suspicious of Netanyahu’s intentions, and feels Netanyahu and his ministers tried to undermine Obama numerous times.
For what it’s worth, I disagree with Ross on his understanding of Rice’s suspicions in the following way: While I take his point that constant communication would help resolve most diplomatic misunderstandings between friends, it is hard for me to dismiss Rice’s suspicions that Netanyahu was out to damage Obama as the paranoid fantasy of an official organically hostile to Israel. After all, Netanyahu put his thumb on the scale for Mitt Romney in 2012 in a fairly ostentatious way, and recent events—the highly politicized invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress that was issued by House Speaker John Boehner and arranged by Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s confidante and ambassador in Washington, and the equally partisan campaign against the Iran deal, in which Netanyahu wound up driving the American Jewish establishment down a cul-de-sac in an effort to sink the nuclear agreement—confirm Rice’s suspicions that Netanyahu treats her boss as an adversary.
There’s a lot more about this, and other controversies, in the conversation below:
Jeffrey Goldberg: I’ll get to Susan Rice in a second, but first, how seriously did the president and the administration take the Israeli threat to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities? Were there different points at which you thought this was likely to happen?
Dennis Ross: It was taken very seriously, starting in 2010 but especially in the summer of 2012. I explain in the Obama chapter that one of the reasons for his interview with you and then his speech to AIPAC in March 2012—where Obama comes out explicitly in favor of prevention, not containment—is because of [former Israeli Defense Minister] Ehud Barak’s increasing emphasis on the “zone of immunity” [in which Israel would no longer have the military option to strike]. Obama’s emphasis at this time was on prevention.
Goldberg: OK, about this land mine you planted in the book: You report that Susan Rice complained to Abe Foxman that Netanyahu was treating Obama terribly. At one particular point—
Ross: —It had to do with Netanyahu’s reaction to the interim Iran agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, which was done in December 2013.
Goldberg: And according to Foxman’s account, Rice felt as if Netanyahu was—
Ross: —Using everything but the “n-word.”
Goldberg: Do you think that Bibi has racist feelings toward Obama?
Goldberg: Do you credit Susan’s interpretation of what was going on in these meetings?
Ross: Look, I don’t think that she meant it that way. I think she felt that Bibi’s criticism of the interim deal, in her eyes, was so beyond the pale—to mix my metaphors—that this is the way she reacted to it. She has a tendency to be very competitive, anyway.
Goldberg: There is a belief on the part of some people around Obama that Netanyahu is very condescending toward the president—that he treats him as a naive, not very intelligent person. Do you agree that Netanyahu is condescending to Obama?
Ross: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s condescending, and I don’t think he’s condescending towards Obama. Look, many of their meetings were characterized by a very high-level discussion—serious, intellectual, thoughtful. Oftentimes, each of them would walk out of meetings feeling that that was a serious meeting, and then one or the other would do something afterwards that would be perceived as, “Oh, there they go again.”
Goldberg: Do you think that Obama believes that Netanyahu has racist feelings toward him?
Ross: I don’t think so.
Goldberg: You’ve talked to the president about Bibi quite a bit—
Ross: Here’s the way I think he reads Bibi—he looks at Bibi and he thinks, “This is a guy who sees no possibilities in ever changing anything, and is kind of down in the bunker.”
Goldberg: They admire each other’s intelligence?
Goldberg: Why did you report this in the book, if you don’t think that Rice is correct to interpret Bibi’s interactions with the president as insulting and condescending?
Ross: I did it for one reason only, because I was trying to encapsulate the anger that describes their reaction to Bibi’s view of the deal. In my mind, there were few ways to better encapsulate how angry they were over his reaction. And of course, he was angry, because he felt that Israel has been largely blindsided by this. I know this not just from Bibi, because I happened to be over there at the time. I know it from the security people on their side, including the intelligence people on their side, who were saying they were being briefed, but that there was no indication that the kind of deal that suddenly emerged with the Joint Plan of Action was about to emerge.
Goldberg: You know the Israeli system well. It’s a pretty leaky boat. If you were [U.S. nuclear negotiator] Wendy Sherman, doing something that you know the prime minister of Israel is not going to like very much no matter what, would you read the Israelis into 100 percent of your negotiations?
Ross: I did a lot of things with them through the years that were highly sensitive that they always protected.
Goldberg: So the Israelis leak about non-important information?
Ross: In my experience, yes. I would even say, the more that’s done with Bibi absolutely alone—if you do something completely alone with him—it won’t leak. But I think there really is a level of distrust there that helps explain it. There is a sense that the White House perceives that, “He’s out to get us. He’s out to screw us. He’s out to undercut us.” And so yes, it’s a provocative quote, but it really captured the sense of deep anger they were feeling.
Goldberg: Stay on this. I’m trying to understand this as best as I can. Could Netanyahu appear to an African American president to be condescending toward him? Is there a chance—did she use this expression, “n-word,” just as a way of saying, “This is how bad it got,” or was the president really thinking that Bibi was engaged in some sort of race-based attack?
Ross: I think it’s the former: “This is how mad we are at what he’s doing, and doesn’t he realize that we did a deal in good faith, and look at how he’s reacting, or he’s overreacting to it. It’s out of bounds.”
Goldberg: Was that the worst conversation, from your knowledge, that Netanyahu and Obama ever had?
Ross: Yes. Netanyahu had asked to see me that night. I was at their residence, and I had to wait about 30 to 40 minutes, because he was still on the phone with the president. This was the day that Bibi had come out and said, “This is a historic mistake.” And clearly the president’s trying to address that. They have a 90-minute conversation. And I get in there and it’s really—
Goldberg: Was he steamed when you talked to him after he talked to President Obama?
Ross: One of the things that was striking about this—and I know him pretty well, obviously—was that he wasn’t angry. It was the most unsettled I’ve ever seen him. I even tried to sort of crack a joke to begin with—I don’t remember exactly what I said—but I tried to lighten the mood, and it wasn’t that he was angry, it was that he was just unsettled. And I was convinced, listening to him, that he had misread the conversation with the president. He said to me, “The president made it clear that he can’t use force on Iran in any circumstances, and therefore he’s got to do a deal.”
Goldberg: The president would never say that.
Ross: That’s what I said: “There’s no way he said that.” Literally, I said, “There’s no way he said that.” I said, “Maybe he’s describing how, given the mood in the country, you have to prove that you’ve exhausted the options,” but Bibi read that conversation as, “The president feels he’s got to do a deal because force isn’t an option.”
Goldberg: So Bibi got off the phone thinking he had just talked to Neville Chamberlain. Obama got off the phone thinking he had talked to a man who had no respect for his analytical or negotiating abilities.
Ross: Right, and I was uneasy enough about this that I contacted Kerry and I said, “Look, you’ve got a big problem. I know there’s a misunderstanding there.” My concern was that you never allow, in negotiation, in diplomacy, a misunderstanding to take hold, because it only gets worse. And I said, “You’ve got to deal with this.” And Kerry called me back—I mean, I emailed him—he called me back, and he said, “I’ll call Bibi.” And I said, “The problem isn’t you. The White House has to fix this.” And that’s why I said in the book, if Tom Donilon had still been there, he would have been back on the phone with his counterpart, and he would have corrected it. And if he felt he couldn’t correct it that way, he would have arranged for another call. You wouldn’t let that kind of a misunderstanding take hold.
Goldberg: Does Netanyahu think Obama is an enemy of Israel?
Ross: He doesn’t think he’s an enemy of Israel, and he doesn’t think he’s insincere.
Goldberg: So he doesn’t think he’s an anti-Semite?
Ross: He doesn’t think he’s an anti-Semite at all. And he thinks, actually, that Obama does this out of a good motivation, but Bibi thinks he completely misreads the Iranians; he thinks he completely misreads the Middle East. And he worries—I actually had this conversation and I said to him: “Look, you both think this is a game changer, potentially. The difference is, he thinks it’s a game changer ultimately in terms of Iran itself; you think it’s a game changer in the region. You just have completely different points of departure.”
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. I mean, think about it. We might say that President Obama is passive towards the Russians on Syria. But Nixon basically suspends Phantom sales to Israel as a way of trying to appeal to Egypt at the time that the Soviets are actually, for the first time, sending military personnel outside the bloc.
Goldberg: Right, to train up the Egyptians.
Ross: And then actually to assume air-defense missions. I mean, the Russians put in 10,000 people there. 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.
Goldberg: But you have to admit that Netanyahu, in the last election, confirmed Obama’s suspicions about Netanyahu’s underlying beliefs concerning Arab citizens of Israel, and the efficacy of the two-state solution.
Ross: But certainly his reaction after Bibi’s election, when he won’t accept Bibi’s explanation that he isn’t against two states, that he thinks one state is the wrong idea, certainly when Bibi tries to correct it, the president is not willing to accept it. When a guy tries to walk something back, and you don’t let him walk it back—
Goldberg: Presidents do let people walk things back, it is true.
Ross: There’s not much precedent for that. So, the president bears a responsibility, but obviously Bibi bears a responsibility, and there’s no question the speech to Congress was over the top, and then he meddles in our politics on the Iran deal. So there’s no question that the president sees Bibi putting his thumb in his eye and deliberately playing politics here, and playing partisan politics here.
Goldberg: In other parts of the book, you argue—and this runs counter to what we’ll call, in shorthand, the AIPAC narrative—that President Obama has actually become, over the years, more sensitive, not less sensitive, to underlying Israeli concerns. You point out that on security aid, it is actually not an exaggeration to say that this administration will do almost anything Israel deems necessary.
Ross: Look, he was very clear early on that he always separated out security. When he says in the letter to [New York Democratic Representative Jerrold] Nadler that Israeli security is sacrosanct, I heard him say that in the Oval Office. I would hear him say, “Look, whatever our differences are, we fence off security and we do what we need to do on security.” And I think that was completely genuine, and I certainly saw it the whole time I was in, and we’ve seen it in terms of responses. I cite the example of [U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor] Tony Blinken going in during the Gaza War in the summer of 2014, at a time when the White House is clearly not happy with civilian casualties in Gaza, and the Israelis need more money for Iron Dome, and it’s not even an issue, it’s not even a discussion. It’s just, “Yes, we do that.”
I will say this, though: Recently, I’ve heard from some of the Israelis in the security establishment—not from the political side of the house—that they are worried about the preservation of Israel’s QME [qualitative military edge] and responsiveness on that. And I can say early in the administration, when I was there, we had inherited from the Bush administration what was, in fact, an Israeli perception that arms sales were being done, to the Gulf states in particular, without consideration of the impact on the Israeli side. We set up a mechanism to go through this with the Israelis in a way that addressed their concerns.
Goldberg: The Israelis aren’t worried about those weapons being used by the existing governments against them. They’re worried—
Ross: They’re worried about the future.
Goldberg: They’re worried about Saudi Arabia collapsing.
Ross: A lot of changes we’ve seen in the region weren’t predicted. And there is a concern now that the commitment on QME is a commitment they’ve seen in the past, and they’re wondering whether they’re going to continue to see it now. But in my experience, and in everything I’ve seen from the president, when it came to security, he would wall it off. The other thing that struck me several times with him when we were in the Oval Office—sometimes we would have these conversations, and he would say, “You know, whoever is sitting in this office is going to stand by Israel.” He says, “It’s not just me. Whoever is going to be here is going to do that.”
Goldberg: Well is that kind of a fatalism? Like, I can’t do what I want to do?
Ross: No, it was in a positive way. It had to do more, even then, with him beginning to see Israel facing an international environment that was increasingly hostile. And he was lamenting—I mean, this gets back to the idea that you wrote about in one of your interviews with him—he has a genuine sense of hurt, because he believes that he is someone who genuinely cares about Israel. In a lot of ways, when he would raise these things, it’s because he cares about Israel. I often described him as a person who is thinking that he’s doing for Israel something that is the equivalent of, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”
As he told you, he sees Israel heading toward the cliff. The interview that you did with him in 2014, where he has his—
Goldberg: Time is running out.
Ross: Yeah. I mean that really captured 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.
Goldberg: This is certainly something that predates this president, but it would be nice to hear a president say to the Palestinians, “Look, you guys have had five or six serious opportunities over the past 70 years or so to have a country of your own, and each time you’ve booted it. Why don’t you examine why this is so?”
Ross: Well to be fair, George W. Bush was trying to get at it when he first came out for Palestinian statehood and said, “Look, you can’t build a state based on corruption and terror.” But he wasn’t saying, “You know, you’ve had opportunities, and you haven’t taken advantage of it.”
Goldberg: The point of saying that would be to try to force the political elite among the Palestinians to—
Ross: —To own up.
Goldberg: Come back to President Obama and his understanding of this conflict. When I interviewed him in the beginning of 2008, when he was running for president, he referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “a constant wound,” one that spilled over into other areas of the Middle East. He appeared to be a believer in the linkage argument—that if you fix this, other problems in the Middle East might get fixed as well. Based on what you’ve observed, has he left linkage behind?
Ross: I think he has now. Certainly it stayed with him for a while. But reality debunks this notion now. It’s very clear that if you solve this, you’re not stopping one barrel bomb in Syria; you’re not going to stop an existential struggle in Egypt; you’re not going to—
Goldberg: —Yemen’s not going to get any better.
Ross: I think if you look at statements the president has made in the last year, you see for the first time a kind of acknowledgement of that. There was never an acknowledgement of that before. It weighed very heavily on the administration at the outset for sure. They saw it as being one of the sources driving terrorism. And so there was a kind of a traditionalist mindset on the conflict.
Goldberg: He actually conformed to the way a lot of Republicans and Democrats have thought about this issue.
Ross: Look, even when I talk about people like Susan Rice, Susan represents a mindset and a constituency that has existed in every administration. You know, every administration has had within the national-security apparatus a constituency that looked at Israel as a problem. It was a problem for us. It was something we had to deal with, and it created a problem for us in the region. Starting in [the] Reagan [administration] was the first time when you began to see a countervailing constituency—a different set of experts who existed there—who said, “Well actually there’s a different way to think about this region.” Prior to that time you might have some individuals—the only one in a senior national-security position like that was [Henry] Kissinger, who saw it somewhat differently—but prior to that time it was always the domestic political counselors who would make the case. Starting in Reagan, from [Ronald] Reagan’s time on, in every administration, you’ve had a countervailing constituency.
Goldberg: Which held that Israel was a strategic asset?
Ross: Yes, and that actually if you worked with Israel it was better for both of us—it enhanced their deterrence; it could actually affect your position better in the region. But it would certainly affect Israel’s behavior.
Goldberg: Part of the reason Barack Obama put daylight between Israel and the U.S., part of the reason he talked critically about Israeli decisions he didn’t like, was that he was reacting to eight years of Bush’s no-daylight policy. We have now, for the moment at least, the putative Democratic nominee—Hillary Clinton—who is opposed to this daylight idea. So now, even within the Democratic national-security apparatus, you have a real split. I think that President Obama believes that public criticism, when legitimate, is necessary to make and that speaking soothingly to Israel in public doesn’t do anything useful.
But neither approach has worked. You’re a Middle East peace negotiator and you err on the side of no-daylight, on the side of the close embrace. But why? It hasn’t actually gotten you anything.
Ross: Yes, I feel that the Israelis are more likely to do things when they know that they can completely count on us; when they think that we’re not going to leave them high and dry; when they feel that we understand their predicament. But I also think that the rest of the region adjusts to certain realities too. When they see a gap between us and the Israelis, they see, “Alright, we can exploit this.”
Goldberg: Their expectations for what Israel will give go up.
Ross: And even the potential for conflict changes. I think, you know, a gap between us and the Israelis when you’re dealing with Iran is a huge mistake. You need to be cementing deterrence towards Iran. You don’t need to be raising questions about it. So I favor it not just because of the peace issue; I favor it because of the way I read the landscape in the region. This doesn’t mean when the Israelis are doing something that’s really problematic, we shouldn’t spell things out to them privately, and if it continues to be a problem, to spell them out in public, but then I would require us to be equally candid about the Palestinians.
Goldberg: Let me play Susan Rice on a big question. And this has to do very much with Israel’s future. It seems like a mistake that, over the past 40 years or so, American administrations have not come down hard on Israel when it allowed the expansion of the settlement project into the West Bank. As the senior partner in the relationship, when you see your junior partner doing something that is fairly obviously self-destructive, you’re supposed to stop them from doing it. We expressed in mild ways our displeasure, but now we’re in a situation where it’s an open question whether you can disentangle the many, many thousands of Jewish settlers from what should be, or is supposed to be, Palestine. The reason I bring up Susan Rice in this is because I think that she has a mindset, like a lot of people, like me, that says of Israel: “Look at this mess on the West Bank, this was an unforced error.”
Ross: Right. Look, I’ve said it before—one of the mistakes we made in the Clinton administration was not holding the Israelis accountable enough on the settlement issue, because it was something that was going to make the Palestinians feel powerless. Another mistake was not holding [Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat accountable enough on the security issue, because of the impact it would have. Again, I don’t mind being prepared to be open and tough if we’re open and tough with both. It’s a mistake to be critical only of the Israelis because they’re the stronger party. My own position consistently has been this on the settlement issue: Israel today should make their settlement policy consistent with a two-state outcome. The only way they’re going to shift the onus onto the Palestinians and blunt the delegitimization movement is to make it very clear that the boycott movement is against the international consensus on two states. You know, Bibi Netanyahu goes to the UN and he says, “We’re for two states for two peoples.” And if he would make the settlement policy consistent with that, this would expose the delegitimization movement.
Goldberg: When I hear you say this, it makes me think that you’re saying that Obama should have cracked down harder on Israel for its settlement policies.
Ross: He framed the settlement issue completely incorrectly at the beginning of the administration. Instead of insisting on a settlement freeze with no natural growth, the position should have been that there needs to be a limitation on settlement activity. That should have been the position. It should have been consistent, it should have been in public. A limitation on settlement activity would have created a standard we could have defined. When you created, “We need to freeze settlement activity including natural growth,” you did something—you were asking Bibi to do something that none of his predecessors had done, nobody to the left of him had done. How’s he supposed to explain that? And we gave the Arabs and the Palestinians an excuse to sit back and do nothing until we delivered this. What I’m saying is, on these kinds of issues, if you have an objective, have the means to carry it out.
Goldberg: One more thing. You write of the Israeli government, fairly directly, that they often project a kind of, “What about us, what about us?” attitude. And then when the U.S. says, “Hey, what about us?” the response is like, “Oh yeah, yeah, don’t worry about it.” In other words, the Israelis take and take and don’t give.
Ross: One issue here is that the Israelis actually do a lot for us. The question is, the kind of things that they do for us, we kind of take for granted. We get a lot from them in the security-military area. A lot of innovation; doctrinal stuff; counterterrorism stuff. The issue with the reciprocity has been: We want them to pay in a coin that they view as existential for them. I think there are ways to have a different kind of dialogue with them. When you have someone like a Tom Donilon in a dialogue with them, they are much more sensitive to our concerns. The real issue you’re raising is: Are the Israelis sensitive enough to our concerns? Not just what are they doing, but are they sensitive enough to our concerns? There’s been a pattern historically where they would act unilaterally and it would be perceived as if they did things without regard to how it would affect us. When we have had people they believe understand their predicament who are asking things of them, they take that seriously. When there are those who they believe are just pressing down on them no matter what, then it moves them in the opposite direction.