NEW YORK — Dennis Ross, the longtime U.S. diplomat and Middle East expert, says that there has never been a time in its tumultuous history that the State of Israel has faced as many threats and unknowns as today.
He should know.
Ross has spent the better part of the last three decades trying to broker Middle East peace agreements under six consecutive presidents, Republican and Democrat. He served most recently as special assistant to the president in the Obama administration, before stepping down last November to return to his post as head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Middle East think tank.
He says that the precariousness of the situation today is similar to 1948, when the new Israeli state was fighting for its life, and during the early days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the country’s leaders feared the end of the Zionist enterprise.
But the current situation is worse, Ross told a group of Jewish funders and other leaders meeting last week at an informal retreat in Aspen, Colo., hosted by philanthropist Harold Grinspoon and his wife Diane Troderman. (The couple founded PJ Library, which distributes Jewish children’s books free each month to tens of thousands of families.)
For the first time, Ross, said, “The Israeli homeland is now vulnerable,” with wars no longer waged on distant battlefields but rather with tens of thousands of rockets — from Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south — aimed at the entire civilian population of the country.
In three after-dinner presentations, delivered with the clarity and logic of historical fact and personal experience — and with no notes — the 63-year-old former ambassador ticked off the threats from Israel’s neighbors, starting with Egypt, now governed by a forceful leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology is grounded in the demonization of Jews and Israel. Will the Sinai now become a platform for attacks on Israel? Is the peace treaty in jeopardy?
Ross noted that Egypt, faced with economic crisis, might be reluctant to pick a fight with Israel and put at risk substantial U.S. aid. But he cautioned against dismissing the Brotherhood’s founding anti-Semitic ideology, which could drive President Mohamed Morsi’s decisions.
Then there is Syria, “a huge unknown,” Ross said, in the midst of a growing civil war after almost four decades of stability on Israel’s northern border. What happens if the country falls apart? Will al-Qaida fill the vacuum? What of the stockpile of weapons in Damascus?
And of course most ominously there is Iran, whose rush to produce a nuclear weapon, and zealous hatred of Israel makes it an existential threat to the Jewish state.
The somber assessment was all the more chilling because it came from a man known for his calm demeanor and stubborn optimism about the prospects for Middle East peace. Once criticized by some Israel supporters as a self-hating Jew for his efforts to broker negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Ross was widely credited for moving the U.S. position away from confrontation with Israel over its settlement policy during the Obama administration and reducing tensions between Jerusalem and Washington.
Despite the perilous Middle East atmosphere heightened by what he called “the Arab Upheaval,” as opposed to the Arab Spring, Ross still believes that diplomacy now — especially now, when the Arab world is not focused on the plight of the Palestinians — is the ideal time for a proactive approach on Israel’s part. And he thinks diplomacy can resolve the escalating tension between Iran and the United States and Israel.
On the Palestinian front, Ross said that while it is only natural for Israeli leaders to prefer to “hunker down” and wait until the results of the chaotic situation in the Arab world becomes more clear, “the longer you wait, the fewer options you have.”
He calls for Israel to “shape the landscape, and not be shaped by it.”
The Palestinians are not going away, he noted, and unless an agreement is reached before the prospect of a one-state solution becomes dominant, Israel’s choices will be reduced to unilateral moves to avoid the lose-lose option of becoming a Jewish minority within its borders or sacrificing its democratic character and values. And unilateral moves on Israel’s part have had a history of not turning out as intended, as noted by the Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, resulting in the ascendancy of Hezbollah and Hamas.
Ross is calling for leaders of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to take tangible steps to convince the other side that they are serious about a two-state solution — such as Israeli compensation to settlers who move inside the Green Line, and the Palestinian Authority putting Israel on its maps, in its textbooks and in government documents.
On Iran, where the tension between Washington and Jerusalem is focused on measuring the impact of tough economic sanctions and the timing of a military attack against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, Ross said the United States has to make clear that the threat is to America, not just Israel.
Today, Iran doesn’t think Washington will strike, he said. “For diplomacy to work, Iran has to believe that failed diplomacy will lead to a U.S. use of force.” He added, “I am absolutely convinced President Obama will use force if all else fails.”
On the subject of Obama and the Jews, Ross, a Democrat, said a president’s commitment to Israel should be measured not by emotional responses but by dedication to security, and he asserted that the level of strategic cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem today is unprecedented.
“When the chips are down,” he said, from the Turkish flotilla incident to the lynch mob threatening Israeli diplomats last winter in Cairo, “who has [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu called? The president.”
Acknowledging tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, Ross pointed out there have been times when every president has had strong differences with the leadership in Jerusalem.
“The critical point is how you manage them, overcome them and not let them get in the way,” he said.
Ross, who is writing a book on the U.S.-Israel relationship, emphasized the importance of diplomatic efforts to resolve Middle East crises.
“There is no military solution” to the Iran problem, he said, since air strikes would delay but not destroy Iran’s drive for nuclear superiority. “Force is a means, not an end. We have to think about what we do after we use force.”
The political earthquake that shook the Arab world last year may take decades to resolve itself, he said, and the more Washington can keep Arab countries focused on their internal issues, the better.
In the last two weeks, Ross has published op-ed pieces in The New York Times and Washington Post urging tougher U.S. positions on both Egypt and Iran.
He called on Washington to make clear that financial help for Cairo is contingent on the new government “play[ing] by a set of rules grounded in reality and key principles,” including respect for “the rights of minorities and women” and upholding its peace treaty with Israel.
On the Iran threat, he proposed “four actions by the U.S.” to “extend the clock” for Israel before using military force. They include putting “an endgame proposal on the table” so as not to drag out talks with Tehran, and offering to provide Israel with military and diplomatic support in return for postponing “any attack until next year — a delay that could be used to exhaust diplomatic options and lay the groundwork for military action if diplomacy failed.”
Both pieces were quintessential Ross: pushing for mediation while grounded in pragmatic realism.
“The world has changed, and it is profoundly unsettling,” Ross said at the end of one of his Aspen talks, “but we are not without tools and leverage.”
How the United States uses those diplomatic tools may go a long way toward determining the fate of the Middle East, and [here] as well.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)