Few contemporary diplomats can claim greater expertise on the Middle East – particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – than Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has played various major roles in shaping American policy there for decades. In an exclusive conversation with The Octavian Report, he shares his thoughts on the enduring but fraught relationship between America and Israel, the challenges of the peace process and the precarious position of Israel, and the broader geo-strategic forces at play in the region.
Octavian Report: Are the US and Israel now at a low point in their relationship?
Dennis Ross: I would divide that relationship into two parts. One is a kind of institutional relationship which has developed over time and has taken on, in many respects, a momentum of its own. By that I mean the military to military relationship, the intelligence to intelligence relationship, the structural parts of the relationship that encompass a range of military intelligence, and economic cooperation. That, I think, continues unabated. It can be affected at the margins by what’s going on between the President and the Prime Minister, but I think fundamentally the trajectory of it continues to be very favorable.
The other side of the relationship is the personal relationship between the President and the Prime Minister. I do think we're at a lower point in this particular relationship; I think the character of the dialogue between the White House and the Prime Minister’s office has also diminished.
Will that fundamentally affect what happens in the future between the United States and Israel? I don’t think so. Can it affect what the White House does in relationship to efforts of delegitimization of Israel? I think so -- not that there won't still be a readiness on our part to adopt certain positions in public and international forums. But will the administration make the political investment needed to mobilize others in a serious way? My answer would be that you probably won’t see the same level of efforts.
OR: If there’s such close security cooperation, why is it not more well known?
Ross: In a sense because the players don’t broadcast it. A lot of the security, by definition, is something that you do as a part of normal business. You engage, you make consultations between the Defense Ministry and the Pentagon and between the US armed services and their Israeli counterparts in the IDF. Those consultations have taken on a combination of intimacy and routine. They are done on such a regular basis that you have a kind of professionalism built into those discussions, and you have personal relationships that have been built over time.
There’s a level of trust about the challenges faced at a security level and the competency with which both sides approach it. There’s a respect between the military establishments that is deep-seated and is also a function of, I think, how highly the leaders of the Israeli military and the American military have come to regard each other.
You don’t do work like that in front of cameras, you don’t do it with press releases, you don’t do it through slogans. It's real work -- and the measure of its reality is that you’re not interested in winning plaudits for it. You’re interested in getting things done. I think it’s done in the right spirit. And precisely because it’s not done just to win points, it’s appreciated by each side.
OR: Do you see Netanyahu's speech having lasting effects on Israel's bipartisan support in Congress?
Ross: I think fundamentally no. I also think there’s something deeper that goes beyond the tenure of any individual Prime Minister. There is a strong degree of support among the American public for Israel. Yes, there are differences when you break down the public between Republicans and Democrats. And there’s a pendulum here, to a certain degree: there have been periods in the past when the Democrats were seen as being closer to Israel than the Republicans. Today it seems to be more the Republican instinct to be closer to Israel. But what overrides both of those is an understanding that Israel, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, shares American values in the Middle East -- and nobody else in the region does. There are no other countries in the region that you can say are governed by a rule of law, where there’s a certainty of freedom of expression, where there are regular elections, where the loser in elections routinely accepts the outcome of the election, where there is respect for women’s rights, where there is respect for gay rights.
There’s one other factor: the same forces that threaten the United States also threaten Israel. That’s also basically understood within the American body politic. Whatever the current tensions, there’s an underlying strength that binds the United States with Israel -- one that is nonpartisan.
OR: What can we expect from the victory of Likud on March 17 and its formation of a new government?
Ross: I don't think anybody should assume they know exactly what the government is going to look like. First, while there is no doubt that Bibi is in the driver's seat, that he's going to be the Prime Minister, he still has to think about what he wants to do as Prime Minister. Moshe Kahlon determines whether or not he can put together a government without the Zionist Union. Even though he’s had personal differences with Bibi, he wants to unify the country. He has a very strong bargaining position. Bibi does not have a right-wing government without him, but there’s going to be tensions there because the religious are going to want money for their yeshivas – and Kahlon is focused very heavily on how you’re going to drive down the cost of living for the secular middle class.
I think the question that Bibi is going to face is how to put together a government that also allows him to be effective internationally. That's why I don't entirely rule out a national unity government. The key to that government is that Bougie Herzog and the Zionist Union won't come in without a freeze in building beyond the blocs. That will become, I think, a critical test for what the new government and Prime Minister Netanyahu are prepared to do.
I think he has an interest in trying to blunt the delegitimization movement, and to do that Israel needs to take an initiative. And I think he has an interest in trying to affect the US and the P5+1 in their approach to the Iranians. If perceptions about his government seem likely to make it harder for him to do that, that will be part of his calculus.
Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special Middle East coordinator for President Bill Clinton and was instrumental to a number of peace accords, and also served under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama.