Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama

Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama

by Dennis Ross


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Friday, June 18


Winner of the National Jewish Book Award's Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award in History.

A necessary and unprecedented account of America's changing relationship with Israel

When it comes to Israel, U.S. policy has, for some time, emphasized the unbreakable bond between the two countries and our ironclad commitment to Israel's security. Today our ties to Israel are close—so close that when there are differences, they tend to make the news. But it was not always this way.

Dennis Ross has been a direct participant in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and Israel specifically, for nearly thirty years. He served in senior roles, including as Bill Clinton's envoy for Arab-Israeli peace, and was an active player in the debates over how Israel fit into the region and what should guide our policies. In Doomed to Succeed, he takes us through every administration from Truman's to Obama's, throwing into dramatic relief each president's attitude toward Israel and the region, the often tumultuous debates between key advisers, and the events that drove the policies and at times led to a shift in approach.

Ross points out how distancing the United States from Israel in the Eisenhower, Nixon, first Bush, and Obama administrations never yielded any benefits and explains why that lesson has never been learned. Doomed to Succeed offers compelling advice about how the priorities of Arab leaders can be understood and how future administrations might best shape U.S. policy in that light.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536442
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 771,857
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy for George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Foreign Affairs called his first book, The Missing Peace, “a major contribution to the diplomatic history of the twentieth century.” His other books include Statecraft and Doomed to Succeed.

Read an Excerpt

Doomed to Succeed

The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama

By Dennis Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Dennis Ross
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70948-8



Today, the relationship between the United States and Israel is extolled by American presidents. We take it for granted that presidents will stress their commitment to Israel and to the ties that bind us. But it was not always this way. Harry Truman faced enormous resistance within his administration to his decision to recognize the Jewish state. Similarly, selling or providing arms to Israel was taboo until President Kennedy decided to do so — again, a controversial decision within his national security apparatus. Later, during the first week of the 1973 war, Richard Nixon initially resisted Israeli near-desperate pleas to resupply weaponry, following the major losses of aircraft and tanks the Israelis had suffered. Although Nixon eventually provided a massive resupply of arms to Israel, his decision had more to do with cold war concerns that Soviet weapons could not be seen to defeat American weapons than with any special relationship that existed between our two countries.

From the perspective of history, the relationship has clearly evolved. And to understand where the relationship is today and where it is going, particularly during a period of transition in the Middle East, it is important to understand why the relationship changed. To do so, I will examine the policy and approach of every administration since Israel's birth. I will offer a narrative of the policy and the key developments in each administration, starting with Harry Truman's. I will outline each president's basic instincts or mind-set toward Israel and toward our policy in the region, as well as the basic assumptions that seemed to guide the national security establishment and senior officials about Israel and the region — and whether there was unanimity or division.

What will emerge from the review is remarkable continuity — not of policy, necessarily, but of arguments. Over and over again, we will see recycled concerns that too close a relationship with Israel will harm our ties to the Arabs and damage our position in the region. Until the 1990s, the fear was that we would drive the Arabs into a Soviet embrace. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the concern was that it would damage our relationship with the Arabs and make us targets of jihadist terrorism. The debates that center on these issues produced a pattern: when an administration is judged by its successors to be too close to Israel, we distance ourselves from the Jewish state. Eisenhower believed that Truman was too supportive of Israel, so he felt an imperative to demonstrate that we were not partial to Israel, that we were in fact willing to seek closer ties to our real friends in the region — the Arabs. President Nixon, likewise, felt that Lyndon Johnson was too pro-Israel. In his first two years, he, too, distanced us from Israel and showed sensitivity to Arab concerns. President George H. W. Bush believed his former boss, Ronald Reagan, suffered from the same impulse of being too close to Israel. He, too, saw virtue in fostering distance. And President Obama, at the outset of his administration, certainly saw George W. Bush as having cost us in the Arab and Muslim world at least in part because he was unwilling to allow any gap to emerge between the United States and Israel.

In none of these instances do we actually gain any benefit to our position in the region. Our influence does not increase; our ties with the conservative Arab monarchies do not materially improve. Neither is there any decline in those relationships during administrations that are putatively seen as being closer to Israel. Our ties with the more radical Arab regimes are not good, but then again — with the possible exceptions of the Kennedy administration's concerted effort to reach out to Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Reagan administration's support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War — they were never good.

Yet arguments that we must distance ourselves from Israel are not discredited when the predicted positive outcomes do not occur. Nor are these arguments discredited when the anticipated terrible consequences of drawing closer to Israel fail to materialize. With regard to the latter, when we recognized Israel in 1948, or later when we sold arms to Israel and the Soviets couldn't replace us in the area, and when the flow of oil from the region was not lost, no one questioned why these devastating outcomes did not happen. No one asked what was wrong in our assumptions about the dynamics of the Middle East. Remarkably, there seem to be few lessons ever learned.

These assumptions are obviously about more than Israel's place in the region and its neighbors' reactions to it. They also involve the perceived forces of change and whether and how we should relate to them. Late in the Eisenhower administration, the president signed a policy directive that effectively called for us to "accommodate" radical Arab nationalism. The assumptions that guided that posture are similar to the arguments in parts of the Obama administration in 2011 and 2012 that argued that the Muslim Brotherhood represented the wave of the future in the region and that our more conservative Arab friends were on the wrong side of history — and our policy needed to reflect that. In the late 1950s and in John Kennedy's first two years in office, the logic of that policy was pursued and failed to deliver. Yet no one asked how or even whether the radical Arab nationalists like President Nasser of Egypt could alter their aims without betraying their very identity. The same may be true today with Islamists. It makes sense to take a hard look at these kinds of assumptions and evaluate them in light of what drove the radical nationalists in the past and what factors may drive the Islamists today.

If there was ever a time to rethink assumptions and gain a better handle on the dynamics that are likely to shape the Middle East, this is surely it. Because the American approach to Israel over time was generally derivative of our broad approach to the region, one way to rethink assumptions is to see which ones took hold, why they endured, where they were off base, and how they need to be changed. That is why I examine every administration from Harry Truman to Barack Obama and how each approached both Israel and the region.

Harry S. Truman: The Struggle to Adopt a Policy

"Struggle" is the right word to describe the policy of the Truman administration toward Palestine and the emergence of the Jewish state of Israel. President Truman had to contend with the reality that none of his senior national security officials saw any strategic benefit in supporting Jewish aims in Palestine. On the contrary, they saw only costs. These attitudes carried over from the Second World War, when concern about alienating the Arabs was prevalent, given the fear that it might trigger a loss of bases in the Middle East and disrupt the resupply from the region to the European theater and Lend-Lease operations into the Soviet Union. With the advent of the cold war, the approach to the Middle East was defined by what was perceived to be necessary to "contain" the Soviet Union. This is the context in which Truman and his national security advisers shaped foreign policy. But that was not the only contextual factor affecting Truman and the approach to Palestine and the Jewish question. He had inherited a legacy as well.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt left President Truman a muddled legacy on Jewish aspirations in regard to Palestine. To Jewish leaders and groups, he promised his sympathy and support for a Jewish state and allowed them to issue statements in his name. However, with the Arabs, he privately assured them that nothing would be done that would be hostile to their interests. Indeed, after authorizing Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver to declare, in his name, on March 9, 1944, that the U.S. government had never approved of the White Paper of 1939* and expressing "his conviction that when future decisions are reached, full justice will be done to those who seek a Jewish national home," he had the State Department send reassuring messages to Arab leaders that no decision would be made without "full consultation with both Arabs and Jews." This was his pattern on the issue: he juggled the conflicting attitudes and pressures and basically equivocated, believing there would be time after the war to solve the problem.

But it was not only that he felt he had time. He also had great faith in his own ability to persuade or charm leaders. Roosevelt was certain that he could bring around the king of Saudi Arabia on the Palestine question. He arranged to see Ibn Saud on his return from the Yalta Conference on the navy cruiser USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal. In advance of this meeting, he told his new secretary of state, Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., that he would "point out to Ibn Saud what an infinitesimal part of the whole area was occupied by Palestine and that he could not see why a portion of Palestine could not be given to the Jews without harming in any way the interests of the Arabs."

Unfortunately, his meeting with Ibn Saud did not go as he envisioned. The king was implacable in his opposition, telling the president the Germans and not the Arabs should pay for what had been done to the Jews in Europe. The Arabs would die "rather than yield their land to the Jews."

It was not the king of Saudi Arabia who was persuaded in the meeting but rather President Roosevelt, who underwent a seeming change of heart. So much so that he reassured the king that he would "do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs" and would "make no move hostile to the Arab people. "When he reported to the Congress on the Yalta summit, he added to his prepared text the unscripted comment that "of the problems of Arabia, I learned more about that whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in [the] exchange of two or three dozen letters."* True to form, Roosevelt sought to reassure Jewish leaders of his intent after his comment to the Congress. Once again, he allowed Rabbis Wise and Silver to publicly reaffirm his strong support for the "Zionist position."

But in truth, his private views seemed to have evolved. After seeing Ibn Saud, he no longer believed he could convince the Arabs to accept a Jewish state. Unlike his wife, Eleanor, who was convinced of the Zionist strength and readiness to "risk a fight with the Arabs" over Palestine, he was concerned that the Arab numbers would "in the long run win out." Just weeks before he died, in April 1945, he met privately with the leaders of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein and Joseph Proskauer, who were not Zionists and did not favor the creation of a Jewish state. He told them that in the present conditions a Jewish state in Palestine was impossible to achieve. Perhaps he was only telling them what he thought they wanted to hear, but his words echoed what he had told his wife after the Ibn Saud meeting. Given the strategic concerns that had dominated his thinking about the region during the war, the views of his national security advisers, and his concerns about the survivability of a Jewish state, it should come as no surprise that his aide David Niles — who would also serve in a critical role with President Truman — later said that he had "serious doubts ... that Israel would have come into being if Roosevelt had lived."

In short, Truman inherited from Franklin Roosevelt a legacy of contradictory promises to Jewish and Arab leaders, a national security team strongly opposed to Jewish aspirations or interests in Palestine, and a public political posture embodied in the 1944 plank of the Democratic Party platform that gave strong support to the Zionist goals in Palestine.

Truman also inherited something else: the horrific stories emerging about the concentration camps and the reality of the Holocaust. General Eisenhower toured the camps in mid-April 1945, shortly after Roosevelt's death. Shocked by what he saw, he invited leading members of the U.S. media to come and report on the gruesome, barbaric reality so the American public could see what the Nazis had done. Their reports not only generated great sympathy for the Zionist cause but also were a reminder that we now had responsibility for taking care of the survivors in the camps. For President Truman, the roughly one and a half million "displaced persons" (DPs), a quarter of a million of whom were Jewish, were now an American responsibility, as we had control over the camps. Understandably, Truman saw both a practical and a deeply troubling humanitarian problem. For Roosevelt, the question of Palestine could be deferred. For Truman, the humanitarian challenge was immediate and real — and required action.

Overview of the Truman Policy and Key Developments

Reports of Jews dying in the camps after liberation by U.S. forces led American Jewish organizations to press for immediate steps to remedy this grim reality. On June 22, 1945, President Truman appointed Earl G. Harrison, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, to go to Europe and investigate the conditions in the camps and recommend a course of action. The Harrison Report detailed the unsanitary conditions, shortages of food, and the fact that Holocaust survivors were still wearing the same prison garb. "As matters stand now," he wrote, "we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them." The survivors, he said, wanted nothing to do with a Europe that had persecuted them; they feared coming to America. They wanted only to go to Palestine. Anyone going to the camps, he added, would find it "nothing short of calamitous to contemplate that the gates of Palestine should be soon closed." He called for the Jewish DPs to be treated differently from other refugees, and recommended that 100,000 of the Jewish DPs be allowed to go to Palestine immediately, with others permitted to follow — and concluded that "the civilized world owes it to this handful of survivors to provide them with a home where they can again settle down and begin to live as human beings."

Truman was shocked by the report. But the British remained the mandatory power in Palestine, and they determined whether Jewish survivors could come. Against the advice of the State Department, at Potsdam, Truman asked Winston Churchill to lift the 1939 White Paper's restrictions on immigration without delay. But with the Conservative Party losing to the Labour Party in the elections immediately after Potsdam, Churchill was out and Clement Attlee was in. Truman shortly sent Attlee a copy of the Harrison Report under the cover of a personal letter, in which he asked the new prime minister to lift the quota limiting Jewish immigration into Palestine and to permit 100,000 refugees to enter as soon as possible.

Attlee, saying that any such action without prior consultation with the Arabs would "set aflame the whole Middle East," was not willing to accept the Harrison Report's call for Jews to be treated differently from other DPs or Truman's request to permit 100,000 to move quickly to Palestine. Facing the reality that congressional and public pressures were growing on Truman to do something about the Harrison Report recommendations, Attlee initially suggested that the British turn the broader Palestine problem over to the United Nations. However, by mid-October 1945, Attlee had changed his position and proposed instead a joint Anglo-American Committee to study the problem of where Europe's Jews might go. In proposing the committee, he hoped not just to buy time but also to have prominent American and British figures develop a common approach that would not plague our policy toward Palestine and the Middle East.

Truman agreed to the formation of the committee provided the work would be done quickly. He asked that its findings be produced within 120 days, and that it address the plight of the Jews in Europe and the conditions in Palestine for absorbing them. Secretary of State James Byrnes made clear to the British that President Truman was not walking back on his request to have 100,000 Jewish DPs enter Palestine as soon as possible.

Over the next several months, the members of the Anglo-American Committee spent time in the DP camps in Europe. They witnessed Jewish survivors pleading to go to Palestine, and they traveled to Palestine and met extensively with the Jewish and Arab leaders there. Notwithstanding their different attitudes initially, they produced a consensus report that was unveiled on May 1, 1946. Much to the chagrin of Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, the committee recommended the immediate issuance of 100,000 certificates for Jewish DPs and recommended the lifting of the White Paper's restrictions on land sale and immigration for Jews coming to Palestine. For the longer term, the committee came out against either an Arab or a Jewish state, calling instead for economic development, education, and reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, with neither ascendant over the other.


Excerpted from Doomed to Succeed by Dennis Ross. Copyright © 2015 Dennis Ross. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. The Evolution of U.S. Policy Toward Israel
2. The Eisenhower Administration and the Pursuit of Arab Allies
3. The Kennedy Administration: Breaking Taboos and Pursuing a New Balance
4. Lyndon Baines Johnson: Emotional Ties but Constrained by Vietnam
5. Nixon and Ford: Dysfunction, War, and Interim Agreements
6. The Carter Presidency: The Pursuit of Peace and Constant Tension with Israel
7. The Reagan Administration and the Policy of Duality
8. George H.W. Bush and Israel: Discord and Responsiveness
9. The Clinton Administration and Israel: Strategic Partners for Peace
10. Bush 43: Terror, Partnership, and Bureaucratic Divisions
11. Obama and Israel: Support for Security, Little Chemistry, Constant Challenges
12. Lessons from the Past and Implications for the Future

Customer Reviews