The excerpt from former Obama administration official Dennis Ross’s new book, which ran recently in Politico Magazine, is a remarkable document. The excerpt is headlined “How Obama Got to ‘Yes’ on Iran: The Inside Story,” but that’s not actually what it’s about at all. (In fairness, editors are normally responsible for headlines.) It’s actually the story of how a senior Obama administration official—Dennis Ross—sought during his time in government and after to placate an intransigent Israeli leadership that, though Ross never mentions it, opposed any serious U.S.-Iranian negotiations from the outset.
Ross provides a revisionist history of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s take on diplomacy with Iran, particularly in the run-up to the November 24, 2013 Geneva interim deal with Iran. In this telling, Netanyahu bears little or no responsibility for his rocky relationship with Barack Obama. The problem was simply that Obama didn’t do enough for Netanyahu and Israel. “Overall within the administration,” Ross concluded, “there remained a strong consensus on our policy toward Iran. Negotiations need to be pursued. But in the process we damaged our relationship with Israel far more than we needed to.” We damaged our relationship with the Israelis, you see, with no accounting for anything the Israelis did.
Throughout the story, Ross portrays himself as Netanyahu’s personal envoy to the administration. There’s little reason to doubt this account. Ross, of course, hails from the traditional pro-Israel camp. He came to the administration from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think-tank formed by the influential lobby group AIPAC that rarely ventures far from the pro-Israel community’s right-leaning center of gravity. And WINEP, while occasionally offering some level-headed analysis, has most often given a scholarly patina to the demands of the Netanyahu government and its stateside Likudnik allies. At the very top of the organization, WINEP has a troubled relationship with Obama’s Iran diplomacy and, of course, the larger politics surrounding Israel in Washington: at the time of the Geneva agreement, Robert Satloff, WINEP’s head, criticized the interim deal based either on his misunderstanding of it or, worse yet, on his deliberate misrepresentation and belittlement of its achievements.
After Ross left the administration in 2011, he again took up a position at WINEP and began issuing criticisms consistent with those of what might fairly be termed the center to the right wing of the Israel lobby. Ross even went so far as to take up with an uber-hawkish neoconservative project, joining the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs‘s Iran Task Force as its co-chair along with George W. Bush’s undersecretary of defense, Eric Edelman. Ross also sat, for some time, on the editorial board of the journal run by neoconservative Islamophobe Daniel Pipes, a position Satloff also held. (Pipes’s relationship to Ross goes back to at least the mid-1990s, when Ross, then in the Clinton Administration, granted Pipes an interview. WINEP has other connections to the bigot Pipes, such as having hosted him on a panel in mid-2000s.)
Although neoconservatives have fought Iran diplomacy with every hyperbolic and apocalyptic pronouncement in their rhetorical arsenal—from screaming “Munich!” to echoing Netanyahu’s assessment that the deal would “all but guarantee” that Iran gets the bomb—Ross has generally been more tempered. He has supported the deal, albeit conditionally. But he has not wavered in his advocacy for Israel as part of the Iran deal. As with his current salvo, Ross and Satloff co-wrote a brief instructing Obama in what he must do to regain Israel’s confidence earlier in 2013. The absence of any instructions or recommendations for Netanyahu—or even any acknowledgement of Israel’s record on U.S. diplomacy with Iran—implicitly makes the same point Ross makes today: that the rupture in the relationship over Iran diplomacy is all the Obama administration’s fault and owes nothing to Israeli intransigence.
Ross Confronted with Netanyahu’s Missteps
No one, then, should have been surprised by Ross’s latest work. The Iran deal, to Israel advocates like Ross and Satloff, was and is always about Israel. They adopted Netanyahu’s maximalist positions early on and, when those became evidently impossible, issued demands that were designed to be difficult to satisfy.
In the total absence of any accounting by Ross for Israel’s actions on its side of the U.S.-Israel relationship ledger, it was left to the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, a liberal pro-Israel hawk—who also supported the Iran deal, also with reservations—to question Ross’s account. The journalist, whose Q&A with Ross appeared on The Atlantic‘s website, ended his introduction to the transcript of their conversation like this, with my emphases:
While I take [Ross’s] point that constant communication would help resolve most diplomatic misunderstandings between friends, it is hard for me to dismiss [Obama National Security Advisor Susan] 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.
That sounds about right to me. But even this abundant summary misses a few big points. The “partisan campaign” against the Iran deal, for example, started with the November 2013 interim agreement—the very one that, according to Ross, was the point where Obama missed his chance to placate Israel. Netanyahu waged an “information war” against the interim deal. In some cases, it could’ve been termed a “disinformation war.” I’m talking, for instance, about the wildly inaccurate estimates for sanctions relief spread by an Israeli cabinet minister that the State Department was forced to unequivocally deny. Before talks even got started in Geneva, the minister, Yuval Steinitz, called for ending talks altogether and derided a nuclear deal that was just starting to be hashed out as “Munich 1938.” The whole story of Iran diplomacy is littered with these examples, but you won’t read a single one in Ross’s book excerpt.
In the Goldberg interview, there’s this telling example (again with my emphasis):
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 [Obama] 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.
The implication here is that Obama must allow Netanyahu to recant something terrible he did—playing on racist fears and ditching the two-state solution in his re-election bid—because “there’s not much precedent for” presidents not letting foreign leaders walk back racist and other noxious statements. Unexplored here is the possibility that Obama—quite rightly, in my opinion—assessed that Netanyahu’s walk-back was, pardon my French, bullshit. What if the Israeli prime minister really does loathe a robust democracy where even Arab citizens vote in “droves”? What if, as the historical record of his many years as prime minister suggest, Netanyahu is not really serious about a two-state solution? And what if Barack Obama believes these things to be true? Should he just let Netanyahu walk-back his racism and pro-apartheid plans without blinking, as if they don’t exist? Ross apparently believes he should.
Ross’s criticisms of Netanyahu don’t carry any water because, in Ross’s view, Netanyahu seems never to be at fault. Although he notes perfunctorily in his answer to Goldberg that “obviously Bibi bears a responsibility,” the admission would be far from obvious to anyone who read Ross’s Politico piece, which lays the responsibility for patching up the U.S.-Israel relationship strictly at the doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
What’s perhaps most galling about Ross’s book excerpt in Politico is that no one seems to have noticed that he only tells one side of the story. The editor who handled the book excerpt at Politico seems to have never asked, “Hey, Dennis, what about the things Netanyahu did to damage the relationship?” or “Should we perhaps give a few counter examples?” In some ways, it is of course fitting: we are seeing the overwhelming role Ross played—not as a former administration official nor as a dispassionate scholar, but rather as an advocate for Israel. This is not a new role: in 2005, Ross’s deputy, Aaron David Miller, said that too many American officials act as “Israel’s lawyer”—a term widely seen as beingdirected at Ross.
Goldberg has his own analytical blind spots and biases about Israel, and I have criticized him many times). Yet it is he who finally corrects Ross’s sins of omission. And even then Goldberg’s criticisms come not as direct challenges, but as mere “What about X?” questions.
The national discussion in America about Israel—and make no mistake: the discussion over the Iran deal has much to do with Israel—is changing. But it’s a testament to the power of the Israel lobby that a figure like Ross can strut confidently across the mainstream media largely unchallenged with narratives that are demonstrably false to anyone who has paid attention to how much damage Israel’s political leadership has inflicted on bilateral relations over the past several years. Editors—perhaps not of his book, but certainly of news publications—should cease allowing such things to happen.
Thankfully, in this case, Goldberg called Ross out. But such criticisms need to go a step farther: Ross should be pressed to say what Netanyahu can do differently. It’s clear from Ross’s bragging about his many meetings with Netanyahu—”I know him pretty well, obviously,” Ross tells Goldberg—that he has the prime minister’s ear. Ross should take the opportunity to advise Netanyahu on his recommendations and perhaps even to suggest to him how his government’s rhetoric and actions may bear considerable responsibility for the situation that Ross now finds so regrettable. Instead, we have Ross’s one-sided Politico account, corrected after the fact, and glancingly, in Goldberg’s interview.