Jlife magazine was honored to have the opportunity to interview Ambassador Dennis Ross before his upcoming appearance at Merage JCC on November 22. Ambassador Ross is an American diplomat and author. Throughout his distinguished career he has served as the Director of Policy Planning in the State Department under President George H. W. Bush, the special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, and was a special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia (which includes Iran) to the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is the author of several books on American Foreign Policy in the Middle East and is currently lecturing on his most recent book “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.–Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama.”
Jlife: What was your childhood like (in regards to your upbringing with a Jewish mother and Catholic stepfather)?
Ross: I was raised in a completely nonreligious household. I was aware of a Jewish affinity, but not in any real deep sense if you will.
Jlife: I’ve read that you were inspired to study Judaism after the Six Day War.
What was it specifically about that war that inspired you?
Ross: I wouldn’t say that the war inspired me to study Judaism. However, after the Six Day War I became much more interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict than I had been. My own sense of Jewish identity became stronger later on.
It became stronger first when I married my wife (we married young). She came from a family that was much more observant and conservative and she was much more steeped in Judaism than I was. That built a level of interest on my part and obviously when we had kids we joined a shul. That had a big impact on me particularly because my rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman, gave such good dvar torah that were so thought-provoking that I actually began to become a regular shul-goer on Saturday mornings. That had a profound effect on me.
Jlife: You’ve written many books about America and its relationship with the Middle East. Can you tell us about your new book “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S. Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama?”
Ross: Well, it’s a book that tells a story of the U.S.–Israeli relationship in a way that has never really been told before. I look at every administration from Truman to Obama and outline not only the Presidents’ mindsets, but also what the key issues and debates were during that time. What were the key assumptions that drove policy? I offer an insight into lessons that should have been learned, lessons that should still guide us today and that haven’t always guided us in our foreign policy towards Israel and the Middle East.
Jlife: In regards to the 2000 Camp David summit, I’m wondering if you have any opinion on why the talks broke down and no agreement was able to be made at that time?
Ross: Well, I do and I’ve written and spoken about it. I don’t believe that Yasser Arafat was capable of ending the conflict. In the end, the essence of what we were trying to do was to end the conflict. For him, to end the conflict meant the end of his identity because he himself became so consumed with the struggle. The struggle began to define him. He was willing to do limited agreements. He was willing to do interim agreements, but in the end the conflict meant he had to end his claims. He had to, in effect, make it clear the struggle was over and that was simply something that he couldn’t do.
Jlife: How do you feel about the conflict today and what do you think of a two-state solution?
Ross: Well, I think the two-state solution is necessary simply because demographics at some point would turn Israel into a bi-national state. The essence of Zionism was to build a Jewish democratic state so I think you need a two-state outcome to produce that. The problem is… I don’t think Palestinians–at this point–are capable of negotiating such an outcome. I think you need to find a way to preserve it for Israel’s interests. I think you need to find a way to create a potential for separation. And I think you need to figure out a way to ensure that Israel doesn’t lose is Jewish and democratic character.
Jlife: How do you feel about the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign relations in the Middle East?
Ross: Well, I think at this point there are a lot of questions about it. It’s not clear what the essence of his strategy is. On the one hand, I think he wants to find ways to reduce the level of conflict in the region, but he doesn’t have a clear approach to ISIS (particularly in Syria). If you’re really going to be able to defeat ISIS you have to be able to gain Sunni support because we can’t discredit ISIS only Sunnis can. If we’re lobbying ISIS on the one hand, but we’re not prepared to ever act against the Assad Regime particularly at a time now when Russia is doing more and Putin is doing more to try and cement the Assad Regime…the problem is that basically most of the opposition to it is that we would want to fight ISIS and their priority is to fight Assad.
And if you’re not prepared to really have a strategy against Assad then in a sense you risk the danger that ISIS will be seen as the protector of the Sunnis. If they’re able to be seen as the protector of the Sunnis then you won’t have the Sunni tribes join with you. You have the Sunni states that feel particularly threatened by ISIS; they are going to be reluctant to focus and to do a lot to support your efforts. And so I think unless you have a strategy against ISIS that is also designed to have a credible strategy against Assad, which we don’t have today… you’re going to find that it’s very difficult to succeed against ISIS.
(In regards to the Iran Nuclear Deal) Having done the nuclear deal with the Iranians doesn’t mean that you’re a partner with the Iranians, but you have to be prepared to compete more with the Iranians and the rest of the region. Otherwise, again the Sunnis and your traditional friends in the region will be highly suspicious of you. In the book that I have just done, one of the key things that comes through is that the Arab states are far less concerned with our relationship with Israel and are far more concerned with the question of, “Are we reliable when it comes to the threats that matter to them?” Now, I think today… they don’t perceive us as being reliable when it comes to the threats that pertain to them.
Jlife: Do you feel there will be changes to foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East with the impending change in administration?
Ross: Well, I do think there will be a change with the next administration. I think that the new administration (whoever it is) will want to signal early on that its relationship with our more traditional friends in the region–even if some of those friends have their own sets of problems–I think there will be a desire to sort of demonstrate that the relationships that we’re going to want to strengthen reflect the traditional ties that we’ve had. At least with some of the key Arab states. I think there will be a stronger desire to also show that there are no real gaps between us and the Israelis (at least in terms of strategic orientation in the region). So I do think that whoever is elected will be doing more to create a perception that the United States is standing by its friends. In a way–whether it’s fair or not–I think certainly the Obama administration would say it stands by its friends in the region, but the perception in the region is that it’s different than that. I think any new administration will probably want to demonstrate that it is reliable when it comes to supporting its friends in the region and signal at least some difference even if it’s more psychological than real.
Jlife: On that note, do you have an opinion on John Kerry not visiting Israel on his most recent trip to the Middle East?
Ross: You don’t judge by the number of trips that are taken so that’s not a unit of measure for me. The measure for me has much more to do with what the character of the relationship is; it’s not measured by the number of trips.
Jlife: The timing of it…do you think it had anything to do with Netanyahu speaking out before Congress in regards to the Iran Nuclear Deal?
Ross: I think the real reason for not going there had more to do with the fact that the focus was going to be on Iran. Given what the position was of the Israeli government… you know there wasn’t a lot of value at that point in having discussions on that because Netanyahu made it clear he wasn’t prepared to. You know you have the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, go to Israel at that time… you had conversations with the Israeli military… but some of the things he wanted to do as far as the future and planning for the region, it just was not the time to do it because of the differences on Iran. I think you’ll see in the discussions now that they will be ready to have those discussions again. Don’t read too much into the fact that he didn’t go at that point to Israel. He was going to the Arab states to try to reassure them about some of the concerns they had on their recent deal and he wasn’t going to be able to do that with Netanyahu. He knew that there would be a time later for those discussions. I don’t see the trip or not going there as being an indicator of anything other than the fact that there were differences on Iran. They weren’t going to be able to really deal with discussions on the future of the region until after the Iranian vote and the vote on the deal in Congress had played out.
Jlife: How do you feel about the Iran Nuclear Deal?
Ross: Well, I was very public about it that I was “undecided.” I was undecided not because I didn’t think there were good elements in it. It bought 15 years for real, because for 15 years it blocks the pathway towards an enriched bomb based on uranium enrichment. It blocks the pathway towards a plutonium separation bomb; it blocks a pathway towards a covert path to a bomb because of the supply chain. The supply chain is key to being able to divert materials for a covert program. The whole supply chain meaning the mining of uranium, the milling of uranium into yellowcake, the conversion of yellowcake into UF6 gas–which is then fed into the centrifuges and purified–each of those steps in that supply chain are monitored on a 24/7 basis. So you can have a high level of confidence that for 15 years you won’t have a nuclear bomb. The problem is, is that after 15 years there are no limitations on Iran. Iran can build as large of a nuclear infrastructure as it wants. It will be able to dramatically increase its output of enriched material because five new models of centrifuges will start being installed in year 10 of this agreement. The output is still limited to less than one bomb’s worth of material for 15 years. So it’s 15 years that you really are blocking the pathway, but after 15 years the Iranians are in a position where the gap between where they are and what it would take to produce a weapon is very small.
So I was very uneasy about that and I felt the administration needed to do more to establish credible deterrents. They needed to do much more to convince the Iranians that if they even thought about moving towards a weapon… at that point it wouldn’t be sanctions that would be imposed. It would be the use of force. So I was undecided because I didn’t feel enough was done–at least on that side of the agreement–to bolster deterrence and to make it clear that after 15 years the price to the Iranians of moving towards a weapon would be the use of force. That’s why I was “undecided.”
Jlife: Hilary Clinton is scheduled to testify before Congress about Benghazi in October. Do you have any predictions on how that will affect her campaign?
Ross: You know… I don’t think that Benghazi is an issue that is being looked at the right way. The issue of Benghazi has more to do with, “Can you have a diplomatic outpost where you don’t have a reliable authority that provides you security?” We have a Marine presence in embassies that isn’t the key to the security in those embassies. The key to the security in our embassies has much more to do with, “Does the local government provide security or not?” And I think the issue of Benghazi was, “Can it be a diplomatic outpost given the fact that you really didn’t have an authority that was capable of providing security?” I mean, that’s the question that needs to be looked at for the future… the discussion that the administration was somehow asleep is just, I’m afraid… it’s the wrong question that’s being looked at. I would like to see the right question looked at and I don’t see it as having much of an effect on her campaign.
Jlife: What do you think of the race for the Republican nod?
Ross: I think its wide open. I think it’s very hard at this point to determine what’s going to happen. You have a very large number of candidates and you know I have a hard time believing that in the end someone like Trump (who really doesn’t have a policy and doesn’t spell out any policy) is ultimately going to succeed unless he becomes a whole lot clearer on what he would actually do as our president. Somehow I suspect that will change. I think we’ll see a different front runner at some point, but I think it’s very unclear what’s going to happen at this point.
Jlife: You are a Democrat that has held important positions both in Democratic and Republican Administrations. What challenges did you face in both instances?
Ross: Well, in the past I think that the climate in the administrations was different. The focus was much more on your expertise and who you were in terms of what you could do on national security issues then your political affiliation. So obviously when I was asked to stay on in the Clinton administration after having held such a high level position in the George H. W. Bush administration… in the early period there were often times when I would walk into rooms and there was kind of a whispering of, “Look who just walked in?” You Know?
But… you prove yourself over time and, in the end, I felt very comfortable. I was Bill Clinton’s negotiator on the Middle East and I ended up having a very close relationship with him. I was very close to George H. W. Bush in his administration just given the character of the position that I held. Those were presidents that looked at how you approached national security questions and they looked at you through a professional lens not through a political lens. I hope that, that kind of reality can reemerge. I often joke that having held high-level positions in Republican and Democratic administrations… I feel like today I would be an extinct species. I think we need to return to a time when your own political identity is less important than what you can bring to the table as someone who knows foreign-policy issues and can work on them.
Jlife: Well as part of that question, you have a very accomplished career and have been involved in quite a few world events… do you have a particular moment that you’re most proud of?
Ross: There’s no particular moment that stands out for me as the one that I’m most proud of. More than anything else, I feel privileged that I was in a position where I could work on a lot of different issues that matter to me. Obviously Arab-Israeli issues matter to me… I have a passion for that, but there are other issues that I view like the ceremony at checkpoint Charlie in Berlin (that I was able to attend). I think that, that was a moving moment.
Also, I went into Kuwait one week after the war ended in 1991 and that was an extraordinary moment. We flew in over all the fires that Saddam had set as he was leaving Kuwait. So you know I’ve had moments that were extraordinary. Those are the things that stand out to me more than anything else. I’ve had high moments and I’ve had and low moments. The worst moment of my career was the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Jlife: What are the top three milestones of your life to-date?
Ross: I think they’re much more personal than they are professional. My marriage, my first kids, my first grandkids… those are the things that stand out to me.
Jlife: You currently serve on the advisory board for the DC-based non-profit America Abroad Media. Can you tell me more about that?
Ross: It’s a very interesting organization. At a time when the perception of the United States internationally obviously is not what one would like it to be… this is a chance to basically introduce different forms of American media into places in the Middle East. Places that are hearing differently about America. Now with the work of this organization they are hearing stories that are more credible. We are introducing fact-based reporting on issues as opposed to sensationalized reporting. That is, in fact, what the organization does and I think it’s an important thing to do.
Jlife: What is your favorite thing to do in Orange County?
Ross: Well, it used to be to go to Disneyland. I don’t know what my favorite thing to do now in Orange County would be. When I was younger it was Disneyland and I used to take my kids. Maybe at some point I look forward to taking my grandkids who are just under four and two years old. I look forward to taking them there.
Tracey Armstrong Gorsky is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.
November 22, 2015
4:00 PM – 7:00 PM
One Federation Way
Ambassador Dennis Ross will discuss his latest book “Doomed to Succeed: The US–Israeli Relationship from Truman to Obama.” Books will be available for purchase and for autographing. Cost is $32.
For more info please
contact Aliza Sable at
(949) 435-3400 or