April 17, 2024
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Amb. Dennis Ross Speaks in Paramus

The fourth annual Harold Lerman Fund Program was held at the JCC Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikveh on May 12. The event, which honors the memory of the long-time member and program namesake, an ardent and outspoken Zionist, each year features a notable expert on the Middle East. This year was no different, with Dennis Ross the keynote speaker. Ross has served in various capacities in five presidential administrations, including Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama, and was named Middle East envoy by Bill Clinton in 1993.

Although he spent the lion’s share of his time speaking about four of Israel’s founding fathers, which are the subject of his upcoming book, “Be Strong and of Good Courage,” the most fascinating part of the evening was when Ross shared his insights about current trends in Israel and when he responded to questions at the conclusion of his formal remarks.

Ross began by launching into what was clearly a major concern of his, that Israel is currently on a path of being one state for two peoples. “If you think BDS is a problem, you should realize that young Palestinians are in favor of this formula because it means one vote for one person.” He clarified by citing some disturbing trends. “In 1986,” he reported, “63% of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza, was Jewish, and 37% Palestinian. Today, even when you take Gaza out of the equation since it’s no longer part of Israel and, when you consider the huge influx of Russian Jews after the fall of the Soviet Union, the advantage has slipped to 61% vs. 39%.” He fears that the trend suggests we are on a path to parity in 20-25 years, and the Jews of Israel can potentially be outvoted.

He then turned his focus to the four leaders profiled in his book, Ben Gurion, Begin, Rabin and Sharon. He lauded each of them for his insight and bravery. Of the four, his greatest praise was reserved for Ben Gurion. He spoke of Israel’s first prime minister as “a self-educated man who was an extraordinary strategic thinker.” He shared that back in 1933 Ben Gurion wrote that a catastrophe was looming for the Jews in Germany. In 1960, while having lunch with Charles De Gaule of France, a strong ally of Israel at the time, Ben Gurion was asked what Israel needed most. His response was “more Jews.” When De Gaulle intimated that they wouldn’t be coming from France, Ben Gurion is reported to have said “They’ll come from the Soviet Union in 30 years,” noting the beginnings of a democratization trend there. Ross marveled at Ben Gurion’s capacity to look ahead. Although he didn’t outright say it, he hinted on several occasions that in his opinion Netanyahu did not have the stature or foresight of the others, and is not in the same league.

Ross went on to offer solutions to the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians. He was fine with Israel continuing to build in the main settlement blocks, but was dead set against the current trend of establishing new outposts which were closer to where the Palestinians resided. “If this continues, we won’t be able to separate from the Palestinians.” His proposal was for the U.S. to provide economic incentives for Israelis to pull back from the outer blocs. “If they comply but the Palestinians don’t do their part, then the current large blocks should be officially recognized as part of Israel.” He went on to note a stumbling block on our end. “A major issue is that Obama had undone some of what was established before him, and Trump has followed in kind. If everything is reversed with each succeeding administration, who can count on a U.S. president?”

During the Q&A, Ross was asked about the Greenblatt/Kushner proposals for the region. He admitted he did not know the details, but added that Israel currently finds itself in a unique position. Given that policies change with each succeeding administration, most Arab leaders don’t believe they can count on the U.S. for security, but have similar reservations regarding the Russians, Chinese and Europeans. “Only one country, Israel, has the same threat perception and interest in stability as their neighbors regarding Iran. Israel doesn’t talk, it just does.” However, he added “The Sunnis will not tell the Palestinians to accept anything. It is all done below the radar.”

Not a fan of Mahmoud Abbas, who he identified by his other name, Abu Mazen, Ross said we must limit his options. Regarding the question of whether there will be reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO, Ross noted that there have been 10 attempts since Hamas took over Gaza. “None have stuck.” He went on to offer that the real issue is whether it’s possible to have a change within Hamas. He spoke of four days of citizen demonstrations against the organization, with protestors chanting “We want to live.” The recent rocket barrage against Israel occurred shortly after, with Ross labeling it “a diversion.”

When asked about the nuclear deal with Iran, Ross said that Trump’s strategy is to apply maximum pressure, adding “The administration’s squeezing of Iran is having a real effect.” He explained that the Iranian currency has been devalued by 70%, and the waivers the U.S. has allowed other nations for buying Iranian oil ended in May. The upshot: “It could mean that oil exports from Iran will plummet from 3 million to a half million barrels per day.” He said that Iranian president Rhouhani has told Europe it has 60 days to improve its trade deals with them or face an increase in enrichment to 20%. That percentage is significant, since it would be three-quarters of the way to weapons-grade levels. Although the European governments want their companies to cooperate with Iran, they are refusing. The reason is that if they defy U.S. sanctions, our country will drive them out of business. Although Ross gave Trump high marks for imposing economic sanctions, he added that “He can’t do much else,” meaning that he doesn’t have concrete plans as a follow-up to the sanctions.

One of Ross’s final observations was that although the Trump administration is the best friend Israel has ever had, it is not following the unwritten understanding of previous administrations. That understanding is that Israel is to take care of threats within the region, while the U.S. takes on those outside. The current administration is making Israel deal with Russia, and, in fact, “Netanyahu has met with Putin 10 times without U.S. involvement.” He added that the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the U.S. and Israel regarding economic aid was actually instituted by the Obama Administration. “Trump has not increased that funding.” He explained that each time the Iron Dome is used to intercept a rocket from Hamas, the economic cost to Israel is 10 times what Hamas pays for the rocket. That cost, along with the price of the 200 total strikes Israel has made against Syria, is expensive and not built into the MOU. “The burden,” he added, “is on Israel.”

By Robert Isler


Robert Isler is a freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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