Ex-envoy Dennis Ross packs em in for talk on ISIS, Israel

With ISIS on the offensive in Paris, Syria and the Sinai Peninsula, Dennis Ross has thought of one way to weaken the terrorist group: Post Facebook photos of ISIS fighters surrendering in Iraq.

“ISIS presents itself as a pure movement,” Ross told an overflow crowd of 400 at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. “If they start to lose, it undercuts their appeal. Divine messengers surrendering?”

In his sold-out Nov. 17 talk, which was presented by the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, Ross couldn’t help but address hot topics such as ISIS, Paris and Iran. But the former Middle East Peace envoy, who served four presidential administrations, spent most of his time at the podium giving a history lesson about U.S.-Israel relationship since the days of Harry Truman.

Dennis Ross speaking at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City on Nov. 17 photo/sharon giordano

That is, after all, the theme of Ross’s new book, “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama,” which traces the arc of bilateral relations since the founding of the Jewish state.

He began his remarks with thoughts about the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, saying they were “extremely well coordinated. They were able to communicate with nobody knowing. There are real gaps in French intelligence.”

Ross echoed other analysts who have theorized that the spate of ISIS terrorism outside of the group’s home base of Syria and Iraq — notably the recent downing of a Russian plane in the Sinai, suicide bombs in Beirut and the Paris attacks — might be due to battlefield setbacks. “[Terrorism] diverts attention from failing and captures the imaginations of potential recruits,” he said.

He contrasted ISIS’ actions with the recent wave of Palestinian stabbings in Israel, which he called “an intimate form of terror” fueled by detached Palestinian youth.

“They’re angry at the Palestinian Authority, the United States and Israel,” Ross said. “They get incited, and it’s a combustible mix.”

He went on to say that the Obama administration has refused to label Palestinian violence as terrorism and at one point rationalized it as a response to Jewish settlement activity.

“The response should have been, ‘The terror needs to stop,’ ” Ross said. “It reflects a mindset that you shouldn’t be critical of the Palestinians. That mindset has been in every administration from Truman to Obama.”

Ross quizzed the audience at times, asking at one point  which president was hardest on Israel (Dwight D. Eisenhower) and which was closest to Israel (Bill Clinton).

“Clinton felt any wedge between the United States and Israel would weaken Israel and strengthen its enemies,” he said.

Commenting about nearly every presidency since 1948, Ross praised Truman for his courage in recognizing Israel against the wishes of his advisers, and chided Eisenhower for threatening Israel with sanctions and expulsion from the United Nations. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan institutionalized what has come to be called the “special relationship” that the United States and Israel have worked as trusted partners, according to Ross.

“We can have differences with Israel,” he said, “but the fundamentals tend to bring us back.”

During the Q&A, Ross addressed the controversial Iranian nuclear deal, which he said will prevent the Tehran regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon for a full 15 years. In the meantime, he doesn’t think Iran can get away with significant cheating, though he predicted they will “test the margins” to see what they can get away with.

Turning again to ISIS, he said the West must deal with security threats without producing the backlash he said ISIS desires: “You get a tension between civil liberties and security. We have to do all we can to have a healthy respect for balance. We don’t want to change who we are.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.