For over half a century, Harry Truman has been put forth as the paragon of presidential support for Israel. Presidents are routinely measured against the Truman standard, and under the right circumstances, they can gain the moniker “the most pro-Israel since Truman.” This informal list of honorees has included, at different times, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, somehow, even Barack Obama—although this came from his own vice president, Joe Biden. Give ’Em Hell Harry earned this status by backing the nascent state of Israel over the objection of his own secretary of state, George Marshall, who even threatened to resign if Truman did not follow his advice.
It is therefore to be expected that Dennis Ross, the longtime Middle East expert and government official—in both Democratic and Republican administrations—begins with Harry Truman here. Yet, despite the well-deserved credit Truman earned for making the decision to recognize Israel, his overall Israel record was more ambiguous. In fact, his first impulse was to oppose the creation of a Jewish state: He found Jewish lobbying on the issues of Israel and the resettlement of Jewish refugees to be—well, annoying, reportedly telling his cabinet in 1946, “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?” In addition to using terms like “kikes,” Truman wrote in his diary that he found the Jews, “very, very selfish.” This was not a youthful lapse, but took place in 1947, while Truman was serving as president. More important and problematic: He instituted an arms embargo during Israel’s war of independence. The embargo applied to both sides in the war, but had a greater effect on Israel, which had fewer sources of weapons.
In showing the ups and downs of the U. S.-Israel relationship, Ross correctly highlights a—if not the—recurrent strategic fallacy that has plagued most presidents and administrations over the last seven decades: the belief that turning a cold shoulder towards Israel will garner the United States credit or favor with the Arab nations who are Israel’s sworn enemies. It is this fallacy that forms the thesis for Doomed to Succeed, as Ross demonstrates that, whatever it is that policymakers are seeking from Israel’s Arab neighbors at the time—support in the Cold War, access to oil, or a diminution of jihadist terror—giving the cold shoulder to Israel does very little to achieve the desired objectives.
To accomplish his goal, Ross takes readers on a tour of the foreign policy of Truman’s successors, giving each president his own chapter. We learn, for example, that Dwight Eisenhower was the first, but by no means the last, to feel that his predecessor had been too pro-Israel and that he had to re-balance American policy against Israel. The Eisenhower administration felt that Truman’s positions on Israel were based on domestic political considerations. Ike’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, summarized this view with no small bitterness, saying, “I am aware how almost impossible it is in this country to carry out a foreign-policy not approved by the Jews. Marshall and Forrestal learned that. I am going to try and have one.”
Challenges continued for the relationship in Democratic administrations. Lyndon Johnson pointedly warned Israel not to attack first in the 1967 war: “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.” LBJ also worked behind the scenes to pressure the Israelis, subjecting foreign minister Abba Eban to the famous Johnson “treatment” in an unsuccessful effort to get Israel to agree. At the beginning of the conflict, in which Israel did preempt in order to stave off a multifront assault, a State Department spokesman announced that the United States was “neutral in thought, word, and deed,” a sentiment that the American Jewish community understandably did not appreciate.
These challenges in the U.S.-Israel relationship continued throughout the 1970s. Gerald Ford limited aid to Israel and called for a “total reassessment” of American policy. Jimmy Carter was even worse: As Ross writes, for Carter, “Israel seemed to be a constant irritant.” When Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat received the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, Carter noted in his diary, “Sadat deserved it. Begin did not.”