In the opening pages of his new book “Be Strong and of Good Courage,” Ambassador Dennis Ross describes eating lunch with Ariel Sharon around the time that the late Israeli prime minister was orchestrating Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza.
“He was a major-league eater,” noted Ross, a seasoned diplomat who has served under four U.S. presidents.
But appetite aside, Ross said he was particularly struck by something that Sharon said at the lunch about himself.
“He said, ‘I am the last of the founding generation to lead Israel,’” Ross recalled. “His implication was that those in the following generations would have to heavily weigh things and consider the political implications. That’s why we wrote this book, to look at the past [Israeli leaders] and explore their journeys and how they evolved and made the decisions they made.”
Ross and the book’s co-author, David Makovsky, spoke May 7 at the sixth annual Dahan Lecture at Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh Synagogue. More than 200 people attended the program, which honors the late Beth Tfiloh leaders Aharon and Rachel Dahan, and is held in conjunction with Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers.
Ross said he and Makovksky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations, believe that examining Israel’s past can help guide the future of the Jewish state at this critical juncture.
Besides Sharon, “Be Strong and of Good Courage” — which comes out in September and will be published by PublicAffairs — examines the political careers and decision-making skills of Israeli leaders David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.
“This book was written as an admonishment to Israel’s current leadership,” Ross said. “If Israel stays on the course it’s on, it will become one country for two people. We are calling on Israeli leaders to be strong and have courage, so that Israel can become a strong Jewish democratic state.”
At this time, Ross said, a two-state solution is not feasible or imminent. “Israel’s not the problem,” he said. “The Palestinians are too divided and weak and unwilling to accept compromises at this time. It’s all about preserving options for later on.”
Ross and Makovsky advocate the creation of a geographic “separation” zone between Israelis living in the settlement blocs directly outside of the “green line” and Palestinians in the West Bank. Ross said 105,000 Israelis currently live to the east of the separation barrier.
He said the plan would require the cessation of building more Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“If there’s a tipping point, you have a problem,” Ross said, referring to an increasing Jewish population in the West Bank. “Israel will become a bi-national state with two national identities in one state. If you stop building outside of the blocs, you preserve the ability to separate. It’s hard to do, but a decision has to be made. One person-one vote will create a political time bomb [for Israel].”
Regarding Israel’s recent flare-up with Hamas in Gaza, Ross said the deadly contest between the two parties “is basically a game of chicken” that surfaces every few months.
“If Israel goes in and decapitates Hamas, Israel will lose around 100 soldiers and will kill thousands of Palestinians,” he said. “The world will condemn Israel, and what does Israel get? Gaza. Israel is trying to manage this situation by having someone remain accountable.”
Ross and Makovsky said Israeli leaders need to summon the courage and fortitude of their predecessors to make difficult decisions for the future. Makovsky called Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, “the greatest of Israel’s leaders.”
He said Ben-Gurion’s strengths included the ability to focus on what was truly important, to be prescient at pivotal moments in Israel’s early days, and a willingness to take big risks even if it meant alienating his political base.
“He was bold and imaginative and stuck to his mission,” Makovsky said.
For example, he noted that Ben-Gurion realized that Jewish immigration was critical to Israel’s survival. Between 1949 and 1951, 830,000 Jews from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East – more than double Israel’s population of 1948 – made aliyah,Makovsky said.
He said Ben-Gurion was also “ahead of the curve” in realizing that the United States would emerge as the world’s primary superpower after World War II. Makovsky said the Israeli leader persistently sought strong relations with the U.S. during the 1950s and early 1960s, even during times when American support for the Jewish state was tentative.
Furthermore, Ben-Gurion realized that the support of Diaspora Jewry would be Israel’s saving grace.
“That’s classic Ben-Gurion,” he said. “He was analytical and realized that the Jews of the world will support Israel. He had the ability to look at the big picture and focus on what really mattered. He took calculated risks, even with his allies, if he thought it was the right decision.”
Ross said Begin, Rabin and Sharon also possessed Ben-Gurion’s ability to allow their political thinking to evolve.
“These are leaders who know they have to make a choice and it will be costly, but it’s what’s best for the state,” he said.
Incentives and ‘Solid Singles’
Israel’s leadership today will be called on to make tough decisions as well, Ross said. They will be required to conceive and execute creative strategies to incentivize Israelis living outside of the “green line” bloc zone to move back to areas with sizable Jewish populations, he said.
Ross said the U.S. should continue to strongly support Israel in the United Nations; make an ongoing commitment to Israel to not offer any concessions until the Palestinians demonstrate a willingness to make their own concessions; and insist that the European nations recognize Israel’s willingness to make concessions in hopes for a future peace accord.
“It can’t just be the U.S. to carry the burden and acknowledge what Israel has done,” he said. Ross also said the U.S. should inform the Palestinians that Israel’s unilateral moves in the region will receive American support until the Palestinians make concessions in the peace process.
“We need to make it easier for Israel’s leaders to make the decisions that Ben-Gurion, Begin, Sharon and Rabin did,” he said.
Ross called on audience members to advocate for Israel’s leadership to work on creating a separation plan with the Palestinians, to ensure peace-making opportunities down the road.
“If you care about Israel,” Ross said, “we need to have this conversation.”
During a question-and-answer session, Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg asked Ross and Makovsky their views about President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” plan for Arab-Israeli peace, which is expected to be unveiled in the next few weeks.
“The president likes to think big and swing for the fences,” Makovsky said. “But whenever you swing for the fences, chances for a strikeout are high. I think we need to try for solid singles. … The gaps between [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas are too wide. I’m not convinced this administration can bridge that gap, so I hope there’s a Plan B. We don’t want this plan, if it fails, to lead to violence.”
Ross agreed, noting that Israelis and Palestinians today share a mutual lack of distrust. “They don’t need another failed effort,” he said. “That just breeds cynicism.”