More than a decade after that famous handshake, at the White House in 1993, between the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israeli-Palestinian relations have reached a new nadir. To the extent that President George W. Bush even mentions the conflict, he favors grandiose pronouncements about “two states living side by side in peace and security,” while failing to back his words with sustained attention.
Reading Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, a blow-by-blow account of the United States’ mediation efforts in the region, one is reminded that it wasn’t always this way. A Democrat, Ross was the chief Middle East peace negotiator in the first Bush administration and under President Bill Clinton. He personifies the enormous attention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict received under presidents of both parties, and is highly critical of the current administration’s course.
As the Economist rightly notes, the failure of the Israeli- Palestinian peace talks “is one of the saddest stories ever told.” But Ross says that the Bush administration took away the wrong the lesson from the failure of Clinton’s efforts. It opted for disengagement at the very moment when U.S. involvement could have stemmed the worsening violence and aided in the resumption of the permanent status talks, even if their immediate success was at that point unlikely.
A Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ross recently spoke with MotherJones.com from his office in Washington, D.C.
MotherJones.com: In your opinion, Arafat squandered his chance at Camp David in 2000. How so?
Dennis Ross: In the book what I’ve done is I laid out not only verbally what we offered, but I’ve also produced a map that compares what Arafat says he was offered — and continues to suggest he was offered — with what he was actually offered. So I am making it clear that if what we offered was so bad, why lie about it? Why misrepresent it? Why say you were offered cantons when you weren’t? Why say that you didn’t have a border with Jordan when you did? Why say you weren’t even offered 90 percent when you were offered 97 percent? Why say that you did not get any of East Jerusalem when you were offered all of Arab East Jerusalem?
MJ.com: What did Arafat object to at the time?
DR: Well, he never gave us a good answer. Part of the problem with Arafat was that when we were at Camp David, he would just say no. He wouldn’t come with counters and he wouldn’t come back with specifics. Now, his negotiators at Camp David made compromises, concessions, which we did not hear from him.
MJ.com: You write that no two Palestinian negotiators were more committed to Oslo than Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and Abu Ala [Ahmed Qureia], but as prime minister, neither has been able to successfully challenge Arafat. Why?
DR: Arafat is the one that put the Palestinian cause on the international map. He gave Palestinians standing and recognition when they never achieved it before. He is the one Palestinian leader who succeeded in creating at least a semblance of unity among Palestinians when they hadn’t had it before. And so Palestinians look at him as being an icon. But they also increasingly are challenging him today, especially because they see him as presiding over what can only be described as a corrupt regime that offers Palestinians very little.
The reason Abu Mazen didn’t succeed, I believe, is that he was prepared to challenge Arafat much more directly. For him to succeed in doing that, he had to show that his way worked, meaning life had to get better for Palestinians. Israeli checkpoints had to be lifted, the sense that he was delivering real changes on the ground the Palestinians could see and feel was a necessity. From that standpoint, I would say that he was let down by us because we embraced him but didn’t invest in him. And he was let down by the Israelis, who should have focused on a prime minister who was committed to doing the right thing on the issues of security and violence.
Abu Ala has tried to co-opt Arafat, and he hasn’t given up on the process of co-opting, but also he hasn’t given up on the idea that there has to be reform. That’s why he resigned and rescinded his resignation only after he felt he had assurances from Arafat on the reforms. Now the problem is that nothing has yet happened in regard to those reforms. I think it’s difficult to overcome Arafat. But that’s not to say that Palestinians, as they become more frustrated with the need to transform the Palestinian reality and recognize that with Israel getting out of Gaza, they have to be able to govern themselves.
MJ.com: Ultimately, you saw Arafat as someone who was not serious about a final settlement. When did you come to this view?
DR: After Camp David. I felt that he had really revealed that he was not interested or capable of doing an agreement that ended the conflict. With Arafat, what came through to me ultimately was that as long as he didn’t have to make an irrevocable commitment, he was quite prepared to sign up to any agreement. Arafat is someone who will never close a door, never foreclose an option. He has to be able to say that he still has claims, still has grievances, and in light of that, the conflict at a certain level goes on.
MJ.com: But wouldn’t you expect Arafat to want to be seen as the father of the Palestinian state?
RS: Well, that’s what guided me for a long time. I assumed that the ultimate salvation for him was being able to be someone who had led the national liberation movement and had fulfilled the promise of that movement by producing a state. And he would still like to do that, but what he is not prepared to do, in the end, is to truly live with a two-state solution. This is someone who would live with Israel beyond the time that he is alive, but he won’t live with it in a historical sense. He doesn’t want to be the one that goes down in Palestinian history as the one who precluded a one-state solution.
MJ.com: Why, then, did he agree to Oslo and Wye?
DR: Because those were very limited agreements, none of which required him to forego his fundamental options or close the door on a one-state solution. What Oslo did is allow him to establish a foothold and to begin to build the basis of a Palestinian state.
MJ.com: How much responsibility does Arafat bear for the violence?
DR: I believe he bears a lot because he’s done absolutely nothing to stop it. Is he as capable of stopping it as he was before? No. But has he made any effort? No, he’s made no effort, and he does nothing to delegitimize it. He never condemns those that carry out acts of terror. There is a move afoot right on the Palestinian side being led by Palestinian Legislative Council members to promote non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation. Were that to be the case, were the violence against Israelis to stop, you’d find that the Israeli public would swing back in support of the Palestinians. One of the greatest strategic mistakes that Yasser Arafat made was losing the Israeli public.
MJ.com: How much control does Arafat have over groups like Hamas and what was his calculus in allowing the violence to go on?
DR: In the 1990s, he cracked down several times. Every time he cracked down, Hamas backed down every single time. The fact is that Hamas is a good deal weaker than they were. But in a place like Gaza, if he would go along with what he has been pressured to do, but has so far resisted doing — which is reorganize the security forces, create a clear chain of command, make the decisions to have them carry out the law if he were permit for that to take place, certainly you would see a change in Gaza. It would be harder in the West Bank, especially in places like Nablus and Jenin, because there, I think his control is much more limited. But in the rest of the West Bank, the capacity to do something still exists.
What was his calculus? I think initially, when we were still in, he just rode a wave, because that’s Arafat; he doesn’t close a door, doesn’t foreclose options. And he may have thought that he’d benefit from this in some way, that maybe violence would create greater pressures on the Israelis, and maybe they’d make even greater concessions to him. I think he’s paid a price, but the fact of the matter is, the Palestinian people have been the ones who had been forced to suffer just a terrible, terrible price over the last three-plus years.
MJ.com: You saw Netanyahu as someone who wanted to be seen as a historic leader, but who was unwilling to take the necessary risks and was limited by his political base. How does Sharon compare?
DR: I think that Sharon is more prepared to take on the base than Netanyahu was. We see it today. He’s made the decision to withdraw from Gaza and the main opposition he faces is from the right and from his own party. You can have a national unity government today if the Prime Minister of Israel was able to deliver his own party. Today, he can’t deliver his own party.
MJ.com: But a lot of Sharon’s actions — such as targeted assassinations and the raids into the West Bank — are seen as undercutting the moderates within the Palestinian Authority.
DR: I think that is one of the fundamental dilemmas. On the one hand, he genuinely would like to be a peacemaker. But he does not believe there is a Palestinian partner, which is why he is adopting the unilateral approach. He is not prepared to allow what he sees as Palestinian irresponsibility to deny Israel what is essential for Israel’s longer term well-being; it has to deal with the demographic trend problem. Part of the motivation that he has for getting out of Gaza and doing something that his own base doesn’t like is because he’s going to deal with the demographic issue.
Number two, I think what he would say is that he doesn’t believe it’s possible to produce peace right now. Not only because there isn’t a partner, but even when a partner emerges, it’s going to take time because the two sides have to learn to live together in way that they haven’t at this point.
Now, do some of his own actions make it less likely that a Palestinian partner can emerge? I think, at a time when you see that there is an increasing assertiveness on the part of Palestinian reformers, this is the time for the prime minister to also look again at what can be done with Palestinian reformers and whether or not they might well be the basis of partnership in the future.
MJ.com: The Bush administration has supported Sharon’s proposal to withdraw from Gaza. Was that a mistake?
DR: I don’t think it’s a mistake to support the withdrawal from Gaza. Gaza is only 360 square kilometers, and to put that into prospective, the West Bank, which isn’t large, is 5900 square kilometers. So it’s 7 to 8 percent of the West Bank in terms of total size, but it has more than half the population of the West Bank — 1.3 million Palestinians. And today the Israelis patrol 40 percent of it. Getting the Israelis to withdraw is a good thing for the Palestinians regardless.
The question is, can you build on [withdrawal] effectively? Can you coordinate between Israelis and the Palestinians in a way to make this Israeli step something that can be a real new opening and not just something that will end up creating a new confrontation line? So I’m glad that the Bush administration supported the Sharon decision to withdraw, I wish that they had also been active enough to be working with Israelis and Palestinians right now.
MJ.com: Bush has also endorsed some positions, on the refugees for example, that were thought to be subject to final status talks.
DR: You’re asking about the letter that Bush gave to Sharon when Sharon was here in April of this year. On the issue of refugees, it simply makes a statement of fact. The statement of fact is that the refugee problem should be solved through the creation of two states, and the Palestinian refugees should go to their state, not to Israel. That’s what it says and that’s unobjectionable. So it didn’t, in fact, change policy. A right of return to Israel means that you believe in one-state solution because a right to return to Israel means that, in a matter of time, you’ll have a Palestinian majority there, as opposed to an Israeli majority.
MJ.com: What’s your opinion of Sharon’s security fence?
DR: I think the issue is not whether Israel has a right to build a security fence. As long as the Palestinians will do absolutely nothing to stop suicide bombers from going into Israel, the Israelis have a right to defend themselves. The author of the barrier was Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin’s position was that he knew there had to be a partition of the land because Israel cannot stay in the territories and be Jewish and democratic. That’s a fact, not an argument. So his position was, through Oslo, let’s try to negotiate the partition. But if in the end it does not work out to negotiate it, we have to get out of the territories, and we’re going to have to build a barrier, and we’re going to have to separate.
The real question is: where is it being built? The Israeli Supreme Court has mandated that the barrier has to be rerouted because it’s imposing unacceptable hardships on Palestinians. The rerouting of it would now have it built on about 10 percent of the West Bank, as opposed to 13 percent. It would affect about 10,000 Palestinians on the West Bank, as opposed to probably a quarter million the way it was previously being built.
My own position is that there are four criteria that should guide where the barrier is being constructed. The first is that it should be built on terrain that makes it difficult to infiltrate into Israel, and that would argue for it not necessarily being that close to the Green Line. A second criteria would be that it should absorb as few Palestinians as possible, and that would argue for it being very close to the Green Line. The third would be that it should impose as little disruption and hardship on Palestinians as possible. And the fourth would be is that it would be temporary.
If Palestinians assume responsibilities to prevent their territory from being used as a platform for attacks against Israelis, than you wouldn’t need it any longer. The truth is that the Israelis built a very similar fence in Lebanon, and when they withdrew from Lebanon, they moved that fence. So there is a history here of moving fences. They did the same when they made peace with Jordan.
MJ.com: Why did the Bush administration disengage from the region?
DR: I think because they had a very different view of our priorities in the region. They basically made the choice one of, “Well, if you can’t make peace, there is not much point of being engaged, it’s like throwing good money after bad, you’ll spend a lot of effort and you will produce nothing.” I think that was a misjudgment. It wasn’t a misjudgment on the issue of peace, because the fact is a solution was not going to be possible — at least not for a while — but there is a big difference between reaching a peace and having a war. The measure of effective diplomacy is not only what you achieve, but it’s also what you prevent. Had they been active, in my judgment, they could prevented this from turning into an all-out daily war between Israelis and the Palestinians. I think the last three-plus years have made the situation so bad, have produced such deep animus on both sides, have produced such deep disbelief on the part of each side that the other one can be a partner, that the task of peace-making is far more difficult now than it was before.
MJ.com: What must the United States do now?
DR: What we should be doing now is focusing heavily on how can we work with the Israelis and the Palestinians to make the Israeli decision to withdraw from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank work. How can we create some coordination between the two so that the Israeli withdrawal actually ends up being a real opening? There should be a principle: wherever the Israelis evacuate or withdraw from territory, Palestinians should assume responsibility in that territory showing that they can govern themselves, showing that territory won’t be platform for attacks against Israel.
If the Israelis complete the barrier, which I think they will, the logic of the barrier should be that the Israelis lift the siege on the territories. The key here is to [ease] the sense of Palestinian anger, to get Israelis out of controlling Palestinian lives. The key to getting the Israelis to feel that they have a partner again is for them to no longer have to fear that getting on a bus is a dangerous enterprise.
MJ.com: What does this mean in terms of the U.S. economic aid both to the Israelis and the Palestinians?
DR: I don’t think it means much change in terms of the Israelis, but I think it would be very important to work with the Palestinians now, to have them identify what it takes for them to assume real responsibilities on the ground, where they could use investment to help underpin the change, what kind of help they need materially with security and with regard to economics. And we could then lead a kind of international effort to make it clear that we’d be prepared to meet the needs provided that we see the performance.
MJ.com: How can the U.S. get the balance right between criticizing Israel while maintaining the close relationship?
DR: Just to be consistent with our principles and our policies. If we say that we have a problem with settlements, we should be consistent on it. But even more, the real issue is just demonstrating that you are prepared to make the effort. From my perspective, the administration’s big problem with this issue is less what its actual policies are and more that it doesn’t make the effort. It’s just very passive. And as a result, that’s communicated, I think, to a large part of the Middle East as a kind of indifference to what matters to them.