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Ross to U.S. Jews: Palestinians Will Rue Another Missed Opportunity

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The Clinton administration’s point-man for Middle East peace talks predicts that the Palestinians will one day regret not seizing the opportunity to conclude a peace deal offered under the Barak and Clinton administrations.

In his final appearance before an umbrella organization of American Jewry, outgoing Middle East envoy Dennis Ross said the Palestinians’ regret will mirror their remorse over rejecting the U.N. partition plan that would have divided Palestine half a century ago.

Ross, 52, is stepping down after shepherding the peace process from its inception to the verge of a final peace deal.

He will become a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he plans to write about his experiences in the negotiations.

Though he said he doesn’t see a viable framework for peace other than the parameters President Clinton outlined in December, Ross said the Palestinians should not assume the same package will still be on the table when they decide to come around to it.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that when an opportunity comes along, you seize it, and if the opportunity is not seized, you lose it,” Ross told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York on Wednesday.

“If the ideas are not accepted, one certainly can’t count on them being around” in the future.

Ultimately, Ross said, the two sides will have to determine for themselves what are acceptable peace terms.

American involvement is most necessary at two times, he said — when the sides have difficulty talking directly, as during the 1996-1999 administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and when momentous decisions must be taken.

During his talk, Ross sought to maintain the Clinton administration’s posture of even-handedness, criticizing Israel for activities that feed the Palestinian sense of grievance — such as settlement building, home demolitions and insensitive treatment at military roadblocks — while saying the Palestinian leadership had “not done nearly enough” to prepare its public for peace.

Yet Ross strongly implied that the failure to reach a peace agreement stemmed from Palestinian recalcitrance.

At the Camp David summit last July — when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered such far-reaching concessions for a peace deal that his government collapsed — the Palestinians seemed less sensitive to the historical import of the moment, Ross said.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat “wanted peace, but had not come reconciled to what it took to produce it” in the form of Palestinian concessions, Ross said.

Asked if Arafat had since accepted the need to compromise, Ross noted obliquely that there still was no peace agreement.

“You do not socialize or prepare your people for peace while indicating that you’ll somehow get everything,” Ross said of the Palestinian leadership. “You can’t get your way on every issue.”

At the same time, he said, Israelis are mistaken if they “believe they can hold all the territories” conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War “and still get peace.”

Ross declined to speculate on the fate of the peace process if opposition leader Ariel Sharon defeats Barak in Israel’s Feb. 6 election for prime minister.

Sharon has ridiculed Barak’s proposed concessions and said he does not believe Israel can reach a final deal with the Palestinians at this time.

Ross admitted that the major premise of the Oslo peace process — that the two sides would build enough trust during a series of interim agreements to amicably solve the most difficult issues — “didn’t work out.”

However, other changes set in motion at Oslo, such as the creation of the Palestinian Authority, are irreversible, he said.

In addition, Ross told the JTA after his talk, while Clinton did not succeed in securing a final peace agreement on his watch, he made a great contribution by helping to “demystify” the core issues that Israel and the Palestinians will have to resolve.

Ross came out strongly against the idea of “unilateral separation” that Barak has been touting if the peace process breaks down.

This would entail an Israeli move to set its own borders — and, perhaps, evacuate some isolated settlements — without waiting for a peace agreement.

“Separation, like statehood, if it’s done unilaterally, will not hold,” Ross said. “It will not work as a long-term solution.”

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