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Finally Free of Diplomatic Restraint, Dennis Ross Shares His Narrative

August 4, 2004
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Having juggled an armful of narratives for much of his career, Dennis Ross decided it was time to deliver his own. In “The Missing Peace,” an encyclopedic, 800-page tome published this month, Ross exhaustively details how Israeli and Palestinian “narratives” — or mythologies about themselves — beset a peace process fraught with mistrust and missed opportunities.

“I tell the story in real detail because I want people to understand what was happening and why,” Ross said in a recent interview with JTA at his office at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he has worked since leaving government in January 2001.

For Ross, the “why” has much to do with how each party — Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states — viewed its history and role, and how the failure to recognize and accommodate the other’s narrative often impeded progress toward peace.

“Arafat at Camp David denies that the Temple was in Jerusalem,” ! Ross said, describing statements by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at the make-or-break peace summit in July 2000. “What message does that send? If you deny the core of the other side’s faith, what is the message you’re sending? It’s not reconciliation.”

Ross helped guide Middle East policy through three U.S. administrations — Reagan, the first President Bush and Clinton — and was valued for an intuitive understanding not just of how the region’s leaders ticked, but of what their cultures brought to the table.

Those narratives launch his book.

“A reason to write the narratives was to have” the sides “face up” to them, Ross said. “You can’t rip yourself out of a narrative, but you have to recognize both narratives.”

If the talk of “narratives” sounds like an invitation to a dry discussion of theory, Ross, an adept tale-teller, leavens the book with insight into the leaders.

One is Ross’s description of a falling-out between President Clin! ton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Wye Conferenc e in 1998 over Netanyahu’s demand that Arafat “take care of” Ghazi Jabali, the top P.A. security official in the Gaza Strip, who was wanted for his role in an attack on Israeli settlers.

When Arafat asks if that means Netanyahu wants Jabali killed, Netanyahu reportedly replied, “I won’t ask, you won’t tell.”

Arafat and Clinton stormed out of the room. Ross was assigned the task of explaining to Netanyahu why making the assassination of a top Arafat associate a condition for releasing 500 prisoners — after Netanyahu had already committed to their release — was a non-starter.

In a single parenthetical aside, Ross ably sums up three years of U.S. frustration with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu “was sitting alone, obviously stunned, and feeling he was the victim, asking me ‘Why is Israel treated this way, why am I treated this way? What have I done to deserve this?’ (I was struck by his belief that he and Israel were one and the same, and that he was the innocent victim of ! mistreatment.)”

Ross has respect for, but few illusions about, some of the Arab leaders he deals with. In one harrowing passage, he describes his dread of a meeting with Syrian dictator Hafez Assad in 1994: Ross had to tell Assad that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had rejected an American offer to write into a letter that a permanent Syrian-Israel border would be based on the June 4, 1967 borders.

Ross was not worried for himself or for the process, but for the top Syrian negotiator, Walid al-Moualem, who had told Assad such a letter was forthcoming. Ross knew the bad news created the possibility that Moualem, whom he liked and admired, could lose more than just his job.

The meeting ended well, and Ross records Moualem’s elation.

The book will prove a valuable resource for historians because, free of the dissembling niceties of diplomacy, Ross pulls back the curtain on the calculations U.S. administrations make — for instance, regarding other nations’! elections.

He shows how the first Bush and the Clinton administra tions not only favored Labor Party governments in Israel, but actively campaigned for them. The admissions are a welcome relief from State Department bromides that the United States plays no role in foreign elections.

Much of Ross’s scorn, in the book and in conversation, is reserved for Arafat.

“It isn’t going to work until both sides are prepared to cross those thresholds themselves and in the year 2000, the Israelis were prepared to do so and the Palestinians, at least Yasser Arafat, was not,” Ross said in the interview. “And the Palestinians have paid a terrible price because of that, and so have the Israelis.”

Ross clearly is frustrated with the cards-to-the-chest approach of Arafat’s opposite at Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but says issues of Barak’s personality pale in comparison to Arafat’s historical failure.

“Could Barak’s style have been different? Of course,” Ross told JTA. “As I used to say to the Palestinians, ‘Don’t take it p! ersonally, he treats us the same way, he treats Israelis the same way.’ But the fact is, when push came to shove, when he had to confront history and mythology, he was up to it. Arafat wasn’t.”

Ross does not spare himself. The American approach during the Oslo period — one he largely shaped — was mistaken, he said in his interview.

“There was no consequence for not fulfilling obligations,” he said of the process. “Clearly, one of the most important things we should have done with Arafat was determine whether he was able to make peace or not. One of the critical lessons is the importance of creating what would be a test for us of whether or not he was prepared to condition for peace.

“The measure should have been something like, ‘You tell your public you’re not going to get 100 percent of borders and Jerusalem and refugees, that there’s going to have to be compromise, but what you’re going to get is a fair deal and a dignified deal,’ ” he continues. But Arafa! t “never did that, ever, not once.”

Israelis and Arabs also get t ough advice from Ross.

“The one unmistakable insight about the Arabs is this,” he writes: “No Israeli concession can ever be too big.”

Ross faults Israeli bureaucrats charged with carrying out policy more than he does the leaders, whom he credits with having made a “psychological leap” in recognizing Palestinian rights.

“Whether it was getting Palestinian goods through Israeli ports, exporting cut flowers to Europe, ending the indignities of Israeli checkpoints — even during extended periods when there were not acts of terror — denying Palestinians the right to import certain products from Jordan and the Arab world, or simply obtaining permits for building, Israeli officials continued to control most aspects of life for the Palestinians,” he writes.

Despite such difficulties, Ross — who has briefed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry — advocates a return to greater engagement than the current administration has demonstrated, albeit with the cavea! ts about demanding results from the Palestinians.

“I would have liked to have seen it much more involved than it was,” he said of the Bush administration in his interview. “To be fair to this administration, you could look at the 1990s and the year 2000 and you could certainly see that our intensive engagement did not produce peace.

“But now you can compare the intensive engagement to the disengagement, and the one thing the intensive engagement did is that maybe it didn’t produce peace but it did prevent war between Israel and the Palestinians,” he continued. “Disengagement did not prevent war.”

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