2016-07-27
For twelve years, under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross was Middle East envoy and the chief peace negotiator. He is now Counselor and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His new book, "The Missing Peace" (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux) is a detailed account of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, from the Madrid peace conference in 1991 to Camp David in 2000 and the final moments of the Clinton administration. He spoke with Beliefnet about the role of religion in the conflict, why peace negotiations have failed, and his hopes for peace in the future.

What role does religion play in the Middle East conflict?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been a national conflict, not a religious conflict, though there is certainly a religious element lurking there. It's been very important for the Palestinians always to suggest that this is a national conflict, and it was never anything but a national conflict.

We've never seen spiritual leaders take a lead in this conflict or emphasize the importance of tolerance or reaching peace. The foremost clerics on the Palestinian side, in the Islamic world, and the chief rabbis in Israel have not taken it upon themselves to emphasize the importance of peace. It's not that they're out there deliberately creating a set of impediments, but they're certainly not at the forefront of trying to promote reconciliation.

It's not in anybody's interest that this conflict ever be transformed from being a national one to a religious one. But I also think that the use of religion is one of the potential problems. The Islamic militants say, "We have to have an Islamic state. And the Islamic state has no place for a Jewish state." Religion is certainly used by them to de-legitimize Israel's presence and to justify violence against it. As I said, I would like to see the spiritual side used more to create a justification for peace.

Would more religious involvement have an effect among Israelis, since they are for the most part very secular?
Well, it's not going to be in the forefront, but at a certain level, it certainly can't hurt. If the chief rabbis of Israel were to focus on the importance of peace and on the sanctity of life as it relates to this conflict, would it have some effect? I think so. Would it be the difference? I don't think so.

Is there a counterpart to the head rabbis of Israel on the Palestinian side that could trusted to do that? Most of the clerics we hear about are Hamas leaders.
Unfortunately, we have not seen any of the imams take anything but a negative role. There was a point when the Pope went to Israel, he wanted to put together an ecumenical council where the leading clerics or imams among the Palestinians and the chief rabbi of Israel were invited, but the leading imam gave this diatribe against it. And this was at a time when the environment was good, not bad. It would be good for religion to be supported, for it not to be used to justify continuing hostility. That's my main point--it would be great if religion could be creating a justification for peace. Unfortunately, we've seen it used too often as a rationale for continuing violence.

How did your own [Jewish] religion affect you as a negotiator?
I think it gave me a stronger commitment to wanting to see the conflict ended, to wanting to see an end to the violence and suffering. In the Jewish tradition there are few higher callings than to be a Rodeph Shalom, a "seeker of peace." So from my standpoint, I think [my Judaism] added to the commitment and sense of passion that I had for dealing with the issue. It isn't what determined that I would have an interest, but it certainly, I think, affected the character with which I pursued it.

Did it also affect the way the Arab world perceived your work?
With regard to the [Arab] leaders and negotiators, it was never an issue. But frequently I was the one who was portrayed as being too tough on them. My being Jewish gave them an easy handle to say, "Well, you know why he is being so tough on us." Certainly Arafat wanted to be in that position, where it looked like the US was being unfair and he was having to stand up to the US. It was really me he was standing up to.

Speaking of Arafat, it seems like you hold him primarily responsible for the lack of peace today. Is that true?
I do. Here is someone who basically turned down a historic opportunity [at Camp David in 2000 and in Washington in 2001] to not only end the occupation of his people but to provide them a state that would have been credible and viable. It would have demonstrated that he achieved his outcome with dignity. But because he had to give up the mythology of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, he wasn't willing to do that. He would have had to give up all his claims and any sense of grievance and formally declare that the conflict was over. Arafat was not willing to live without the conflict because the conflict itself defined him. He can live with limited understandings; we had five limited agreements, several of which I negotiated almost entirely. He could live with something that wasn't irrevocable, but he was not prepared to make an irrevocable commitment. That was the general reason.

There are two other factors that I feel are an indictment of him. The first is that, in truth, while he renounced terror, he never discredited it. He sent a letter on September 9, 1993 to the foreign minister of Norway to commit to renouncing terror, which was what then opened the pathway to Israeli recognition of him. But throughout the Oslo process he glorified suicide bombers and called them martyrs. You can't have it both ways. He made violence as a tool still acceptable. Even when he would announce that he would have zero tolerance for terror, he never condemned the groups that carried out the terror by name.

And he still doesn't.
Still doesn't.

So all the talk in the nineties about how Arafat was a changed man since he founded the PLO.was that just naïve?
Well, the fact that he recognized Israel even though there were, as a result, death threats against him from Palestinian extremists, that gave him a kind of credibility to us. But when you really look at the process and what he did in it, he would control the terror groups from time to time, but he would never discredit the use of terror.

Did Arafat have a special relationship with [the late Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin? Would things be different if Rabin hadn't been assassinated?
Arafat certainly feels that. Now, it may be his convenient revisionism after the fact. I would say that Rabin came to a point where he did respect him. And the reason he did is because he felt that Arafat actually was taking tough steps against groups like Hamas, which he did from time to time. What's interesting is that every single time Arafat would crack down on Hamas, they'd back down. Every time. But though he cracked down on Hamas, he never discredited them. If you're going to crack down on them, you have to crack down on them not in an arbitrary way, but you use the fact that they are a threat to the Palestinian cause as a justification for it. You tell them that when they kill Israelis, they kill our chance to be able to achieve a Palestinian state. They are doing things that are a threat to our fundamental interest. Nothing like that was ever said, yet that is precisely what should have been said. You have to say that this is a group that is a threat to our interests and therefore we are not going to tolerate it.

So did you ever tell Arafat, "This is what you need to say?"
Absolutely.

How did he react?
He would tell me he would. But never did.

You reveal things about the peace process in the book that weren't previously reported in the press or previously published. What are some of the most important new revelations?
Well, I think one of them is how close we actually were on the Syrian track [to a peace deal between Israel and Syria]. The actual gap on where the border would be was probably on the order of 3-400 meters. When Asad was ready to do such a deal, Barak was not, mostly because he saw he needed more time to line up his political ducks. The nature of the opposition within Israel surprised Barak, but at the very moment when Asad was ready to do the deal, Barak wasn't, and when Asad was no longer ready to do the deal, unfortunately that's when Barak was ready. So there's that whole interplay, which is unknown. I actually have a map in the book that shows what the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights would have looked like. There's also a story I tell that Asad actually allowed us to send a forensic team to excavate in a Damascus cemetery for the remains of Israeli missing in actions, something that has never been known. That was unprecedented for someone like Asad.

One other interesting story, apart from everything that happened at Camp David, is the terms and some other points I reveal about the Clinton ideas [Clinton's last-ditch efforts to negotiate with Barak and Arafat before leaving office, in late 2000 to early 2001].

The night before we presented the ideas, I had a visit from Muhammad Dahlan, one of the lead negotiators for the Palestinians, who asked me to tell him what we were going to tell the Palestinians the next day. What he literally said was "What are you going to make us eat tomorrow?" Meaning, "What are we going to find difficult to swallow?" I wasn't going tell him everything, but I told him what would be hard because he didn't need to know what was going to be easy. This is literally at midnight, ten hours before we were going to present these ideas, and I described the ideas to him and he grimaced. He said, "Can't you make it easier?" And I said, "No, because frankly, Barak is being asked to swallow much more than you and I don't even know if he could deliver." But I did tell him, "But I will tell you what I will do. We have no interest in putting a set of ideas on the tables that you have to reject. I also have no interest in having the last act of the Clinton administration be a failure. So if you tell me you can't accept these ideas, then I will tell the president not to present them. And I will even give you until tomorrow morning, but I have to know by eight in the morning." He thought for a moment and said, "No, go ahead and present them." He thought that in the end he and others could get Arafat to accept them. That's never been revealed before.

Then there's one other story. Even after Arafat had rejected the ideas in the meeting on January 2, 2001, President Clinton was still prepared to go out to the area, because Barak still wanted him to come out to try to forge an understanding. So I suggested that we go to Arafat and say, "Look, if we're so close, why don't you have a 24 hour non-stop discussion with Shimon Peres and Ammon Shahak"--the two Israelis that he respected the most. "If at the end of those 24 hours the three of you call together to tell me that you've now reached an agreement or at least you've established what you can agree on and limited what you can't and you'd like to finalize that, then I and the President will fly out and do that." This is ten days to go before the end of the administration. And Barak thought this was a great idea. So the President called Arafat and Arafat said, "Gee, I have a trip tomorrow. I have a trip to Tunisia." It was like saying, "Yeah, I've got to go to the dentist. I'm busy. The dog ate my homework."

Those are among the things revealed. I also put the maps in, so you can compare what the Palestinians say they were offered with what we actually offered.

What were your main reasons for leaving your post at the end of the Clinton administration?
I actually made the decision just before the election. I had become invested in a solution, and I knew that if we didn't reach an agreement by the end of the Clinton administration, we would be out of the solution business for some time to come. It would mean going back to crisis management, which is exactly what I'd done throughout the three years of the Netanyahu period [when Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister of Israel, from 1996 to 1999]. The idea of going back to doing that was something that, emotionally and physically at that time, I wasn't prepared to do. I was invested in a solution and I felt that with a new administration, they could have somebody who didn't have the same investment in a solution. They were going to have to do what I did from 1996 to 1999.

You write that at the beginning of the Bush administration the U.S. was pretty much disengaged from the peace process. Do you think that's still the case?
Yes. The administration is more involved now than they were at the onset, but the involvement is very minimal, a very limited investment and still a reluctance to do too much.

So are the administration's initiatives like the "road map" just rhetoric?
Well, the roadmap was a piece of paper. If it was to be something more than a piece of paper, it actually would have been negotiated with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Instead it was negotiated with three other partners who have no responsibilities for carrying it out. Those that have to carry it out weren't the ones negotiated with. They were asked for their comments. The road map has 52 paragraphs. Each paragraph has multiple obligations for each side. Each side interprets those obligations completely differently, so if we weren't prepared to negotiate that with the parties, at least we could have established what we consider the standard to be and then say, we're going to hold each of you accountable to that. But we didn't do that either. If you're not prepared to negotiate with them, it means that you can't have any common understandings. Without establishing what we considered the right understanding to be, it was bound to be what it became--a piece of paper.

Many American Jews plan to vote for Bush in the upcoming election specifically because he's been a strong supporter of Israel.
Well, I think there are two ways to evaluate this issue. One is, is Israel being judged by the same standard we judge ourselves when it comes to confronting terror? Here you have to give the Bush administration very high marks. Then the question is, do you think Kerry would do the same? My guess is he will probably do the same, but it's a legitimate question.

The other dimension is, what has been done to end the war between Israelis and Palestinians and to try to get back to peacemaking? Here I would say the Bush administration has not done very well. The Israelis have paid a very high price for having no peace process, as have the Palestinians. You have almost one thousand dead Israelis in the last three-plus years, and 3,000 Palestinian dead. There's no comparable period except in periods of wars, and in fact, in two of Israel's wars, they suffered fewer fatalities and casualties as they have in the last three years, not to mention the number of maimed and wounded on each side. Not to mention the economic destruction.

The Bush administration is not responsible for that--this is Israelis and Palestinians that have been fighting a war. But the Bush administration did not take the steps that might have contained it. So when you evaluate the Bush administration on the terror dimension, high marks. But on this dimension, low marks. Here, I think that Kerry would be much more inclined to be involved, much more like Clinton.

It seems like some of the Arab leaders liked and trusted Clinton more than any other US president. What was it about him that they admired?
Two things. One was the character of his commitment and the passion that was seen in that commitment. He cared about the issue and that came though. The other was that he unmistakably knew the issue. When he would sit with Arab leaders, he would know the issues better than they did. That for them was also a reminder that he really did care about it. It meant that there was an American commitment to do something about it. Sometimes we get credit for just making the effort, but it has to be seen as genuine. It can't just be you pop into the region or you have a trip every several months, or you do a phone call. You have to show you're doing everything you can. In the Arab world, I was frequently criticized when I was a negotiator, and yet they look at me as someone who was unmistakably committed, doing everything he could to try to resolve it.

Are you at all hopeful for the future now?
I do think that [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza has created an opening. It's putting Palestinians in a position where they have to assume responsibility. And they know it. That's why we're seeing a challenge to Arafat that is unprecedented. They know when the Israelis are out of Gaza, you can't blame the Israelis for what goes on there. Then the Palestinians have to be able to demonstrate before the world that they are up to governing themselves. The Palestinians don't want to be seen as failing on that. So if you could coordinate the character of the Israeli handoff, focus on what the Palestinians need to do as the Israelis withdraw, figure out how you get assistance and investment in there so they can be successful, make clear what they have to do with regard to security, and be prepared to work with those who are prepared to coexist with Israel, I think that you can begin to transform the situation. This could end the war and get back to a climate for peacemaking.

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