Partners in War
An Interview with Ambassador Dennis Ross
Ambassador Dennis Ross, a diplomat with over twenty years of Soviet and Middle East experience, was a top advisor on the Middle East peace process in the Bush, Sr. and Clinton administrations. He helped to broker the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, and the 1997 Hebron Accord, and assisted in the Camp David negotiations of 2000. He was also director of Near East and South Asian affairs for the National Security Council under President Reagan. Amb. Ross is currently director and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Yale Israel Journal: If John Kerry is elected president and appoints you as his special Middle East envoy, what diplomatic objectives do you view as attainable in the near term?
Amb. Dennis Ross: I am not focused on going back into the government so I will address this question with what I believe any peace envoy to the Middle East must bear in mind. In diplomacy, the first task is to focus on what is possible, not what is unattainable. Presently, no one can make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Not because an eventual deal for ending the conflict remains a mystery—we solved that mystery in the year 2000—but because the legacy of the last three years of warfare is one in which Israelis and Palestinians alike no longer believe they have a partner for peace. Given that reality, one cannot press for an immediate solution.
Instead, the challenge now is to end the war; only after that can one focus on making peace. Sharon’s initiative to withdraw from Gaza and pull back to a new security line in the West Bank could provide an opening for ending the war and making it possible to get back to peace-making. The key here is to plan now, not later, for the day after Israeli withdrawal. How does one work with Palestinians, Egyptians, Europeans and others to ensure that Palestinians who believe in co-existence benefit? How does one make it more likely that Palestinians will assume their security responsibilities in the areas the Israelis evacuate? How does one decrease the possibility that Hamas and others who believe in violence will gain from the Israeli withdrawal? Focusing on these issues is what is required of any envoy.
YIJ:: If Kerry were elected president, how would you expect his policy toward Israel to differ from President Bush’s?
DR: The main difference would probably be a more active US diplomacy on Middle East peace. The Bush Administration largely disengaged from peace-making in its initial years. While more committed to working on this issue than previously, it still does not have a senior envoy dedicated only to this issue. That would probably change in a Kerry Administration as would the impulse to invest more politically in peace-making.
YIJ:: Can the resonating presence of the United States in Iraq have a positive or negative effect on peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians?
DR: I have always been leery of drawing too tight a linkage between Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This conflict embodies two national movements competing for the same space. That conflict existed before Saddam Hussein and it continues after him. It needs to be dealt with on its own merits. That said, the more a new Iraq emerges that is decent toward its own people and its neighbors, the better for the region as a whole. Reform will gain greater credibility and momentum.
And reform will be good for peace making. There is a strong instinct for reform among Palestinians; polls have consistently shown that roughly 90% of the Palestinians favor reform, which means transparency and accountability. Peace will be far more likely when it is clear that there will be accountability on all obligations. Conversely, if Iraq were to go badly now, if the insurgents and outside Jihadists were seen to be successful, we would see rejectionist forces gain in the area and that would make peace, reform, and progress far less likely in the region.
YIJ:: You were involved in top level Middle East negotiations under Presidents Bush, Sr. and Clinton. If you had also been called on to serve the present administration in drafting the “road map” and launching the road map process, what would you have done differently from those the administration appointed?
DR: The concept of a road map with different phases and reciprocal obligations was a good one. But the diplomacy for implementing it left something to be desired. First, the negotiations on the road map were conducted between the United States, the European Union, the UN, and the Russians. None of the members of the “Quartet” had responsibility for carrying out the essential obligations of the road map. The Israelis and Palestinians had that responsibility.
However, they were allowed to comment on the road map but not negotiate it. That, too, might have made sense, provided there were clear understandings on how to define each of the obligations in the road map. But the Israelis defined Palestinian obligations maximally and their own minimally, and the Palestinians did just the opposite. And we made no effort to broker understandings on the meanings of the respective obligations or to define a set of criteria that would constitute performance in our eyes. Small wonder that the road map to peace could only exist on paper but not in reality.
YIJ:: How can Israel prevent its withdrawal from Gaza from being received to some degree as a victory for Hamas, the way Israel’s exit from Lebanon in 2000 became a victory for Hizbollah? Can the targeted killing of Hamas leaders in Gaza serve this end? And would an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and redeployment behind the West Bank security barrier secure Israel against demographic pressures, as the Arab population in Israel and the territories continues to grow?
DR: To prevent their withdrawal from looking like it has been done from weakness and is the product of Hamas violence, the Israelis must do the following: First, create a clear mantra that Israel is acting to preserve its security and its character. Withdrawal from Gaza and to a new security line in the West Bank will help address the demographic reality that could make Jews a minority and Arabs a majority in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River within a decade. Israel must withdraw not because of Hamas violence, but to ensure a Jewish Israel. The withdrawal, if done the right way, can ensure there will be two states and not one state. Hamas and others want a one-state solution; Israeli withdrawal will prevent that. From that standpoint, Israel is acting to frustrate the strategy of Hamas.
Second, encourage the United States to take the lead in talking to Palestinians, Arab leaders, and Europeans to focus on shaping Palestinian responses that can ensure that those Palestinians who believe in peaceful coexistence gain from the withdrawal. The objective must be to ensure that those who believe in coexistence, not rejection, benefit from the Israeli initiative. The point is that moderates, not extremists, must be seen as delivering—delivering on land, settlement areas that can be turned over to Palestinians in need, and new economic opportunities that should accompany the Israeli withdrawal.
YIJ:: What is your opinion of the possibility that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and redeployment in the West Bank, with the completion of its barrier there, could lead to a “long-term interim solution?” Can there be stability if final status talks are not held for several years?
DR: The Israeli withdrawal cannot be a solution. Not only will it encompass only part of what will be required, especially as the withdrawal on the West Bank is likely to be limited, but anything that is done unilaterally cannot solve the problem. But it could transform the situation that is currently frozen. It could give Palestinians a chance to prove to the world that they can govern themselves and assume real responsibilities—thereby creating a model that could be applied to the West Bank. Moreover, if the Israelis shape their West Bank withdrawal in a way that leads to a lifting of their siege of the Palestinians in the West Bank, a very different climate could be created. Of course, Israelis can only do that if Palestinians are actively preventing all acts of terror from the territories they would control.
The key to creating a way-station to the future is to foster two kinds of freedoms: The Israelis need freedom from Palestinian terror attacks and the Palestinians need freedom from Israeli control. If the new security line and the assumption of serious responsibilities by the Palestinians stop terror attacks against Israel and the Israelis are no longer controlling all aspects of Palestinian life, a new reality would be created. In such circumstances, peace-making could become possible again over time.
YIJ:: You have spoken of the need for an “Arab umbrella” to enable Palestinian concessions to Israel in the context of a peace process. But as of yet, Egypt has not even been willing to police its border with the Gaza Strip and prevent smuggling across it. How can Arab countries be persuaded to play a more constructive role in fostering peace-making?
DR: We have to emphasize publicly that if there is to be peace it is not only the Israelis and Palestinians who have responsibilities, but the Arab leaders as well. We should be precise about what those responsibilities are. They have to help the Palestinians assume their obligations, including a readiness to confront those who do not accept peaceful coexistence and use violence to oppose it. Arab leaders should act to discredit those who use violence and terror, condemning them by name when they take credit for such acts.
They also should create their own road map for how they will move toward normalization with Israel. Let them spell out what they are prepared to do with Israel and what they require from the Israelis. Israel has a responsibility to make the climate better as well, and this can be something that Arab leaders spell out directly to the Israeli public. In short, Arab leaders cannot just sit on the sidelines if there is going to be peace.
YIJ:: In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, you expressed support for an international effort to fund Palestinian organizations that will act as a counter-weight to the influence of Hamas. Have you seen such an effort beginning to take place?
DR: I have not yet seen the kind of international effort that is required on the funding side. In particular, the Palestinians need to fund the social services that Hamas currently provides.
YIJ:: You recently wrote that the message must be sent to Palestinians that they “have much to gain by acting and much to lose by avoiding any responsibility.” What do you say to Palestinians who believe that by preserving the status quo, they will inevitably be “victorious” once Arabs outnumber Jews between the Jordan and the Mediterranean?
DR: Again, the answer is that there will not be a one-state solution because Israel will act to preserve a Jewish majority. Only partition makes that possible. Yitzhak Rabin wanted to produce partition through agreement. But he was prepared for unilateral separation if there was no alternative. The answer to Hamas and Yasir Arafat—both of whom seek a one-state solution—is partition.
YIJ:: In an interview with Fox News on April 21, 2002, you said about the Palestinian rejection of the Camp David Accord that “Arafat’s whole life has been governed by struggle and a cause. For him to end the conflict is to end himself.” What steps toward peace, if any, can be made while Arafat remains in power? After he departs from the scene, is there another Fatah leader who you believe can preserve the Palestinian Authority while taking the necessary steps for peace with Israel?
DR: Ending the conflict is not possible with Yasir Arafat in power. But only Palestinians can decide who will lead them. So long as he prevents any solution, the answer is to create a way-station. Pressure on Arafat will build from Palestinians if they think he blocks any improvement when such improvement is possible. Arafat has a nose for the mood of the street. That is why it is so important for the international community to send the message that the whole world is watching.
Will Palestinians take advantage of an Israeli withdrawal to assume responsibilities on security, transparency, and accountability? Or will they once again avoid doing so, in particular because Arafat blocks acting on such responsibilities? The more he is exposed before the Palestinian public, the higher the costs will be to him of blocking serious responses to the Israeli initiative.
YIJ:: PA Prime Minster Ahmed Qureia referred to Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin as a “symbol of resistance” and publicly mourned his death after he was killed by Israeli forces. What has to change in order to make PA officials inclined to isolate and combat Hamas members rather than praise them?
DR: Palestinians will be unlikely to assume their responsibilities if nothing changes on the ground. Israeli checkpoints prevent normal life for Palestinians. Israelis are unlikely to lift them before having a security barrier in place.
oordination is important here. If Palestinians know when Israel might withdraw and what is expected of them and Israelis see that Palestinians will actually begin to act on security, then Israelis can start lifting checkpoints and Palestinians can see what can be gained and who prevents a resumption of normal life. In an atmosphere of anger, little can change.
YIJ:: Labor-led governments were in power for much of the time you served as a Middle East diplomat. Today, can you foresee the revival of the Labor Party?
DR: The pendulum has a way of swinging in Israeli political life. When Bibi Netanyahu lost in 1999, the Likud party dropped to 19 seats in the Knesset. The most recent Israeli election produced a surge for Likud and Labor dropped to 19 seats. If the security situation does not change and the economy remains bad, the pendulum could easily swing again.
YIJ:: What do you make of the Geneva Accord’s terms in comparison with those you helped to negotiate between Barak and Arafat in 2000 and 2001? Should Israelis worry that the Accord’s positive international reception augurs the possibility of a settlement with the Palestinians essentially being imposed on Israel from outside?
DR: I do not foresee circumstances in which terms are imposed on Israel from the outside. The greatest pressure on any Israeli government is always generated by the Israeli public. If there is one lesson from history, it is that when the Israeli public believes it has a partner for peace, it will insist that its government respond to the partner or it will change that government. Conversely, when it believes it has no partner, it favors a prime minister that will demonstrate the costs of not being a partner.
YIJ:: You have written a book titled The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, which is scheduled to be released on August 1. The Camp David negotiations of 2000 are one of the subjects the book narrates. You have already written and spoken extensively about those negotiations; what new information can we expect in your book?
DR: The book is the whole story of the peace process. It is designed to debunk the mythologies that are so much a part of the Middle East and that make it so hard to make peace. Myths allow different parties to avoid facing reality. Peace will be possible when all sides face up to reality. That is one purpose of the book and another is to lay out the lessons of the past and what they tell us about the future. Until all sides have to condition their publics for peace, by legitimizing compromise, little will be possible—all the more reason to tell the truth about what has gone on and what will be necessary.
The Yale Israel Journal interviewed Dennis Ross on March 30, 2004.