Tired are the Peacemakers

In his riveting 800-page memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, Dennis Ross casts himself in the Jewish tradition of a “rodef shalom”–a seeker of peace with an endless store of innovative compromises and creative ambiguities. He certainly scored some interim successes along the way. Ross helped mediate four provisional Israeli-Palestinian agreements, including one that saw Israeli troops withdraw from most West Bank cities. He got Syrian and Israeli leaders to reveal their bottom lines regarding the disputed Golan Heights at a summit in Geneva in 2000, where the gap proved tantalizingly small but stubbornly unbridgeable. At Camp David a few months later, he helped assemble Israelis and Palestinians for dramatic end-of-conflict talks. Though they didn’t clinch an agreement, the two sides finally broached the most volatile issues–Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. The behind-the-curtain drama of all these events is fleshed out in absorbing detail in his book.

Ross blames the vagaries of the Middle East conflict and the occasional mistakes made by negotiators and mediators for the breakdowns in the peace process. Unelected Arab leaders who had little or no legitimacy at home were averse to risk, and making peace with Israel was a risky business. Israeli prime ministers were constantly weighing the effects of accommodating the Arabs on their chronically unstable coalitions. And if anyone needed more setbacks, there were always Israeli settlements expansion and Palestinian suicide attacks to make the Oslo peace process more confidence-destroying than confidence-building.

But that’s not the whole story. On the Palestinian track, at least, Ross believes the mistakes and complications could have been overcome. There, he faults the one leader who “definitively demonstrated that he could not end the conflict”: Yasser Arafat. “How many times did Arafat have to tell us no before we heard ‘no’?” Ross writes in one of the closing chapters. “How many excuses could be made for him? Those who argue that we just ran out of time ignore the many opportunities Arafat had refused.”

Negotiators and scholars have debated for four years now who really was to blame for the breakdown at Camp David. Some, like Rob Malley, who served on President Clinton’s National Security Council, question whether Israel ever actually made a formal offer and fault Prime Minister Ehud Barak at least in part for the way he dealt with the Palestinians. Malley believes Barak lost his chance with the Palestinians long before Camp David by expanding settlements and nixing long-promised land transfers. Others say the Israeli government never intended for the Palestinian state to be anything more than isolated “Bantustans.” But for Ross, the points are moot. Even if Israel’s proposals at Camp David did not amount to a genuine peace offering (and Ross believes they did), Arafat would go on to reject a more comprehensive plan and several smaller initiatives.

Ross relates a story that evidently has never appeared in print. In the final weeks of Clinton’s term, Barak, who faced a certain election defeat at the hands of Ariel Sharon if he could not reach a last minute peace deal, asked the U.S. president to visit the region for a final push. Ross felt all avenues had been exhausted and opposed the trip. But instead of discouraging Clinton, he suggested one last test. Clinton would ask Arafat to spend 24 hours with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin Shahak, the two Israelis with whom he felt most comfortable, in an effort to bridge all outstanding gaps. If both sides reported success, Clinton would fly over to help seal the deal.

Clinton liked the idea, and so did Barak. But Arafat balked. “[He] acted like someone facing a visit to the dentist,” Ross writes. “He would like to do it, but he would not be available. He had to go to Tunisia.” Ross, sitting at Clinton’s side during the phone conversation, scribbled to the president, “You are offering him a historic opportunity, you are prepared to take this enormous leap, and he is too busy. What does that tell us?” To Ross, it said Arafat had been a bad investment. Nearly eight years after the Oslo deal, it was time to cut losses.

Ross, who is Jewish, was certainly aware that his ancestry might be viewed negatively by some members of the Palestinian negotiating team. Raised by a Jewish mother and a Catholic stepfather, Ross grew up in a non-religious household in California’s Marin County. He describes coming of age in the 1960s, working on the election campaigns of Democrats Robert Kennedy and George McGovern and, like many Jews of his generation, becoming captivated by Israel after the 1967 Middle East war. “I identified with its people and my own Jewish identity became more important to me as a result. Intrinsically, I believed Israel had a right to exist and that the Jewish people needed and deserved a homeland,” he writes. But as early as the 1970s, Ross says, he came to believe Israel’s policy of building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was “wrong and misguided.” During his years as a mediator, even as some Palestinians made repeated references to his Judaism and questioned his ability to be unbiased, Ross says he also received nasty letters from supporters of Israel who labeled him a self-hating Jew.

By his own description of the dynamic between members of the U.S. mediation team, Ross was often the most strident defender of Israel’s positions. “I was focused not on reconciling rights but on addressing needs,” he says in his book. When Israel’s political and security needs were discussed in the formulation of Clinton’s peace proposal of late 2000, Ross insisted on the Jewish state annexing 6 to 7 percent of the West Bank. Two other team members suggested the annexation be limited to 3 to 4 percent, with Palestinians getting an equivalent swap of territory inside Israel. Ross disagreed: “I felt strongly about six to seven percent annexation and I was not prepared to lower the ceiling. Nor was I prepared to introduce the idea of an equivalent swap.” Israel needed that big a slice “for both security and political purposes,” Ross argued. And he believed that with 93 percent of the West Bank, Palestinians would have both territorial contiguity and viability.

Ross has praise for other members of the Palestinian negotiating team. He considers Ahmed Qurei, the current Palestinian prime minister, a personal friend. And he singles out two Palestinian negotiators as critical to peacemaking–Mohammed Dahlan, the former Gaza security chief, and Mohammed Rashid, who served for years as Arafat’s financial adviser. But it is his encounters with the eccentric PLO chief that stand out. He describes a fierce confrontation with Arafat in 1996, while Ross was shuttling between Israelis and Palestinians to seal a deal on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron. The Palestinian leader had asked for certain compromises from then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ross was now detailing what he had secured from the Israelis. But instead of being satisfied with the concessions, Arafat demanded new ones. “Are you calling me a liar?” he shouted repeatedly at Ross. “You are always right and I am always wrong. You are always right and I am always wrong,” Arafat grumbled. Ross, tired of the abuse, walked towards the door, then turned and flung his binder 15 feet back toward the table where the interlocutors usually ate, knocking over a pitcher of grapefruit juice.

But the book is not without humor. Ross peppers his larger perspectives with amusing anecdotes, like the time he impressed his staff at Camp David by bowling a 163 in the Hawthorne cabin, which has a two-lane bowling alley. Later that night, his team watched the movie Gladiator with Palestinian negotiators, including Arafat, Qurei, and Saeb Erekat, who all felt somehow “that the movie was a metaphor for our efforts.” When Ross first visited Arafat in Tunisia in 1994, he was struck by the contrast between the PLO’s image as a band of revolutionaries and the cushy life they led in their lavish Tunisian villas. “What revolutionaries, I wondered, as I watched the Golden Girls, the show that was playing on the television in the adjoining sitting room? Here I was at Arafat’s house, and there were the Golden Girls, rich in Jewish humor, on the tube.”

But it was one of the last meetings Ross–along with Clinton and other officials–had with Arafat which he describes in heartbreaking detail. It was Jan. 2, 2001, when Arafat was summoned to the White House to reply to Clinton’s peace proposal. Both Israelis and Palestinians had been told to respond unconditionally by late December. Barak accepted but Arafat stalled. The meeting was his last chance. Days earlier, Ross had briefed Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, on the plan. Ross quotes Bandar as saying: “If Arafat does not accept what is available now, it won’t be a tragedy, it will be a crime.” But in the Oval Office, Arafat objected to almost all the main points, saying that he accepted the ideas but not the details.

Once again, Ross was aghast. “We were seeing a variant of what Arab leaders had always referred to as ‘the Arafat answer’: “La-Nam” (no and yes in Arabic),” Ross writes. “Arafat had the best deal he could ever get. He could not get more and he had hit the proverbial wall. He could not wring out one more concession or gain one more tactical advantage. We had left the realm of tactics and we now had to face a strategic reality: Arafat could not do a deal that ended the conflict Too much redefinition was required. He was not up to it. He could live with a process but not a conclusion.”

Weeks after the meeting, Ross left his government job; he now heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that the Council on Foreign Relations describes as “sympathetic to Israel.” He says in his book that he remains an optimist, largely because Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians now all recognize the inevitable contours of their future peace agreements. But he’s also a pragmatist, hardened by years of frustrating mediation. “Translating that understanding from an abstraction into a practical reality has proven far more difficult than I had hoped,” he writes near the end of his book. “Unfortunately in the case of the Middle East, time does not stand still and too often it is measured in blood.”