What a Mess

We had a rainy summer in my part of the country; fortunately, Dennis Ross’s chronicle of failed peacemaking was at hand—all 840 pages. Anyone with a keen interest in the Middle East, or in the arduous work of making peace, or in the potential of negotiators to lose sight of the facts on the ground, should read it, but with a critical eye—rain or shine.

The Missing Peace is a chronicle of the ups and downs (mostly downs) from 1988 to 2000 of Ross’s efforts as the United States’ chief negotiator to end the conflict in the Middle East by bringing Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian representatives, or some combination thereof, to the table—with the Egyptians and Saudis looking on. And a chronicle it is, an hour-to-hour, day-by-day account of major negotiations at Madrid, Wye, Shepherdstown, Camp David II, and preparatory meetings and postmortems in dozens of settings in Europe and the Middle East.

Ross began his marathon in the first Bush administration, working closely with Secretary of State James Baker to open the Madrid negotiations and to put a damper on the burgeoning Israeli settlements on the West Bank. In withholding U.S. loan guarantees, Baker and President George H. W. Bush acted to penalize Israel for this settlement policy—the last administration to do so. Ross stayed on as chief negotiator in the Clinton administration, and in his telling, was the central figure in conveying, negotiating, pushing, and pressing the Israelis and Palestinians, and the Israelis and Syrians together, and then picking up the usable pieces after the effort failed. Still, there were apparent breakthroughs in this era, and Commonweal wrote many positive editorials hoping the belligerents were finally on the road to peace. As I had a hand in many of them, I regret that they did not take greater note of the breakdowns, failed implementations, manipulation, and politicking by both sides that ultimately undermined all of the agreements.

Over the 1990s, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle became increasingly complex not only between the parties but within them. The Oslo Accords brought the Palestinian Authority and Yasir Arafat to power in Gaza and the West Bank, marginalizing whatever local leadership existed. Then Hamas, with Israeli encouragement, grew as Arafat’s homegrown opposition and today it is a major source of terrorism. In Israel, two Likud prime ministers encouraged the West Bank settlements while stalling the peace process; new immigrants, many from Russia and some from the United States, benefited economically from this cheap housing and became ardent Likud supporters, insuring that Labor, which initially opposed the settlements, would only govern in coalition. This factionalism drew the United States ever more deeply into the gripes, grievances, and paranoia of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

President Bill Clinton hoped to cut through the miasma, and during his last year in office, immersed himself directly in negotiations. His hands-on style did not always meet with Ross’s approval; Ross clearly disliked the president’s penchant for offering as an opening gambit the enticement that Ross meant to hold out as final inducement. But the president is negotiator-in-chief and Ross respected that even when he disagreed. A final settlement at Camp David seemed from news reports to be always on the brink of success. Ross’s chronicle suggests otherwise. Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s push for the meeting was, Ross says, ill-timed and ill-conceived. Neither Barak nor Benjamin Netanyahu, his Likud predecessor, had met Israel’s obligations under the interim agreements of Oslo. Intermittent terrorist attacks by the Palestinians were one cause, but the Israelis’ own fractious political coalitions were another. Ross and Clinton blamed Arafat publicly for the Camp David failure. But by Ross’s own account, Arafat had solid evidence of Israeli reneging on the Oslo agreements. Had Arafat agreed to a final settlement, would Barak’s coalition have given him the votes he needed to pass it? Would Israel have implemented the agreement? Since Arafat unfortunately said no, the Israelis were never put to the test.

On Ross’s telling, he did everything possible to bring the nightmare of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle to an end. His patience and ingenuity, his ability to talk hours and days on end to one side or the other manifest endurance above and beyond the call of duty, and an intensity of involvement probably inappropriate for an outsider.

The detail in Ross’s narrative is a great strength; we learn a lot. But it is also a weakness. Drawn from his contemporaneous notes and memorandums, the book has a hermetically sealed atmosphere; negotiations seem to go on in a world apart. Ross’s views, opinions, interpretations, likes, dislikes, and nasty jibes often hide rather than shed light on the impact of the real players and real events on the negotiations. His interpretations are the only ones fully explicated and the behavior and motives of others are often obscure. Who doubts that Ariel Sharon’s “walk” on the Harem/Temple Mount accompanied by large numbers of Israeli police, and the consequent Palestinian violence, contributed to the ultimate demise of peace negotiations? Sharon’s provocative act undermined Barak’s political support and deflated the pressures on Arafat to make a deal. Ross mentions the Sharon incident, but offers no judgment. There are many such lacunae.

Former ambassador of Israel to the United States Itamar Rabinovich, whose tenure overlapped Ross’s, offers alternative interpretations on a number of points. His analytic, historical, and briefer account in Waging Peace traces the diplomatic to and fro of Israeli-Arab, Israeli-Palestinian, and Israeli-Syrian relations from 1948 through 2003. Unlike Ross, he is frank in saying that Netanyahu, in spite of his posturing, never intended to carry out the Oslo Accords. Rabinovich also challenges the Clinton-Ross indictment of Arafat and points to other factors that led to the Camp David failure. Among these are: Barak’s all-or-nothing strategy, the lack of preparation by all parties, and Clinton’s overriding desire to clinch a deal before leaving office. Finally, Barak’s refusal to prepare another interim agreement, should his offer fail, signaled the demise of the peace process. Clinton left office in January 2001. Barak was defeated by Sharon in February. And Ross resigned. Though he chastises the Bush administration for letting matters drift, in fact, it has signed on to Sharon’s unilateralist strategy. Negotiations aren’t needed for that.

Ross’s dedication to a peace settlement is admirable, but the actual trajectory of U.S. policy raises questions about his role and that of the United States in a failed process. Was he finally an honest broker? Did he overlook violence by the settlers and the Israeli Defense Forces while pressing the Palestinians to contain theirs? Did twelve years of negotiations, into which the United States was ever more deeply drawn, produce or reduce the possibility of peace? Did Ross’s unstinting readiness to go to the table again and again lead to a fait accompli: victorious Israel with U.S. backing will impose a “peace” and occupy large areas of the West Bank? We have seen the Likudization of Israel over the last decade. Now we have the Likudization of U.S. policy. Perhaps even Ross was Likudized (he is now counselor and distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose Web site strongly supports Likud policies).

When Ross left the government in 2001, Clyde Haberman of the New York Times (March 25, 2001) conducted an exit interview. He describes Ross as “an ardent supporter of Israel,” and asks what role that played in negotiations. Ross considers that “my Jewishness has added to my sense of mission,” and in defending that mission says: “I don’t believe you’ll ever produce peace in the Middle East...if Israel isn’t strong and if there isn’t a strong relationship between the United States and Israel.” That view carried weight with the Israelis, with the U.S. Congress, with several administrations, and with a majority of the U.S. public. But what about the Arabs? The Palestinians? Or for that matter the Europeans, or other potential honest brokers? Finally, what about a workable settlement? Did the presence of the United States and a dedicated negotiator, who invested enormous personal and intellectual energy in keeping negotiations afloat, serve as a buffer that saved Israel and the Palestinian Authority from confronting and making the difficult compromises that each finally had to make on it own?

U.S. policy has long been supportive of Israel; now it is indulgent of policies-the settlements and the “wall”—that were once unthinkable, even to most Israelis. Is Israel the winner in this? Or the loser? Richard Ben Cramer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (for his coverage of the Middle East), argues the latter in How Israel Lost. It is a short book with a strong argument—and a provocative one. “If I had to sum up what I thought I knew—twenty years ago, after seven years’ contact with Israel—I would have called it ‘a nice little socialist country, with one problem.’ The problem, of course, was the Jews’ relations with the Arabs-inside the country, in occupied lands, and in the nations nearby....Now, I’d say the ‘one problem’ ...has eaten up the rest of the country.” Cramer is no fan of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority; quite the contrary. But he thinks Israel has lost its soul in the struggle. His reporter’s ear for the telling conversation with Israelis and Palestinians, his nose for the corruption that he sees on both sides—sometimes in collusion with one another—and his memory of citizen-soldiers subject to civilian authority now lost in a militarized society offer a sobering contrast to the diplomatic accounts of Ross and Rabinowitz. In blunt language, Cramer recalls some of the facts on the ground that the United States failed to factor into peace negotiations.

 


Related: "Stumbling Blocks" by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels

Published in the 2004-11-05 issue: 
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Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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