Doing Their Best as Best Man'

Ross realizes that any accords reached between Israel and the Arabs followed bilateral negotiations - with U.S. help

"The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace" by Dennis Ross, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 840 pages, $35

The death of Yasser Arafat, the reelection of George W. Bush, the appointment of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and the ramifications of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan - all these raise the question again of whether there is a reason and a chance to try again to promote peace in the Middle East: Perhaps a renewed push for the road map, perhaps a series of interim accords - or maybe it would be better to wait for a radical realignment in the Palestinian camp?

For anyone involved in discussing this issue, there is no better guide than this tome by Dennis Ross, who served since 1986 in various key positions in the National Security Council and State Department in the Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations, before being appointed by Clinton as a special Middle East coordinator with responsibility for peace negotiations in the region. As someone who served under three presidents, he also came to know all of the prime ministers of Israel during that period, conducted convoluted talks with the Assads, father and son, and logged more hours with Yasser Arafat over 12 years than any other Western figure.

One may wonder why it was necessary to write nearly 850 pages about negotiations that failed to produce results. (For comparison, Margaret MacMillan's monumental work on the Paris Peace Conference and the Versailles agreement of 1919, which changed the map of Europe and the Middle East, contains 650 pages.) Is there really a need to elaborate on every meeting with every Palestinian representative and every Israeli figure, from "Uri" (Savir) to "Amnon" (Lipkin-Shahak)? Yes. So much effort was invested in the negotiations that it is indeed worthwhile reviewing it stage by stage and learning the reasons for the failure.

First and foremost, it was an American failure. Of course, it was an Israeli-Arab failure to reach agreement, and each observer can offer his own assessment regarding who is to blame and who is responsible; the argument over these assessments has actually become an inseparable part of the conflict itself. But the United States, the world's only superpower, invested more efforts during the past two decades on resolving the Middle East conflict than on any other topic, as the book demonstrates over and over.

It is amazing to consider how American secretaries of state - from James Baker to Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright - delved into minute details and how much time was invested by U.S. presidents, especially Clinton, in dealing with details that on any other issue would have been left for an undersecretary of state to handle.

Clinton, for example, met with Arafat more than any other national leader and Christopher visited Damascus more than 20 times. (He only visited Moscow and Beijing a few times.) Ultimately, all this effort is a story of great failure: America, which exercised its power very successfully in Bosnia and Kosovo, and successfully (albeit more problematically) in Iraq twice, failed in its diplomatic efforts on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ross is cognizant of this failure, but expresses things in a different way. He also knows that when agreements were reached between Israel and the Arabs - between Israel and Egypt, the Oslo Accords and subsequently the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan - it was the result of bilateral negotiations, with the U.S. serving (as in Camp David in 1978) only as a final "best man" for resolving a few remaining issues after the two sides had settled most of the problems themselves.

All of this has repercussions for the limits of U.S. power. It is clear that George W. Bush's first administration preferred to keep a low profile on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, not out of fondness for Sharon (this is an Arab myth) nor due to pressure from the Jewish lobby (another myth), but rather because no American president would have been ready to risk his prestige and the prestige of the U.S. after Clinton's resounding failure at Camp David: It is impossible to recall another case in which an American president places his full weight behind a diplomatic move and a figure of Arafat's stature says "no" - and all of America's power dissipates into thin air. This is a lesson the Bush administration learned, and it is reasonable to expect that it will also guide it in the future.

`Court Jew'

But, let's start from the beginning. When Ross, an observant Jew, became the American mediator in the Middle East, both sides regarded him with suspicion. The Arabs saw him as a Jew, who of course (how could it be otherwise?) would always support the Israeli position. Quite a few Israelis saw him as a "court Jew," who of course (how could it be otherwise?) would lean toward the Arab side to avoid being tagged as pro-Israeli. Both sides were mistaken - because sometimes they both fail to understand the fabric of American life and because of Ross' particular traits.

Ross recognizes the double cloud of suspicion toward him, and the book itself is one of impressive testimony to his traits as a diplomat and person: infinite diligence, empathetic listening to both sides, an effort to understand the inner feelings of both and serious attention to every word spoken to him. (Hafez Assad once told him, at the end of a conversation that lasted, as usual, many long hours: "You don't forget anything.") In this way, he won the trust of both sides - an impressive achievement for a diplomat. But this achievement was not translated into success in establishing peace.

It is no coincidence that the first chapter of the book deals with what Ross calls "three narratives" - the Israeli, Arab and Palestinian. (The fact that he presents the Palestinian narrative as possessing its own uniqueness demonstrates a sensitivity to nuances.) Hundreds of books have been written on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but no single book succeeds in presenting the basic positions of both sides so fairly. Anyone who reads this chapter will understand that the conflict is not about borders or "who is right." From the Jewish side, he describes the historical distress of the Jews and their connection to the Land of Israel, and from the Arab and Palestinian side he describes the sense of injustice they feel. From the Israeli side, he does a good job in depicting the feeling of siege in which Israel has lived since the Arabs' refusal to accept the United Nations partition plan in 1947. And from the Arab side, he presents the feeling of helplessness and anger toward those whom they regard as foreign intruders.

Thus, Ross correctly understands that Israel is not only seeking security, but also legitimacy. On the other hand, he knows how difficult it is for the Palestinians to grant this to Israel because it would require an significant revision of their national narrative. This introduction, though it is ostensibly nothing more than a historical summary of what we all think we already know, faithfully presents the essential difficulty in bridging the positions of the two sides.

Thanks to its huge scope, the book is a source of many insights about various aspects of the conflict. Ross is sharply critical of the Israeli settlement enterprise, but not due to legalistic reasons. Rather, his negative position on the settlements is because they make it harder to reach an accord and deepen Palestinian suspicion toward Israelis, who seek to grab more and more pieces of their land. At the same time, he unequivocally states that Arafat "always kept open the option of violence" and "never prepared his people for tough compromises, nor was he ready to face them himself." According to Ross, the hope that Arafat would become a Nelson Mandela was a chimera.

The book includes long chapters on the convoluted negotiations with Syria and Ross shows how at various stages both sides got cold feet. The basic insecurity and suspiciousness of Hafez Assad did not allow him to take advantage of the historic moment when it seemed that the informal understanding (known as "the pocket"), which Yitzhak Rabin entrusted to Warren Christopher (on returning to the borders of June 4, 1967) would lead to a breakthrough. And Ehud Barak feared that it would be difficult for him to lead simultaneously an initiative entailing concessions on the Syrian front together with far-reaching compromises vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Wealth of talent

Still, there are two points of criticism that arise against Ross in the book. He began his role on the eve of the Madrid conference. This was an American initiative, a payback to Egypt and Saudi Arabia for their support of the U.S. in the first Gulf War. It is natural that Ross, who invested so much in preparing the conference, regards it as an achievement. But the path to Madrid was a path leading nowhere. Ultimately, despite the impressive photo opportunity, it did not generate any accord and the mechanisms it created were unproductive (similar to the Geneva conference in December 1973). This is an example of a diplomatic achievement that was not necessarily a political achievement - a distinction that Henry Kissinger recognized so well.

Another problematic point in the book actually involves Ross' impressive capabilities: One cannot help but admire the way he succeeded over the years - through his skill, creativity, boyish charm and the trust he won from both sides - to prevent countless crises. When all of the others - Americans in more senior positions, Israelis and Palestinians - despaired and felt they had reached a dead end, Ross managed to find a compromise proposal, through meetings and drafts during sleepless nights, that enabled both sides to maintain their prestige (since the redeeming proposal could be interpreted in various ways) and to continue talking.

But the critical reader may wonder whether this wealth of talent that served Ross (and his interlocutors) may not have been ultimately detrimental. Ross' diplomatic talents helped to gloss over deep gaps in positions, creating a feeling of progress when there was no real progress and sometimes generating an illusion of negotiation when there was no real give and take going on. While this is admittedly hindsight, perhaps it would have been better if the talks had reached a crisis earlier and if the redeeming formulas (which often included a touch of deception) had not saved the negotiations from an early breakdown. Then, the two sides, as well as the American administration, would have confronted even earlier the realization that Ross ultimately reached: that compromise is still far away.

Ross himself reached this conclusion (though without the self-criticism). The last chapters of the book deal with the discussions at Camp David in 2000 and the subsequent talks (Taba, etc.), and Ross has no doubt that Arafat's recalcitrance was the reason for failure. It is no coincidence that the dramatic opening chapter of the book begins with January 2, 2001, just 17 days before the end of Clinton's term. This is the day when Clinton asked for Arafat's final answer about his "parameters," which were presented to both sides and accepted in principle by Israel. Clinton's parameters comprised a package of very far-reaching Israeli concessions. The full text of these parameters appears in the book and it is worthwhile reviewing them: establishment of a Palestinian state; an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and 95-96 percent of the West Bank, including the dismantling of the settlements in these areas; division of Jerusalem and establishment of the capital of the Palestinian state in the Arab sections of the city; Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount; a solution for the refugee issue that would offer them five options; and so on.

Catastrophic meeting

It was President Mubarak who suggested to the Americans that they invite Arafat to the White House because it would presumably be easier for the Palestinian leader to make these concessions to a president who honors him with (another) invitation to his home. Ross convinced the president to agree to this step. The meeting was a catastrophe. It took some time for Clinton and Ross to understand that despite the fact that the president clearly told Arafat that he expected an unequivocal answer, Arafat regarded the proposal submitted to him only as a basis for further negotiation. Ross notes that Arafat, strangely, even disagreed over the English version's reference to the "Western Wall" instead of the "Wailing Wall."

According to Ross, this was Arafat's moment of truth. Not only the moment of decision, but also the moment when the internal truth came to light: Arafat was not prepared for the historic compromise offered to him for ending the conflict. The basic transformation of accepting Israel had still not occurred among the Palestinians, and Arafat thought he could reach the pinnacle of his power by conducting negotiations with the U.S. and Israel, while simultaneously allowing severe violence toward civilians in Israel. Instead of accepting the best proposal ever offered to him and the best offer that could be expected for a long time, Arafat ultimately said "no" to Clinton - not only to Barak - and sentenced his people to continued suffering.

Ross regards this as Arafat's historic mistake. Ross understood that a historic chance for peace was missed due to the basic Palestinian positions and decided then to submit his resignation, realizing that from this point onward, the Americans would only deal with "conflict management" because the path to resolving the situation was blocked for the time being.

This does not prevent Ross from offering, at the end of his book, some advice for the future - both because he believes in this and out of political correctness. The main and wisest piece of advice is that the two sides must be attentive to each other's basic needs. This is true, but on the basis of what Ross himself says, the chances of this happening are small in the meantime.

With all of his empathy for the Palestinians, his assessment also includes a tough but true statement that Arafat's successors would do well to note: "Peace will not be possible until the Palestinians decide that being victims only guarantees that they will remain victims." They will have to accept difficult decisions themselves, including a revision of the basic Palestinian narrative. At the same time, they should not succumb to the illusion that they can succeed in stirring a dispute between the U.S. and Israel: This will not happen because of the basic interests of the U.S.

And meanwhile? Sharon's disengagement plan - which the prime minister initially opposed - obviously is not enough for Ross, but he regards it as a step in the right direction. It should be built upon and seen as one stage in additional, more far-reaching steps.

Ross' great achievement is that he ultimately learned something, especially from the American failure, which was also his failure. Let's hope that the two sides also learned their respective lessons, each in its own way.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri has edited an English version of Moses Hess' book, "The Holy History of Mankind" - the first socialist book, published in Germany in 1837. The new English version was recently published by Cambridge University Press.