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Ross: Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Bleak, Arafat to Blame for Much of the Problem

Interviewee: Dennis B. Ross, Counselor and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow, the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 20, 2003

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Dennis Ross, whose 12 years as the point man for Middle East negotiations spanned the first Bush administration and both Clinton administrations, describes “the reality on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians” as “simply devastating.” Still, progress toward a peaceful resolution would be possible if a successor to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat genuinely accepted a solution allowing for Palestinian and Jewish states and cracked down on terrorist groups.

The director of and Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ross is writing a much-anticipated book about his lengthy career in international relations. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 20, 2003.


What’s your evaluation of the current prospects for Mideast peace? Are they as grim as they look?

On one level, it’s hard to believe it could be bleaker than it is. The reality on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians is simply devastating. Both sides have lost face, the idea that they have a partner for peace. At this point, you have what I would call a paradox: Neither side believes peace is possible, although I think the actual point of view of each side on what the outcome should be may not be as far apart as one might think.

I think the Israeli public, if they truly believed there was a Palestinian partner who would reject terror and accept a Jewish state, would be prepared to embrace something like the [so-called] Clinton parameters set forth in December 2000. On the other side, you have Palestinians who genuinely believe in a two-state solution that would be pretty close to [those parameters]. The problem, of course, is how you get from where we are to that reality. And that’s a very big problem, given that everything right now is frozen.

There was a good deal of optimism last June when President Bush went to the Middle East, met with leaders, and strongly endorsed the so-called road map. Many observers said that the prospect of Bush’s personal involvement offered a lot of hope. Now, I gather the administration’s interest is dwindling.

What happened is that you had an administration that was reluctant to get involved in this issue and believed it really couldn’t do what the Clinton administration had done, and [seemed further to believe that] if the Clinton administration couldn’t succeed, what was the point of making much of an effort?

So for the initial period of this administration, there was a disengagement policy. Gradually, the administration became more involved as it came under greater pressure to do something. And in the run-up to the war with Iraq, I think the president made a number of promises he took seriously to Arab leaders and others like [British] Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which he said he would make a serious effort, once Saddam Hussein had been ousted. And I think that’s what one saw in May and June, and I think the summit meeting in Aqaba, [Jordan,] on June 4 [with Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian leaders] represented the culmination of the effort.

The problem was that the summit was a good idea, provided the hard work of diplomacy had been done in advance to make sure the Israelis and Palestinians understood exactly the same things about what would happen on the ground, and what each would do on the ground in the aftermath of the summit. It was important to make a declaration, but it was important, in fact, to change the realities in the aftermath of the summit. That didn’t happen.

What should have been done?

The administration should have had people in the area working in advance of the [summit], creating choreographed steps on each side, and using the president’s visit as a kind of lever on each side to reach the understandings on what each would have to carry out— the Palestinians on security; the Israelis, in terms of lifting checkpoints [on roads in Palestinian territory]. The critical point here is that the road map would never have provided more than guidelines. It was negotiated with the members of the quartet [the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations], not with the Israelis or Palestinians. There were no understandings on what it meant in practice. And the Palestinians themselves adopted an approach in which they worked out a hudna [truce with extremists groups], which wasn’t even part of the road map, and which made by definition the terms of the road map hard to implement.

For example, the hudna was something negotiated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and yet the road map called in the first phase for the Palestinians to make arrests, target these groups, collect illegal weapons, and dismantle the terrorism infrastructure. There was an inherent contradiction between requiring that of Palestinian leaders at the very moment when they had gone ahead and made an agreement with those groups. Now, if you were going to accept the hudna, then what you had to do was work out with the Palestinians precisely what they were going to do.

Would they close down tunnels [used to smuggle weapons]? Would there be any arrests they would make? Where would they collect illegal weapons? And with the Israelis, given that [the Palestinians] would not take the kind of steps called for in the road map, what could they do in a circumstance where there was only a truce? There had to be clear understandings that each side understood in the same way and that each side appreciated in the same way, so that Palestinians knew what the Israelis were going to do and accepted it, and Israelis knew what Palestinians were going to do and accepted that.

In the aftermath of the Aqaba summit, you would have seen for the next three or four weeks the realities on the ground change. The Palestinians would have fulfilled some responsibilities. The Israelis would have fulfilled some. And you would have had no sense of disappointment or betrayal, which is what in fact emerged on both sides. The Palestinians said, “We have a hudna and the Israelis are not lifting the checkpoints.” The Israelis said, “We’re supposed to take the steps which are hard for us but they’re not doing anything hard for them.” You did not overcome the gap in perceptions that existed on the two sides at the time the president went out there. The declarations that were made were important but were bound to be overwhelmed by the realities on the ground— and, in fact, that is what happened.

If you were called back into service, would you stick with the road map or look for a different approach to peace?

The concept of the road map was fine. It was the implementation of the road map that was not. Now, is there a better way to go? I don’t know. Frankly, I think the most important thing is to try to find a way to work out understandings between the two sides, which we will probably have to broker, about what’s going to happen on the ground and when it is going to happen. And you could say, well, that in effect is what the road map is about. The road map has three phases. The first is all about reform on the Palestinian side, and acting on security, and the Israelis lifting the siege on Palestinians and halting settlement growth.

How much of this failure to accomplish anything is because of the personalities of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon?

I think that certainly Arafat doesn’t want anything to happen that doesn’t make him the centerpiece of the Palestinian side. The problem is, of course, that it is very hard to do anything with Arafat. When Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, who served briefly this year as Palestinian prime minister] resigned [on September 6], even though he placed blame on the Israelis and Americans, he was unrelenting in his criticism of Arafat for having blocked everything he was trying to do, including after the August 19 bus bombing in Israel, when he put together a plan to go after Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat blocked that. It was in the aftermath of that that he resigned. So, I would have to say that Arafat remains the central impediment to getting anything done. In the case of Sharon, he has said things that people never would have expected him to say. He is the one who said to his own party faction that they might not like the word, but they have to give up “occupation.” I think he has certainly embraced the new rhetoric. The question is, what would he do if he truly had a [committed] Palestinian partner?

I often say to Palestinian groups, when they complain about Sharon, that they’ve never put him to the test. Had they created a situation where Palestinians really were determined to stop the violence and make it clear that those who carried it out would not be tolerated, then they would be in a better position to say, “All right, now we are presenting ourselves as a partner, now [Sharon] has to produce.”

What do you make of the so-called peace agreement worked out in Geneva by non-official Israelis and Palestinians in the last week?

On one level, the point is this: Anything that can demonstrate for Israeli and Palestinian publics alike that there is a solution out there is an important thing. At a time when both publics have lost faith that peace is possible with their neighbor, it is important to show that Israelis and Palestinians can get together and negotiate something. Even more significantly, I think it is important for Palestinians to begin to condition an environment that shows that they can make compromises and talk about them publicly. If they’re doing that, the process can be useful. Can you take this and translate it into a new reality? It’s hard to see that. Right now, you have an Israeli government that doesn’t embrace it. And I doubt seriously that it is embraced by Arafat.

Why won’t Arafat budge on the issue of control over the Palestinian security forces? He must realize that everyone is criticizing him for not cracking down on extremists. Why doesn’t he give authority to the prime minister to do so?

Because Arafat doesn’t want to give up power. Because Arafat believes he and the Palestinian cause are one and the same. Because Arafat is someone who basically sees any competitor as not being acceptable. He was determined to make Abu Mazen fail because he realized that if he had succeeded, it would prove that he, Arafat, was the problem. You could say he would do the same with Abu Ala [Ahmed Qurei, who replaced Abbas as Palestinian prime minister]. Abu Ala has not been prepared to commit to staying as prime minister because Arafat, even at this point, is continuing to resist what Abu Ala feels are minimum requirements for him to have a chance to succeed. Does that mean there is no possibility for Abu Ala? Maybe not, because he will try to co-opt Arafat, but to do so, he will have to deliver something to him. And he can’t deliver anything to Arafat unless he can also co-opt Sharon. Now that may not be an impossibility, because what I think Arafat wants more than anything else is a two-way ticket, the ability to leave and come back.

Sharon is not about to grant that unless he sees that the Palestinians will actually act on security in a credible way and not just talk about it. Now, is that something that is possible? Maybe, especially if you look at the alternatives.

You’ve written that Arafat was mostly responsible for the failed diplomacy in 2000 at Camp David in September and later in December when the Clinton parameters were tried out. Does Arafat accept the two-state solution upon which these ideas are based?

I don’t believe so. It is not that he doesn’t accept some kind of interim understandings with Israel. The point is that he will never give up his myths. This is someone who, I believe, in the end doesn’t want to agree to something that rules out the possibility that at some point, maybe in the very distant future, that there will only be one state. And I believe that is why he does not give up on the right of [Palestinian refugees to] return [to Israel]. He is quite willing to work out some kind of more interim agreements that could in fact create an interim period of calm for both sides, but not one that requires him to end the conflict and to end all of his claims.

I don’t think that Arafat could sign on to anything that requires him to [do that]. I’m a big believer that one should focus on a solution. But the question is how you get to it and who is going to be your partner for it. I don’t believe that Arafat is capable of making the kinds of concessions that are embodied even in these non-official Geneva accords. In them, it is pretty clear that the Palestinians give the Israelis the right to veto the return of any Palestinian to Israel. Arafat will say he will embrace two states, but he won’t embrace the two states in a way that recognizes the Israeli state in the long term. Arafat is not prepared to live in a situation in which there is a two-state solution in which the Palestinians have ended their claims.

So the bottom line is: no peace until Arafat is gone?

Arafat has always been a symbol and a leader. He has always succeeded as a symbol but failed as a leader. And in this particular case, people like Abu Ala might well be prepared to have him as part of the landscape as long as he is not in a position to prevent what needs to be done. That’s not going to happen overnight. That again gets you back to the idea of are you able to do something right now? And I think it is hard to produce anything right now.

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