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The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace

Speaker: Dennis B. Ross, Author, “The Missing Peace”; director, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; special Middle East coordinator, U.S. Department of State, 1993-2001
Moderator: Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist, New York Times
September 13, 2004
Council on Foreign Relations

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Council on Foreign Relations
New York, N.Y.
September 13, 2004


THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Good morning, we're going to call this evening to order. I want to welcome you all on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations and my friend Dennis Ross, who is here to talk about his book, "The Missing Peace." And Dennis will also be signing books afterwards. He didn't want me to mention that, but I said I was just going to have to. [Laughter.] So if you don't have a copy, you're going to want to stay behind and get an autographed copy.

Just a few reminders. Please take a moment to turn off your cell phones, beepers, pagers, pacemakers, or anything else. [Laughter.] This event, I would like to remind the audience, is on the record, and I know Dennis welcomes any coverage, and will be available afterwards to answer questions. And, as I said, there will be a book signing afterwards.

Dennis and I are going to talk for about a half hour, and then we'll have a microphone around and Q-and-A time for the second half hour.

I'm kind of a ringer here, because last weekend my wife and I gave a book party for Dennis, so I don't come to this event, truth in packaging, with any neutrality. And I will say to this audience what I said to our guests at our book party: There's only one thing to say about "The Missing Peace"--it's the definitive work. It is the definitive work on the peace process. I feel very sorry for anybody else who has to try to write about this period. It's the definitive work, because Dennis was such a principal, interwoven in this process for roughly the decade that this book covers. But it's also the definitive work because of the really careful, judicious way this book has been written, and I think that care and that judiciousness has been captured in all the reviews I've seen. So it's a great honor and an opportunity for us all to be here this evening and get a chance to quiz Dennis.

As you all know, I've been on sabbatical writing a book. I come back October 2, and it's getting close, and I'm already fishing for columns, so I'm going to take that prerogative right now and start with a simple question for you, Dennis. There's a lot of talk in the Jewish community that Jews should vote for [President George W.] Bush and not [Democratic presidential candidate John F.] Kerry, because it will be better for Israel. Should Jews vote for Bush, Dennis? [Laughter.]

DENNIS ROSS: You understand that this is stated by Tom as my friend, right? [Laughter.] And, Tom, I also— I thank you not only for the book party and being here, but also for the fact that you're joining me for the 40-city tour of the book. It's just great. [Laughter.]

Well, let me answer the question in my typically analytical, nonpartisan way. In the Jewish community there's certainly a sense that George Bush has been good for Israel, and I would say there are two bases on which to evaluate any judgment of this president and Kerry should he win— as it relates only to Israel— we're not talking about the Middle East broadly defined, but based on your question. One, is Israel judged the way we judge ourselves when it comes to combating terror. Is there one standard for us, and the same standard for the Israelis? Many around the world apply a different standard for the Israelis. They're quite happy to condemn what happens to the Israelis, but they either say, well, the occupation creates this, or they basically say the Israelis really don't have a right to respond to it. I think that George Bush deserves high marks for how he's basically created the same standard for ourselves and for the Israelis on the issue of terror.

So that's one measure. Now, what's the other measure? The other measure is, what has been done to deal with the fact that in the last three-plus years Israel has fought a war? It has been in a day-to-day war with the Palestinians and [the] price for Israelis and Palestinians alike has been frightful. It's been horrendous. And here you have to ask what has been done to stop that war, contain that war, and get back to peacemaking. And I would say, without qualification, there has been no peace process since the end of the [former president Bill] Clinton administration, because the peace process implies that there's actually a dialogue of words between the two sides— not only a dialogue of violence, and except for a three-month period when Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] was prime minister [of Palestine], that simply hasn't existed. And here I would have to give the Bush administration low marks, because they've done very little in my judgment to stop that war, contain that war and create a basis on which to get back to peacemaking. So on those two standards, I will let people draw their own conclusions as to where they end up.

I would say that Bush, in my judgment, has not indicated at this point that he would do more than he has done in the first term. Kerry has obviously not outlined a particular policy, but he has said that he would be more involved, and he certainly left the impression that he'd be more like Clinton than he is like Bush.

FRIEDMAN: In the epilogue, you really do explore more deeply what could have been done during the last three years. Was there an opportunity during the last three years that was missed that would have conceivably been better for Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab states around them?

ROSS: I believe that there were probably three opportunities that were missed. I don't equate them, necessarily, but I would say there were three. First, bear in mind that until June [2001] and the Dolphinarium [nightclub] attack, [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon was actually dealing with Yasir Arafat through his son. He had a private channel to Arafat using his son, Omri, which was a pretty good indication that he was willing to do business with Arafat.

Now, during this time when this was going on, you had the Mitchell Report released, and both Ariel Sharon and Arafat— well, I wouldn't say they did it with great enthusiasm— nonetheless, they both initially said they wouldn't oppose it and then they both embraced it. So here was an opportunity where a set of obligations was spelled out by the Mitchell Report for both sides, and what was needed was for us to put somebody high-level on the ground to say, OK, you say you sign up to it— let's work out implementation.

FRIEDMAN: Remind us just sort of the key points of that.

ROSS: The essence of the Mitchell Report were basically, on the Palestinian side, they had to take on terror, they had to make arrests, they had to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. On the Israeli side, they had to stop settlement activity and they had to withdraw to where their forces were at the end of September 2001. In each case there was a parallel set of obligations, and what was required was someone to say to each side, in a visible way, in a serious way, OK, you say you're prepared to do this, you say you agree with the report— now let's go ahead and work out the actual steps you're going to take on the ground to fulfill the obligations you say you're prepared to embrace, and then hold each side accountable to it. Well, that wasn't done. We basically treated, unfortunately, the Mitchell Report, the [former Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet work plan that came after it, as self-implementing documents. Now, some might think I'm about to say that the road map (/background/mideast_roadmap.php) represents another opportunity— I'm not— I could, but I'm not. I'm going to say instead that there was an opportunity when President Bush went to Sharm el-Sheik and to Aqaba in 2003. After not being involved in any sustained, serious, high-level way, the president made it clear— he was making a statement, he was going to the area, and he made it unmistakable: we are now going to do something about this.

The problem is he went out there [in June 2003] to both places and the ground wasn't prepared. There was a moment at this juncture— there absolutely was a moment at this juncture. The fact of the matter is, exhaustion was setting in on both sides. On the Palestinian side, for the first time since the beginning of the intifada, you had 73 percent of the Palestinians in polls saying they wanted to see the violence end, and you had Israelis say they felt it made sense not to carry on targeted killings at this point. This was also the time when Ariel Sharon had announced— gone to the Likud party conference and spoke to his constituency, in Hebrew, and said, "I know you don't like the word occupation, but we have to end the occupation of Palestinians— it's not good for us, it's not good for Palestinians, it's not good for our economy."

Now, what was required was when the president went out there, in advance of going, was to put somebody on the ground and say, All right, the president is coming— we're not going to fix a date that he's coming until we work out the specific steps that each of you will take. So when the president arrived, he didn't just preside over positive statements— he presided over what was going to be the actual announcement of what each side would do over the coming months on the ground. If there is one thing that is consistent from the past, it is that whatever the good words are, realities on the ground will always, always, overwhelm the good words. And so the ground wasn't prepared, the moment was there, the moment was lost.

The best indication of this, I have to tell you, is, I was out there one week after the president, and I happened to see Abu Mazen first before I went and saw and sat with all the Israelis. And he was very happy about the meeting at Aqaba, and he said very clearly to me that the president said he didn't have to do anything on security until he was in a position to get his house in order. And I said to him, "Look, I know the president could not have meant to convey that. He may have wanted to convey to you that you had time to organize yourself, but there is no way he would have said or could have meant to say that you don't have to do anything on security until you have a couple of months to put your house in order. And the reason I say that is because the only way you, Abu Mazen, can build your authority, is if the Israelis are lifting their checkpoints, so that you can show to the Palestinian public your way works. Arafat's doesn't, your way does. And there's no way the Israelis are going to lift checkpoints if they see you doing zero on security." And in fact, when I went to the Israelis, they said, "We're not doing anything until we see the Palestinians begin to work on security."

FRIEDMAN: And there was no third party knocking heads together?

ROSS: Not at all, not at all. So what in effect you had was a moment of high drama with the president demonstrating for the first time the administration would be serious about this, but unfortunately it was— all the investment was driven and focused only on the public declarations. The ground wasn't prepared in advance— and even afterwards. The fact that one week after both sides had totally different views of what was expected of them was a guarantee that this window that you had open was going to close. And if there's one thing we know about Middle Eastern windows, they don't stay open long, and when they close you're always worse off.

FRIEDMAN: Why— I mean, it's an interesting question you raise, why— what was the difference between President Clinton and his zeal and energy for this issue, and President Bush and his zeal and energy for this issue? What was the difference between the two? Was it [that] one was more worried about a domestic constituency and one wasn't? One had a more divided administration and one did not? One had a different global context than the other did? But how do you account— we went from the most high-level, intense, American involvement in this process that we had ever seen, at Camp David, to four years of benign neglect?

ROSS: Well, let's create some context for each. In the case of President Clinton, it is impossible to exaggerate the effect that [former Israeli] Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin had on him. He looked at Prime Minister Rabin in many ways as a model of what leadership is. Here was someone who represented kind of the crucible of Israel's existence. He had fought for the state, and now having fought for the state he was prepared to be a statesman and take real risks for peace, including what were clearly domestic risks— and, as it turns out, not just political risks, but his very survival. And the president from the beginning appreciated that. His first meeting was in March of 1993— he said to him, "You take risks for peace, and we will act to minimize those risks." And when Rabin was assassinated, he took it personally. I said to this man, "You take risks for peace, and he paid for it with his life." So the effect on Clinton was extraordinary, and it gave him an abiding commitment. It created in him a passion. And clearly you had people like me who shared that passion. So the idea that the president was absolutely committed was never in question.

Now, you come in with the Bush administration, and they looked at what we did, and they see this incredible effort that we made. They see in the end Arafat saying no to the president. You have Bush coming in, shall we say, with not a lot of political capital, having lost the popular vote, looking at Arafat [and] saying hardly a good bet on which to investment in, No. 1. No. 2, also having a different view of the world that— drawing from the Clinton administration's perception that many of the people around the president had— is that the Clinton administration had been too weak.

FRIEDMAN: This is pre-9/11.

ROSS: Right. The Clinton administration had been too willing to, in a sense, not employ American power. It had been too willing to work with others. Respect for the United States had been lost. It was critical to re-establish red lines that would show unmistakably the weight and meaning of American power. And, in addition to that, I think there was also a sense that if we're going to change the Middle East, you're not going to change the Middle East by investing in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which looks like a loser, but instead demonstrating American power and going after those who represent the key power points in the region— Iraq and Iran.

Recall that the administration, when it first began, basically discarded the words peace process on the one hand, and said, "We're going to take a regional approach to the area." So there was a sense that the Clinton administration had made the effort, it didn't work— what's the point of throwing good money after bad? And there was also a larger psychological sense that somehow to re-establish the weight of the United States internationally, we had to show that we could employ our power and it would have an effect.

FRIEDMAN: One of the things that you explore, and I think one of the things most interesting for me in the book, was what happened at Camp David. I was actually still writing at that time, and ever since then there's been this huge debate. [Former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud] Barak offered everything, and that Arafat turned it down. Arafat offered nothing, and you know it's all his fault. What actually happened at Camp David?

ROSS: Well, for those who read the book, you'll see several things. [Laughter.] First, you get a day-by-day account, which in fact, at the end of each day— just to explain how I put that together— at the end of each day— I was responsible for shaping what we would do each day— and at the end of each day, it didn't matter if it was 4 o'clock in the morning, 5 o'clock in the morning, or 6 o'clock in the morning, I would sit down and recount what happened. And I actually needed to do that, now as it turns out, for posterity— although it turned out to be quite useful. I needed to do it, because each day we would have a strategy, and it would turn out that we weren't able to, for a variety of reasons as you'll see, we didn't stick to our strategy. So having not been strong enough on our strategy, I would have to figure out, All right, here's what actually happened today as opposed to what we wanted. And then I'd have to shape what we would do the next day. Well, that provided an extraordinary record of exactly what had gone on. So, A, there is a record that is embodied in the book on Camp David; B, there are a lot of mythologies about Camp David— that's also why I have put in the book two maps— a map which actually compares what Arafat says he was offered with what it is we actually offered, both at Camp David and later on. And you'll see there is an enormous gap between the two.

Now, the fact is at Camp David, Arafat offered personally absolutely nothing. The only new idea Arafat raised in the two weeks we were at Camp David is that the temple did not exist in Jerusalem— hardly an indication of someone who is committed to reconciliation with his negotiating partner when you question the core of the other side's faith.

FRIEDMAN: It was a new idea though.

ROSS: It was certainly a new idea. [Laughter.] In fact, when he first mentioned it in my presence, and said the temple didn't exist in Jerusalem, it existed in Nablus, I thought he was joking. I should have known better— and I said, "Well, you better watch out, because the Israelis will now claim Nablus." [Laughter.] And, lo and behold, he said, "No." So he didn't offer anything, but the fact is, his negotiators did. And it's actually an important thing to bear in mind.

His negotiators agreed, or at least presented three basic concessions. One is that, in fact, they would accept a principle of three settlement blocs on the West Bank to accommodate 80 percent [of] the settlers. They didn't agree on what the geographic size of the seven blocs would be, but they presented this.

Two, they accepted that all the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would be part of Israel. Now, bear in mind all those neighborhoods are beyond the June 4, 1967, line [that separated Israel and the West Bank]. And the third thing is they accepted a limited security presence for the Israelis on the West Bank. Now, we didn't hear that from Arafat, but his negotiators did say that, and it's important to present that— not only because it's true, but it has two messages. One is, to an Israeli audience that says, "All right, we can understand the way you view Arafat, but bear in mind there are Palestinian partners out there who are prepared to do things that in fact represented a significant move for them." And, secondly, it's even more important in my mind for Palestinians to see that they had negotiators who were prepared to do this, and that compromise is acceptable, and that people who were credible in Palestinian terms were prepared to present that.

FRIEDMAN: So it was the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the settlement blocs— what was the third again?

ROSS: Limited security presence with Israel in the West Bank.

FRIEDMAN: In the West Bank, that's very interesting. What about the other side? How much did Barak really offer on the back of that envelope?

ROSS: Barak— I mean, again, one of the myths— Barak offered the moon, and Arafat said no. Well, what is true is that Arafat said no, because Arafat said no literally to everything. When you read the account, you'll see even the last night of Camp David President Clinton and I came up with a series of additional ideas— and the president stretched even farther than I thought it made sense to stretch— and Arafat, as it turns out, was able to restrain his enthusiasm. [Laughter.] But you know I think the fact is that Barak at Camp David did go farther than any Israeli had ever gone before, not as far as we were to go in the Clinton ideas, but let me just summarize what he was prepared to accept.

At Camp David, Barak was prepared to accept 9 percent— basically 91 percent of the West Bank would be Palestinian, and there would be a 1 percent swap. He was prepared to accept in Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem— East Jerusalem is divided into about 10 outer neighborhoods, about three or four inner neighborhoods, and then you have the Old City of Jerusalem, the walled city of Jerusalem. And Barak was prepared to accept that all but one or two of the outer neighborhoods would be sovereign, and the inner neighborhoods would have autonomy. They would have their own ability to engage in planning and zoning, but Israel would retain a kind of nominal sovereignty. The Old City he was prepared to divide into the following: the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City would be Palestinian, have Palestinian sovereignty, and the Armenian and Jewish quarters would have Israeli sovereignty.

Now, just to put this in perspective, the reaction of Leah Rabin [widow of Yitzhak Rabin] after Camp David was to criticize Barak, and she said what Barak was prepared to accept at Camp David is something that Yitzhak Rabin would never have accepted. Now, everyone knows that Leah Rabin was determined to promote the legacy of her husband, and the fulfillment of that legacy was reaching peace. And yet she was critical of Barak afterwards. So he may not have offered the moon, but he crossed thresholds that had previously been unthinkable.

And the problem, as I said, is that Arafat simply said no to everything. And Palestinian negotiators understood they had something significant, and they wanted to continue a process. Barak at the end of Camp David basically wanted to say, "That's it." As I say in the book, he says to me, "Twenty years of peacemaking is over." And I actually say to him, "Look, you're the leader of a state— you can't say if we don't make peace the only alternative is war, because then you're going to have a war." And the reality is even though he felt that way, he felt he had been, in a sense, betrayed. He felt he had been set up. He felt he was exposed before the Israeli public— and yet, as it turned out, he wasn't prepared to follow through on the threat to say, "All right, we're done with peacemaking; it's all confrontation." And by early September he was asking us to come with additional ideas.

FRIEDMAN: Was [the 1993] Oslo [Accords] a disaster? You know, a lot of people out there want to say, "Oslo is a disaster, and you guys are peace processors— all you do is process peace, but nothing came of it." Then the Bush came in— you know, we do policy with hair on it. I mean, you know— [laughter]--was Oslo for girlie men? [Laughter.]

ROSS: I'll be back on that one. Let's again put it in perspective. Did we make peace during the Oslo period? We did not. But we did prevent a war. Israelis and Palestinians did not die the way they are dying now. The economic catastrophe—

FRIEDMAN: What were the numbers on that?

ROSS: All right, let's be precise. Throughout the whole course of Oslo, the numbers of Israelis who died from actually the year before until the end, meaning into 2001, was 250. Now—

FRIEDMAN: So how many years?

ROSS: So basically— about eight-and-a-half years. Now, compare that to three-plus years, three-and-a-half years, when you have almost 1,000 Israelis dead. Take the Palestinian numbers and multiply them by— in the Oslo period, which says something about how it was still tough on Palestinians— there were about 1,000 Palestinians who died. You have 3,000 Palestinians who died in three years; 1,000 who died in eight-and-a-half years. The number of maimed and wounded on each side is dramatically different: 5,000 Israelis maimed and wounded in the last three Bush years, and it's probably only the miracle of Israeli medicine that produces the number that is maimed and wounded as opposed to even a higher number killed.

Palestinian numbers are probably on the order of, I would say, 15 to 20,000. So just in terms of sheer numbers you can— you know, I take the position that the Bush administration's notion that it was right to test whether disengagement made sense, was legitimate. It was a new administration, they saw what we had done— it was fine to test it. It was a proposition. It was a hypothesis. But I think, by any measure, you'd have to say the hypothesis didn't work. Let's look at what happened.

And there's one other factor here, maybe two other factors. The first is, those that say Oslo was a mistake, they don't offer anything in its place. Do they think nothing would have happened? That you know we had had an intifada, which in the end was basically brought to a hold by the [1991] Gulf War and [inaudible], but there was still an undercurrent there. And the Israelis went to Oslo, because they said, "Look, it ain't working— we have to do something, because we can see what is going to happen if we don't." So those who are critics of Oslo, who say, "Boy, it was a mistake— they don't offer anything in its place." And to think that everything would have remained static is a complete illusion. So that's one aspect, I think, of this.

But there's another one, even beyond the costs that I mentioned to you. The costs of the last three Bush years have to be measured not only in terms of those dead and maimed— as bad as that is, as tragic as that is, as horrific as it is from the standpoint of the families that are affected by it on both sides. But there's another cost, and it's a psychological cost. It's the psychic cost. One of the most interesting developments right now is that there is an assertive Palestinian reform movement that's being driven in no small part by the fact that Sharon has made the decision to get out of Gaza. And Palestinians know when the Israelis are out of Gaza, we've got to control it, we've got to govern it, it's a challenge for us, it's an opportunity for us. But if we go in and allow there to be chaos, what basis do we have to say we could be a state? The answer is nothing. But what is also driving the reformers— and the reformers are basically between 35 and 45; they're mostly members of Fatah, which is still Arafat's organization— they're challenging Arafat. And what's driving them— and I hear it from them on a regular basis— is the effect of the last three Bush years on the next generation. They look at their schools and they're scared to death. They say, "Look, we're not training Hamas in the schools now— it's al Qaeda. It's Osama bin Laden." If you think doing nothing imposes no cost, leaving aside the physical cost, there is a psychological and emotional cost on the Palestinian side and also on the Israeli side.

When Ariel Sharon says, "We're getting out of Gaza unilaterally," when [Israeli Deputy Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert says, "We should get out of 100 percent of Gaza and 80 and 85 percent of the West Bank unilaterally," it's based on the premise there's no partner over there. And Israelis believe there's no partner over there. So to think that there is no cost— to think that the last three Bush years have been a great success— this is a better answer than the one I gave before— to think that it's been a great success is to ignore the reality. And I don't think we should ignore that reality.

FRIEDMAN: One more question before we open it to the floor, and that's on Syria.

ROSS: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: I found one of the most gripping sections of the book was the really inside story of the back and forth between Barak and the late President [of Syria, Hafiz al] Asad. And what I came away with it, feeling I had no idea it was that close.

ROSS: You know, another map that you'll get to see in the book— and I will come back for a quiz of you on the book— but another map you'll see in the book is actually the map that we presented—

FRIEDMAN: Is the book for sale here?

ROSS: I think the book is for sale here. [Laughter.] And for as long as you want. There's the— in the book I have included the actual map we presented to President Asad on March 26, 2000, in Geneva. And this shows in fact Israel was getting off the Golan Heights. In fact, the issue was not whether Israel was getting off the Golan Heights, the issue was a strip of land off the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is Israel's only fresh-water reservoir. So what Barak wanted to show his public was, The lake will be ours, so there won't be a threat to water. What people don't understand— and [what] they never fully appreciated about the negotiated process on Israel and Syria, including with Rabin and [former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Shimon] Peres, and [former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu for that matter— that for the Israelis, the two critical issues were in effect land for security and water. It was much less land for peace— although of course they wanted the content of it. But it was much more land for security and water.

Now, what the book shows is that when we were in Shepherdstown, [Md., where the Clinton administration convened Israeli-Palestinian peace talks] before we went to Geneva, in fact we basically had understandings— or we were very close to understandings on every one of the issues. On the water issue, the Syrians agreed to deal with what was the main Israeli concern. What was the Israeli concern? The Israeli concern was [that] almost all the tributaries which feed into the Sea of Galilee go through the Golan Heights. So Israel was concerned, We get out of the Golan Heights, and what if you suddenly pollute the water or you begin to use the water? Then suddenly our only fresh-water reservoir is either polluted or drained. And so the Syrians agreed to a water quality control board to ensure that the quality and quantity of the water the Israelis were getting on the eve of an agreement would be the same into the agreement. And to ensure that was the case, there were three parties that were going to sit on this board— the United States, Israel and the Syrians— which meant the Syrians didn't have a blocking vote. There was a majority other than Syria on that. So, on the issue of water we were basically worked out.

On the issue of security, we basically had agreed to the situation zones, meaning how there was going to be deployment of particular forces in what zones. And we hadn't exactly agreed on all the process in which normalization was going to be folded in, but we had an advance on that.

And the key thing on this, in the end, to understand is when Barak was ready, Oslo was not. When Oslo was ready for about a seven-week period, Barak was not. And when Barak was ready again, Asad was focused only on succession, and then he died. So we were remarkably close there. And one thing to bear in mind is, even though we didn't have a negotiating process during the Netanyahu period, he had a negotiating process that he used a private American citizen on, and the— and that private American citizen gave us the points of what were understood on the two sides, and that included a readiness on the prime minister's part to get off the Golan Heights there as well.

So there's an interesting legacy here that hadn't been known, but it is known now.

FRIEDMAN: Let's open the floor. If you'd please identify yourself, and just try to keep the questions brief. And go right ahead.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Dennis, my name is Roland Paul. Welcome back to the Council, I've seen you several times here. Following up on Mr. Friedman's question about Camp David, one of the great seeming mysteries to us in the public is why Arafat said no. In other words, the two theories were psychological or political— that he couldn't because of Hamas and that. But reading your book, and I believe on page 689 you muse with [former White House Chief of Staff] John Podesta, [you] say that he just can't do it because he believes himself a victim or a revolutionary. So you seem to come down [to the conclusion] that most of it is psychological. Is that right, or not?

ROSS: First of all, I want to applaud you on the very close reading of the book. [Laughter.] And you're right, that was on page 689. [Laughter.] I'm convinced that the real problem was his inability to transform himself. You know, one of the story lines afterwards has been, Well, if he had done it he would have been killed. And one of the things I show in the book— when I portray what he says he was offered as compared to what he was actually offered— and it's an enormous gap— I mean, he says that he was offered only cantons. I say the Palestinian islands divided by Israeli settlements, divided by Israeli roads, surrounded by the Israelis, no independent border— and that's just what he says on the land. He says he wasn't offered anything on East Jerusalem.

So if what we offered was so bad, if it was unacceptable to the Palestinian public, why not just present it as we presented it? Why so dramatically mis-portray it? If it was so unacceptable, then his public would have said, "You can't accept that." But the fact that probably he wasn't so sure how they'd respond probably led him to completely lie about what it is we had presented.

I actually was here at the Council, I have to admit, I think a couple of weeks after I left office, and I was speaking to a group actually, Henry, that you had put together, I think. There were a number of Palestinian businessmen in that group. And when I outlined what had been presented in the Clinton ideas, they said to me, "Well, why didn't he accept it?" Now, I think it gets back to the heart of your question. Yasir Arafat is a revolutionary by nature, basically socialized in the 1950s and '60s, a product of that era, someone who has defined himself by the cause, someone who has defined himself by struggle, someone who has defined himself by conflict. We asked him to accept three words that made it impossible for him to accept what we were offering, and that was, end the conflict. For him to end the conflict meant he had to give up his claims, he had to give up his grievance. He couldn't any longer actually go to the Palestinian public and say, "It's over." No claims. And one of the things he always has wanted to do, after every one of the agreements we negotiated— and there were five limited deals that we negotiated with him, two in which I did almost entirely— and after he did it, the way he would go out and sell the agreements was to say, "Look, we still have our claims."

Arafat has never done anything irrevocable in his life. And I think the concept that governs him is, live by the moment, never foreclose an option, never close the door. We asked him to close the door. And I believe he couldn't do that. I think he couldn't make the transition. What I was saying— that was at Camp David. That was the night when he hadn't yet said no, but it looked like he was going to say no to President Clinton— and the fact is, I believe that he couldn't make the transition from revolutionary to statesman. And I say in the book that had we been dealing with [former South African President] Nelson Mandela, I would have been writing about some of the limitations at Oslo, but how we succeeded anyway.

FRIEDMAN: Right here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. My name is Moushumi Khan, law offices of Moushumi Khan. I actually have a two-part question. One is: How do we have an honest conversation about this issue? And I'm not trying to imply that this is not an honest conversation, but I think that in parts of the Muslim world certainly one may question whether this is an honest conversation. And I— you know, I remember, being a Muslim American, hearing that Arafat was offered Swiss cheese— you know, how could he accept it? But then also in doing my own reading, I find I'm appalled at the role that the Arab countries have played in the plight of Palestinians today. So how do we have an honest conversation both in this world, in this country, as well as the rest of the world, including the Muslim world?

And then the second part of the question is: How do we, once we have this conversation, get beyond this particular issue, because I don't think I need to remind this audience that the Israeli-Palestinian issue has pretty much I guess hijacked so much of global issues? And I think that there's so much analysis of Arafat— every book I read from [former Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright's book to— I haven't read your book yet, but there's so much analysis offered, yet how come we haven't figured this man out yet? I mean, I find it very interesting that everybody seems to understand his psyche, yet we're not able to find the plan that someone with a revolutionary psyche would be able to accept. He did recognize Palestine after all— I mean, not Palestine, Israel— and I'm not saying this is something he did great, but that's the point that I wanted you to address.

ROSS: Well, let's start with the honest conversation part. You know, if you really want to know why I wrote the book, it was to tell the story, to set the record straight, because there's no way you can have an honest conversation, and there's no way that you can learn the lessons from the past unless you actually know what the story was.

The hardest thing in writing this book, to be very honest, was to write it and reflect what I thought at the moment— not what I might think today. Because if I had in a sense rewritten it that way, we learn nothing. So the only way to do it is basically to be honest with ourselves.

Now, I have a lessons chapter in the book, that basically goes through how every party has to adjust— how the Arabs have to adjust, how the Israelis have to adjust, how the Palestinians have to adjust and how we have to adjust. And the sole reason for doing that was to say, "All right, let's learn the lesson from the past so we don't repeat the mistakes, so we can shape a different future, and so we can have that kind of a conversation," because your question is an excellent question, and it's excellent because the real reason to learn the lessons is that because this is a part of the world where everybody loves their myths. Everybody is in love with their mythologies. Reality is too hard to face, so let's just perpetuate our mythologies. And unless we basically tell it as it was, we can't overcome the mythologies. You can't even confront the mythologies. So to have that honest conversation, I wrote the book so that we would take on the mythologies.

On the issue of Arafat— I mean, I also talk about things I would have done differently. I think we made a mistake by getting in a sense too enamored with a process that we thought had so much promise that we didn't hold anybody accountable on either side. But even beyond that, we didn't require either side to condition their publics for peace.

If Arafat was for real, if the recognition of Israel was actually about recognition of Israel and a belief in a two-state solution, then he should have been willing, just as the Israeli prime ministers should have been willing— and indeed I have to say that Barak, to his credit, did this. When we went to Camp David, and afterwards, the Israeli press was full of exaggerations that went beyond what we offered. They said when we were offering 92 percent of the territories we offered 99 percent. They said when we were only offering the outer neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to be the sovereign part of the Palestinian state, that we in fact said all the Arab neighborhoods. They said, when we hadn't even made a proposal on refugees, that 300,000 refugees would return to Israel. So the interesting thing is it drew no reaction from the Israeli public, because they had been conditioned to expect that this was coming.

I had a dinner when I was there three weeks after Camp David with a group of Likud people, who were in a state of complete despair. They said, "It's over— Barak is going to do it, Arafat wants to do it, the Israeli public is prepared to accept it"--because they were conditioned. Now, if we in fact had required both sides to do conditioning— if we had said to Arafat, "You want us involved in permanent status negotiation, [then] we'll stay involved in terms of managing cooperation, but we will not work on Jerusalem, we will not work on borders, we will not work on refugees, if you don't come out and publicly say, now, and repeat it,'You will not get 100 percent on borders, 100 percent on Jerusalem, 100 percent on refugees.'" Now, if he had done it, I can assure you that given the reaction he would have gotten from the rejection, is he would have wanted to move very quickly to show his way worked. And his unwillingness to do it would have revealed to us without having to go through the summitry process that in fact he wasn't upending the conflict. If I had to do it over again, that's one of the things I would have done.

FRIEDMAN: All the way back.

QUESTIONER: Andrew Gundlach, Artemis Advisors. Two very quick questions. In retrospect, was it the correct decision to give Arafat the Nobel Peace Prize? And the second question is: Has 9/11 changed how this conflict in the domestic policies of the Middle East neighbors— particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran— how this conflict is portrayed such that they can provide either more or maybe less help in future negotiations? How do you view that? Thank you.

ROSS: As for the Nobel Peace Prize, yes. He didn't— you know, the fact is, he got the Nobel Peace Prize for crossing a threshold, but then this is a guy who throughout the process never discredited the terror. One of the conditions for going into the Oslo process was the renunciation of terror. This was the condition on which Rabin recognized him, and the condition on which we agreed to host the September 13 ceremony [in which Arafat and Sharon signed the Declaration of Principles for peace between Palestinians and Israelis] at the White House. And the truth is, he never renounced it. I mean, he renounced it, but he didn't discredit it. Suicide bombers were treated as— were always glorified. So the fact is, he doesn't deserve, in my judgment, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now, what about the effect of 9/11 on the Saudis, the Egyptians, and, you said, the Iranians? Well, let's start with the Iranians. The Iranians have remained committed opponents to any peace with the Israelis. There have been times when [Iranian President Mohammad Ali] Khatami was saying Iran would accept whatever the Palestinians accepted. But the truth is the Revolutionary Guard is still very active in Lebanon with Hezbollah. Today Hezbollah basically is the conduit of funds to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In the last year, most of the money that was going from the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, to Hamas, has dried up, and Hamas is getting money they said from Hezbollah. Hezbollah has basically created a kind of laundry list: Carry out this kind of attack in Israel, you get this amount of money. Carry out that kind of attack, you get that much more money. So the fact is, Iran is demonstrating unmistakably they have no interest in this. If people want to talk about a grand bargain with Iran, this should be one of the items on the table. It shouldn't be left off.

In the case of the Saudis and the Egyptians, it is a somewhat different story. It isn't that 9/11 changed them, but it is that the regional satellite TV has had a searing effect on them. To the extent to which Arab leaders— not just the Saudis and the Egyptians, but the extent to which Arab leaders found it convenient to have the conflict out there as a device to hedge against or to block pressures on them to reform, that was one thing. But there is an interesting reality. With [Arab satellite channels] Al Jazzeera and Al-Arabiya, when they show what's happening on a daily basis to Palestinians, and it's broadcast into the rest of the Arab world, it produces anger, and the anger isn't only against the Israelis, it isn't only against us— it's also against those regimes that are seen as doing nothing. So in a strange way they have much more of an incentive than they ever had before.

When Tom two years ago sat with [Saudi] Crown Prince Abdullah and said, "Why don't you offer something," and he came out with his initiative— that didn't occur out of the ether. That's because he felt the kind of pressure to show they were prepared to do something. The Egyptians today are actually playing the American role— or trying to. They're going to the Israelis and saying, "We're going to try to reassure you on the Philadelphia Road, which is in the Rafah-Gaza-Sinai nexus, so you don't have to worry about smuggling there, and we can meet your security. We're going to try to reassure you that we're going to work with the Palestinians to get the Palestinian security forces not only reorganized, but so that they will actually carry out a mission and responsibilities. And we'll even try to broker between the two sides— something that would be an American role." Now, they're doing it, because we're not. And they're doing it, to be fair, from their own standpoint, because they have a stake in it. It isn't just because of Al Jazeera or Al-Arabiya. They don't want Gaza to devolve into total chaos. They don't want Islamists to be the beneficiaries of an Israeli withdrawal, which could happen. I mean, there's a— I mean, I'm on a roll, so I'm going to continue this.

Let me give you the scenario of where we're headed if nothing is done to work with the Israelis and Palestinians on the withdrawal from Gaza. Hamas and Yasir Arafat want to create the impression that Israel was forced out of Gaza. And that means that there will likely be a fair amount of violence as the Israelis withdraw. Now, anybody who knows Ariel Sharon knows he will not allow Israel to look like it's being humiliated as it withdraws from Gaza. He will withdraw from Gaza. This guy has put his political life on the line. It turns out that he may be putting more than his political life on the line, when the head of [Israeli intelligence agency] Shin Bet says they're up to 200 settlers whom he considers to be a threat to the life of the Israeli prime minister— and it's not as if— since we go back to the Oslo process, we have seen one leader killed, one leader assassinated, it was Yitzhak Rabin. So these kinds of threats need to be taken seriously. But the reality at this point is he is going to get out, and he is not going to allow Israel to be humiliated in the process, and he will carry out, if there's violence against the Israelis as they withdraw, a withering response. He will inflict withering fire in Gaza, without question.

Now, if that happens, the Palestinian reformers, who are the ones who are trying to put together right now a rule of law, who want to organize the security forces so actually they carry out and implement a rule of law— they are not going to be able to operate in a circumstance like that. They will be overwhelmed. So if we do nothing, that's the scenario that's likely to unfold.

My argument is that after [the U.S. presidential elections on] November 2, whoever is elected is going to have to get to work on being a bridge between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What do I mean by that? You go to the Israelis and you say, "What would it take for you to schedule your withdrawal in a way that has you handing off to Palestinians, particularly Palestinians who would be designated by the legislative council and the prime minister— what is it you need to see from them?" And then you go to the Palestinians— meaning the prime minister and the legislative council and those who might be designated by them— and you say, "This is what the Israelis need to see. Now, what do you need to do to be able to carry that out? What steps do you need the Israelis to take, and what steps do you need the Israelis to avoid?" And you begin to put together a package that allows you to coordinate between the two sides, so you manage this. Now, that's not enough. You have to raise the cost to Hamas and you have to raise the cost to Yasir Arafat. And the way you do that is, here you have to enlist Arab leaders and the Europeans, because they have to be prepared to say in public— not in private, in public— "We are prepared to support the Palestinian needs, here's what we are prepared to do. But we will not support them if there is fire as the Israelis withdraw, because it's clear what that purpose is, and we will not support Yasir Arafat now, if he blocks the reorganization of the security forces, which he continues to do." Now, that way you raise the costs because before the Palestinian public they see what they have to gain— not from us, because to be honest and fair, and you talked about an honest discussion— among Palestinians today if the administration were to come out and be critical of Palestinians, and say, "This is what you have to do"--nobody would listen, because we don't have credibility with them. But the Europeans and Arab leaders do have credibility, because they're seen as being inherently sympathetic, especially the Europeans. The Arabs are seen somewhat differently, as those who always betray, those who always exploit. But the Europeans are seen as almost reflexively sympathetic. And if the Europeans are saying, "Here's what we're going to do for you, but we can't do it if this happens," it raises the cost on the street. And Arafat is still a creature of the street. You talk about understanding Arafat— Arafat is still a creature of the street.

FRIEDMAN: Bernie.

QUESTIONER: Bernie Gwertzman at the Council. Dennis, could you just— you started talking about this, but how serious is the problem of bloodshed within Israel? In other words, the emotions seem to be running very high in Gaza right now, and I mean is it possible to even talk about a civil war?

ROSS: Well, the prime minister of Israel mentioned it yesterday. Now, maybe he had multiple reasons for saying that. One is probably a sincere concern. Two is also to basically signal the Israeli public what's going on here. Seventy percent of the public wants to get out of Gaza— and it's not an accident why they want to get out of Gaza.

You know, one of the tell-tale factors— in Israel you have a citizen army, and those who are in the regular army are 18 to 21[years old] basically. They make up the backbone of the regular army. So when you had 400 soldiers protecting 60 families in Netzarim, there were families saying, "What is this?" So the fact is, I think, part of what Ariel Sharon is doing, is alerting the Israeli public what is going on here. Because there is a— we are a rule of law— we are a state governed by rule of law and if we have to carry out the law, we're going to do it. And the more you focus on the issue of we're going to carry out the law, and there are going to be people who resist it, it will undercut the following of those who resist it. And it will also, I think, do much to generally discredit them and isolate them and make them a smaller minority than they are. But I think we should not assume that this could not be in fact violent and bloody. We should not overlook that at all.

FRIEDMAN: Yes?

QUESTIONER: It's Suhar Tazami. I'm a Palestinian from East Jerusalem. I'm a member of Seeds of Peace, too. You've been talking about the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, but on the other hand there is the separation wall which, as Israel calls it, is the security fence [that] is being built now, and it affects my life personally; it's making my life hell. And so I wonder, what does this wall say about Israel's intention, and how do you think it's going to affect the future of the region? Because I wonder— like they've been spending all this money and all this effort to bring this wall up, so I don't know if it's going to be permanent.

ROSS: Well, let me— it's a very fair question, and let me address it. I want to put this also into perspective. And when Tom used to cover the State Department and used to travel with us, and I was always designated by the secretary of state to go back and brief the press, and I would say generally there would be a collective groan when I would show up, because I would always say, "Now, let me put this in context."

FRIEDMAN: Oh, no, not more context. [Laughter.]

ROSS: So let me put this in perspective. [Laughter.] And what I'm about to say I'd say in Ramallah as well. I understand what it does to you. I understand very clearly how it creates a hardship. And also the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the Israeli government to re-route the barrier. I say barrier, because 95 percent of it is actually fence; 5 percent is wall. Unfortunately, most of it is wall where you live. There's some other places— Tulkarm and Qalqilya are also walls along the road. But otherwise most of it is fence.

First, on the issue of is it permanent or not. The Israelis, when they got out of Lebanon in the year 2000, moved that barrier, even in places where it was only 20 or 30 meters off of what was the original international border, because to satisfy the Security Council and the secretary-general they said, "All right, we'll go to the border." So they said it was a security issue, and they moved it. They moved it when they made peace with the Jordanians. They had a fence that actually looks a hell of a lot like the one that they're building here. So bear in mind that in fact if you create a political circumstance again, which is what I want to see— I want us to end the war. I've said we haven't had a peace process in three-and-a-half years, and it has a terrible legacy now. We have to end the war first before we get back to peacemaking. If we get back to peacemaking, then this in the end will be temporary.

But let me also add the following point: If there weren't suicide attacks into Israel, you wouldn't have this being built. Well, it's a fact. You can look that way, but it wasn't built before, was it? And you know why it wasn't built before? Who was the author of the barrier? Yitzhak Rabin. In 1995, he gave his energy minister the directive to go ahead and design this. Why? He said, "We're going to have to partition— there's going to have to be a partition here, because we won't be Jewish and democratic if we don't have a partition." Now, his preference was to negotiate the partition peacefully to produce two states. But if that didn't work he wanted, as you put it, a separation fence or barrier to create what would be two states, or at least to preserve Israel as a state.

Likud has opposed it from the beginning, and the settlers hated it. Why? Because they were going to be on the wrong side of it. Once you put it down, you have one side that is where Israel is and you have another side that is going to be very hard to sustain over time. It will begin to look like Gaza, in truth. Bear in mind there was a fence around Gaza, and there was only one successful attack out of Gaza into Israel. So almost 85 percent of the Israeli public supports building this in the West Bank, because you had between June of 2001 and January of this year, you had 83 successful suicide bombings in Israel. So this is where it came from.

Now, if the Palestinians weren't going to do anything to stop the suicide attacks, Israel had two choices: Either maintain a siege in all the territories— which is a disaster for Palestinians, because it means Palestinians can't move, they can't breathe, they can't do anything— or do something that's more passive. And the barrier is an alternative to that.

Now, the real issue is where the barrier is being built. The Supreme Court, as I said, has said, "You have to re-route the fence, the barrier, precisely because it imposes a hardship on Palestinians." And the area where they've emphasized the main area of change is in the East Jerusalem area and the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. So they have actually mandated a change. The barrier was being built in the original plan on 13 percent of the West Bank. With the change, it will probably be something like 8 or 9 percent.

Now, I can't tell you that it may not still impose a hardship on you. And the fact is, the last thing I want is suffering for you and people like you, and all other Palestinians. But we have got to find a way to do two things to get back to real peacemaking, and we won't without it. If we don't take the anger out of the equation, if we don't break the cycle of anger— it's not a cycle of violence, it's a cycle of anger— if we don't break that, we're going to stay riveted where we are.

So what we need to do is to establish for the Israelis freedom from acts of terror, and we need to establish for the Palestinians freedom from Israeli control. If Palestinians can breathe and Israelis can breathe, we'll get back to peacemaking. We start by ending the war. If we get back to real peacemaking, there won't be a place for the wall where you live— or a barrier and a fence in the rest of where it's built. That's the ultimate answer.

FRIEDMAN: Denny, thank you very much. It's a great place to end. Thank you all for coming. [Applause.] And Dennis will be outside signing books afterwards.

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