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Map of the Middle East Without Middle Ground

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
August 18, 2004
The New York Times

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THE MISSING PEACE
The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace
By Dennis Ross
Illustrated. 840 pages. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. $30.

FROM OSLO TO IRAQ AND THE ROAD MAP
By Edward W. Said
Illustrated. 323 pages. Pantheon. $25.95.

One of the most persistent questions an American hears in Europe is: Why is the United States wasting so much time on (fill in the foreign crisis du jour) instead of doing more to solve the No. 1 issue in the cosmos, the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians? If you are the vice president, you might be tempted to offer an eloquent, if obscene, two-word rejoinder. For those desiring a longer explanation, look no further than Dennis Ross's memoir, ''The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace.''

Mr. Ross spent 12 years (1988-2000) doing precisely what the United States is accused of not doing: trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal. He began as an aide to Secretary of State James A. Baker III and continued, in an unusual bit of bipartisanship, as Bill Clinton's envoy. What became known as the Olso Process -- the Norwegian government facilitated some of the early meetings -- had its origins in the 1991 decision by Israelis and Palestinians to start face-to-face negotiations.

Within two years those talks produced what was widely hailed as a breakthrough: a Declaration of Principles under which Israel would withdraw from large parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians would establish an interim government, and both sides would work toward a settlement. The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 was accompanied by the famous handshake on the White House lawn between the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, and the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, which, Mr. Ross reveals, almost didn't happen because both sides raised last-minute objections. But with a little prodding everything went off smoothly, producing what Mr. Ross calls ''one of Clinton's proudest moments.''

It might be an exaggeration to say that it was all downhill from there, but not by much. Within two years Rabin had been murdered by a Jewish fanatic. The Clinton administration went all out to help his successor, Shimon Peres, win the 1996 election but was foiled by suicide bombings that raised Israelis' doubts about Palestinian intentions. Instead of the dovish Peres, they elected the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu.

As befits a consummate diplomat, Mr. Ross is generally polite in his descriptions of the people he dealt with (and may yet deal with again), but he can't hide his antipathy for Mr. Netanyahu. In one meeting Mr. Ross found him ''nearly insufferable.'' On another occasion, he couldn't help noticing that Mr. Netanyahu's fly was unzipped, although Mr. Ross's account lacks unpleasant personal details about anyone else.

Mr. Ross perked up when Ehud Barak won the 1999 Israeli election and pledged to go all out for peace. In July 2000 Mr. Clinton convened Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat at Camp David to seal the deal. But although Mr. Barak offered to turn over all of the Gaza Strip and 92 percent of the West Bank -- raised to 95 percent -- Mr. Arafat wasn't interested. As Mr. Ross recounts, the Palestinian leader ''said no to everything,'' and did not present ''a single idea or single serious comment in two weeks.''

Mr. Ross and his boss did not give up. ''The Missing Peace'' opens with a rather pathetic account of how President Clinton received Mr. Arafat at the White House on Jan. 2, 2001, still trying to reach a peace deal with only 18 days left in office. By then the world had moved on. In September 2000 a visit by Ariel Sharon to the plateau in Jerusalem known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount was used as an excuse by the Palestinians to stage a second uprising, or intifada. This set off a wave of ruinous violence that is only now abating.

The second track of the Middle East peace process -- between Israel and Syria -- proved no more fruitful. The Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad claimed he wanted to do a deal but made no serious concessions before dying in 2000.

There has been much finger pointing over what led to the current impasse. Edward W. Said, a zealous champion of the Palestinian cause who died last year, placed the blame on the supposed ''Israeli all-out colonial assault on the Palestinian people.'' In ''From Oslo to Iraq,'' a posthumous collection of his essays, he has nothing kind to say about the Palestinian Authority and its leader, whom he accuses of ''crude incompetence, greed, and brutality.''

But he says Mr. Arafat's big mistake was agreeing to negotiate with Israel at all, rather than failing to reach a final compromise. Mr. Said cannot envision the Palestinians giving up one inch of ''their'' soil or renouncing their ''right'' of return to Israel. He has no use for Mr. Ross, whom he denounced as a ''mediocre'' and in thrall to ''the Israeli lobby.''

This assessment is a sign of Mr. Said's extremism since, as Mr. Ross notes, he was so willing to pressure Israel that he was denounced by some right-wingers as a ''self-hating Jew.'' More neutral observers generally agreed that Mr. Ross was a fair negotiator. Therefore, his judgment about who was to blame for the breakdown of Oslo should carry some weight.

Mr. Ross singles out Mr. Arafat, who ''was not up to ending the conflict.'' The wily old guerrilla leader ''always kept open the option of violence,'' and resorted to it in the fall of 2000 in hopes of getting even more concessions. What he got instead was the election of Ariel Sharon and a military confrontation that continues to the present day.

So where do we go from here? Mr. Said suggests that Palestinians and Israelis should form one big state, which, needless to say, would soon be dominated by the more-numerous Palestinians. It's hard to see why Israel would consent to commit suicide, which is what this option would amount to. Mr. Ross, for his part, remains ''a believer in U.S. engagement in Middle East peacemaking,'' though he never convincingly explains why this would work any better now than it did a few years ago.

Given Oslo's failure, it is not surprising that Israel and the United States are going in a different direction, with President Bush generally supporting Prime Minister Sharon's desire to unilaterally pullout of the Gaza Strip and fence off the West Bank. Separation between Israelis and Palestinians may not be a very exciting option -- it lacks the glamour of all the secret shuttles and high-level meetings that Mr. Ross chronicles -- but at the moment it offers the best bet for peace.


Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.