Dennis Ross, a former top U.S. Mideast peace envoy who is now Counselor and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, warns that President Bush’s call for a conference on Israeli-Palestinian issues must be well-choreographed or risk embarrassing failure. Ross stresses that rather being a “one-time symbolic event,” such a conference must involve meticulous planning to engage all participants, prepare a clear agenda, and establish a mechanism for follow-on steps. At a time of deep antagonism between the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah factions, it is important that an international conference build credibility “for those who represent the secular nationalists,” Ross says.
You’ve been advocating that the Bush administration be more adept at using diplomacy and statecraft in the Middle East. Just this week, President Bush called for a Middle East conference between Israel and Palestinians. Has he been reading your writings or is this proposal not what you had in mind?
Well, I would wish he was reading my writings, but I’m not sure. If you look at where we are and you apply a real statecraft approach, you have to focus on what your fundamental objective is right now. That objective is to recognize that there is a struggle for the soul and the identity of the Palestinians. It’s not between extremists and moderates; it’s between those who would turn the Palestinian movement into an Islamist movement, and those who would preserve it as a secular national movement. If it remains a secular national movement, we may still have a national conflict, but at least it’s solvable.
And if it turns into an Islamist conflict?
If it turns into an Islamist religious conflict, it’s not solvable. Therefore, the fundamental strategic objective and the key right now is how to enhance the position of those like the new Palestinian Prime Minister [for the West Bank] Salam Fayad, who are trying to build the credibility of the Palestinian Authority; how do you enhance their position without eliminating their responsibility to make the kind internal changes that will give Fatah and the Palestinian Authority much more credibility?
To meet that objective you have to focus very heavily on how you buy him time, so he can show how his way begins to work. If an international meeting or conference is to be part of such a process, it should be connected to the day-to-day realities which will build credibility on the ground for those who represent the secular nationalists. It also should be something that is very well prepared.
Come back to the Bush “conference.” What is wrong with it?
My concern is: What are the signs of preparation for this international meeting? Is there a clear agenda? Who are the participants going to be? How will you help to choreograph events so you know what takes place in the conference? Do you have a specific set of steps that will follow it? No international meeting will be of particular value if what you produce is a conference where participants come together and give speeches that reflect the maximalist positions and is not followed up by anything.
What if the conference’s goal is to set the stage for negotiations?
An international meeting that is designed to launch a set of negotiations is fine, if in advance everyone knows what the agenda is, that they agree on what the ground rules are, and they agree on a set of specific follow-on steps. That would be an act of statecraft. To have an international meeting that isn’t prepared, doesn’t have a clear agenda, doesn’t have clear ground rules, and doesn’t have a follow-on, will be a symbolic step, and it will ring hollow very quickly.
Let’s go back more than a decade to after the first Persian Gulf War, 1990-91. Secretary of State James Baker organized the Middle East conference in Spain, which you were a part of; you helped him prepare the groundwork for it. Isn’t that what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is doing right now?
You should understand what we did. We took eight separate trips to the Middle East; each was connected to the preceding one. We ended up negotiating a letter of invitation which defined in a sense who was prepared to come and what the ground rules were. We had built in criteria for who was coming and why. We also created a framework for negotiations between the Israelis and a joint delegation of Jordanians and Palestinians. The reason it took us eight trips is because we were negotiating ground rules and other issues. It wasn’t just to have a one-time event. If the Bush administration is trying to do something of that sort, we should see some evidence of it. What we did in 1991 required a very intensive form of diplomacy which I’m not seeing right now.
What is the administration doing right now after the Bush speech?
I don’t see much indication of what they’re doing. It’s good that a number of Arab states have welcomed the president’s call, although many of the states who have welcomed it have not necessarily said that they are coming. The Saudis are a prime example of that. Here again, I would hope that what you have is an effort geared toward shaping the contours of this meeting. Is there, for example, going to be a letter of invitation? Is the letter of invitation going to be something that is negotiated because it embodies terms for this meeting and what comes after it? If the administration is going to take a page from the past, that’s what the Secretary of State [Condoleezza Rice] would be doing.
She’s supposed to be meeting with…
She’s meeting with the GCC [Gulf Coordination Council] plus two [Egypt, Jordan], along with the Secretary of Defense [Robert Gates]. As of the day before yesterday, someone from the administration was asked whether that meeting will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conference, and the person responded that the focus would be Iraq. So maybe they will include these issues in that meeting, but it’s pretty hard to work out all the terms. If you have a multilateral setting like that, it’s not so easy to come to an agreement on a level of specificity with relation to the ground rules for an international conference, that’s something that requires much more bilateral discussion.
Bear in mind, there was a GCC back in 1991. At that time, we actually met with each of the members of the GCC as well as the collective. That’s what it’s going to take. The GCC plus two involves GCC states plus Egypt and Jordan. That’s fine; but better reach a set of understandings and do what it takes to choreograph what’s going to happen in this meeting where you’re going to end up with speeches that will be quite maximalist in their content. If you’re trying to send a signal that Fatah represents a real hope for the future in terms of settling the conflict with the Israelis, what you don’t want is to have an international meeting where the speeches that are made end up being speeches that highlight how wide the gaps are. That’s going to diminish hope—not create a sense of it.
Do you think it’s possible that Fatah and Hamas in the near future can get together again?
I do not. I know the Saudis right now are pushing reconciliation talks. But having just been out there and spoken to more than 40 Palestinians representing almost all the different factions and age groups within Fatah and a fair number of independents, what I found was a pretty strong consensus. It was stronger, for example, than when I was there five weeks ago, also meeting with a large number of Palestinians. Then I found two schools of thought within Fatah. One argued that there’s nothing you can do with Hamas; the other that you can actually cut a deal with them. Now, when I was there after the collapse of Gaza, even those who represent that school that said you could do a deal with them at some point are not saying that at all. There wasn’t anyone I found within Fatah or among independents who thought there should be any early discussions with Hamas.
There were some who said at some point you should talk with them after a set of ground rules that had to happen first. Hamas had to renounce their regime and had to recognize Abu Mazan’s [President Mahmoud Abbas’] authority, and the authority of the Palestinian Authority. They had to admit that what they had done was wrong; they had to agree to return everything they had taken, and they had to disband their militia. This is coming from those who a month ago were saying we should be working out a deal with Hamas. It tells you that what happened in Gaza had a pretty searing effect across the range of Fatah.
Which countries do you think will come to the Bush conference in the end? Just Egypt and Jordan?
Well, if it’s just Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians, it’s going to look like a pretty hollow exercise. I think that this really does have to include the Saudis. I mean after all, the Arab Peace Initiative is something that offers diplomatic relations after the Israelis have withdrawn, so if you’re holding this meeting and the Saudis don’t come I think it’s going to disappoint expectations about how significant this is. If I were in the administration’s shoes, I think I’d be devoting quite a bit of effort to ensure that they were there. By the way, the Saudis were observers in 1991, [Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.] Prince Bandar was there. They were there as part of the GCC delegation that they led.
Well perhaps the GCC will come again?
Could be. Bear in mind that when we had the Sharm al-Sheikh Conference in 1996, we had the Saudi foreign minister and the Saudi ambassador to Washington attend along with the Israeli prime minister; we had fourteen Arab states there with the Israelis and the Russians and the EU. In that case, you had a high political representation in that meeting.
You’re skeptical that the administration is putting enough effort into preparing this meeting properly?
That’s my concern. I have no problem with it; in fact, it could be a useful step, but it’s not going to be a useful step if they don’t make the efforts. That means ensure that you have developed, choreographed, and prepared what’s going to take place when you get there and know what your follow-on steps are afterwards. If it’s a one-time symbolic event that isn’t followed by anything and has, as I said, maximalist kinds of speeches in it, it’s hardly going to be something that you can point to and say “boy there was a significant development in terms of using the political process.”