American policy-makers may be divided into two schools of thought on the Arab-Israeli conflict: the evenhanded and the Israel-first. The evenhanded school seeks to play the role of the honest broker in pushing the two sides toward a settlement of the dispute between them. It believes that America’s most vital interests lie in the oil-producing Arabian Gulf, and it is reluctant to jeopardize those interests by being too close to Israel. The Israel-first school, on the other hand, supports a special relationship with the Jewish state, hailing it as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Members of this school also seek a settlement of the dispute between Israel and its neighbors. But their starting point is that Israel has to assume serious risks on the road to peace and that America should therefore give it all the support it needs in order to feel confident enough to assume those risks. George H.W. Bush was arguably the most evenhanded President in American history. Bill Clinton was by far the most pro-Israel President until George W. Bush’s rise to power. An Israeli newspaper once described Clinton as the last Zionist. In long historical perspective, however, George W. Bush may yet emerge with a stronger claim to this title.
Dennis Ross was the chief Middle East peace negotiator in the Republican Administration of George H.W. Bush and in the two terms of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Ross was particularly close to Secretary of State James Baker, so the Democratic victory in the 1992 election was expected to spell the end of his diplomatic career. But Clinton wanted Ross to stay on as head of the American Middle East team under Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Consequently, Ross remained a key player in this political process for the next eight years. He thus has the unique distinction of having served in a prominent capacity both in the most evenhanded American administration since the war and in one of the most ardently pro-Israel ones.
Despite Bush the elder’s pedigree, Ross belongs fairly and squarely in the pro-Israel camp. His premises, position on the Middle East and policy preferences are identical to those of the Israel-first school. Indeed, it is difficult to think of an American official who is more quintessentially Israel-first in his outlook than Dennis Ross.
In his memoir Ross recounts in minute detail his personal involvement in the Middle East peace process from 1988 to January 2001. This was an eventful period in the history of the region, which saw the Gulf War, the Madrid peace conference, bilateral Arab-Israeli negotiations under American auspices in Washington, the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO, the conclusion of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the rise and fall of Benjamin Netanyahu, the ill-fated Camp David summit and the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. There were also persistent though ultimately unsuccessful efforts to achieve a breakthrough on the Syrian track, the high points being the meetings between Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and between Bill Clinton and President Hafez al-Assad in Geneva.
During the period covered in this book, there was thus a great deal of peace process and Dennis Ross was the peace processor par excellence. Unfortunately, the substantive achievements of this process were not so impressive, for there was more process than peace. The two major achievements–Oslo and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty–were negotiated directly between the parties themselves with virtually no American involvement. Ross indirectly acknowledges the failure to achieve comprehensive peace in the Middle East by calling his book The Missing Peace. The main point and the real value of the book are indicated in the subtitle–it is the inside story of the struggle for peace, of the failures as well as the successes, of personalities and policies, of countless crises and confrontations, of backstage maneuvers and media spin, of betrayals and brinkmanship, of the high points and the low points.
About Ross’s dedication and commitment to the cause of peace there can be no doubt, but his influence over the actual course of events is more difficult to measure. Yossi Beilin, the militant Israeli moderate and one of the main architects of the Oslo Accord, has recently published a book titled The Path to Geneva: The Quest for a Permanent Agreement, 1996-2004. “Until Clinton’s very last day in office,” writes Beilin, “Ross wanted to believe that it was possible to reach an agreement. The failure of the negotiations with the Syrians and with the Palestinians was the failure of Dennis Ross.” This verdict is surely too harsh. The fact that Ross kept up his frantic efforts to broker an agreement literally until his last day in office does not necessarily saddle him with the responsibility for the failure. More senior players were involved, and it was their choices that determined the final outcome.