The Lost Steps

The Lost Steps

American policy-makers may be divided into two schools of thought on the Arab-Israeli conflict: the evenhanded and the Israel-first.


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.

Some of the controversy surrounding Ross is related to the fact that he is Jewish. Not so subtle questions were sometimes raised, especially in the Arab world, about his being Jewish and its effect on his fairness as a negotiator. Ross himself tells us that his faith was never an issue with the Presidents and Secretaries of State with whom he worked most closely. This is obvious: Had his faith been a problem, Ross’s employers would not have appointed him in the first place or kept him on following the transition from a Republican to a Democratic administration. On the other hand, he tells us, some right-wing American Jews have felt that Israel is in such danger that it should never be subjected to pressure or criticism. When the Bush-Baker team put pressure on the government of Yitzhak Shamir after the Gulf War, Ross received hate mail branding him a self-hating Jew. The gibe could not be further off the mark, for he is in fact a very proud Jew. One can only sympathize with Ross for the crassness of some of his American co-religionists. As Ross himself points out, “In the Jewish tradition there are few higher callings than to be a seeker of peace–a Rodef Shalom.” Some of Ross’s supporters in the Jewish community described him as a Rodef Shalom, and for him there could be no greater accolade.

Arab attitudes to Ross, however, merit a more serious consideration than he allows. His relations with Yasir Arafat were always very strained. Arafat saw Ross as an arrogant man who was too close to the Israelis. In his bad moments Arafat considered Ross to be a real enemy and at one point went as far as to refuse to meet with him. Hafez al-Assad criticized Ross rather more obliquely for not being positive enough in his attitude toward Syria. The Arab media habitually portrays American policy toward the region as biased in favor of Israel as a result of the influence of the Jewish lobby and Jewish officials, and Ross was held out as a prime example. Other factors, such as the democratic nature of Israel and the lack of democracy in the Arab world, are conveniently forgotten. Nevertheless, Arab leaders’ perception of Ross as partial to Israel complicated America’s task as the manager of the peace process.

Since Ross was the architect of the first Bush Administration’s policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and the chief peace negotiator of the Clinton Administration, his assumptions were important. Ross’s entire approach to peacemaking is premised on a strong US-Israeli relationship. Given Israel’s small size and vulnerability, he argues, it must feel secure if it is to make concessions for peace. Israel would not feel safe enough to give up territory if it doubted the American commitment to its security. Similarly, the Arab world would not accommodate itself to Israel’s existence if it had reason to question the staying power of the American commitment to Israel. While peace must ultimately be between the two parties and must therefore be directly negotiated by them, Israel must feel secure if it is to take risks for peace. This, in a nutshell, is Ross’s philosophy of peacemaking.

There are three main problems with this approach to peacemaking. In the first place, it puts all the emphasis on Israel’s concern for security and overlooks the Arab concern for justice. Given this approach, it is hardly surprising that the Arabs felt Ross was too sympathetic to Israel’s needs and insufficiently attuned to theirs. Second, the Israeli concept of security is so inflated and one-sided that it amounts to a denial of the legitimate security concerns of the other side. Third, the approach advocated by Ross is wide open to abuse by Israel. Israel can absorb any amount of American aid without reciprocating with concessions to the Arabs. In short, Ross’s mistake lies in assuming that a confident Israel would embark on the road to peace. History does not support this conclusion.

No one was more confident of Israel’s military power than Moshe Dayan, who served as defense minister from 1967 to 1974. Yet he was unwilling to assume risks for the sake of peace. Dayan frankly admitted that he would rather have “Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh” (a strategic point in the Sinai Peninsula, captured from Egypt in the 1967 war and later returned to Egypt in the Camp David I agreement). Opportunities for peace during that period were missed not because Israel felt insecure but because America did not lean hard enough on its ally to return the territories it had conquered in 1967. Dayan used to say: “Our American friends offer us money, arms, and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.” The lesson for peacemaking is obvious: support for Israel should be made conditional on heeding American advice.

Before embarking on the detailed narrative of the peace process, Ross outlines the context and the contours of the conflict. This takes the form of a long chapter on “Why Israelis, Arabs, and Palestinians See the World the Way They Do.” Ross’s account of the Israeli narrative is predictably better informed and more sympathetic than his account of the Arab and Palestinian narratives. He repeats, for example, the hoary claim that on the morrow of its spectacular military victory in June 1967, Israel offered to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights in return for peace with Egypt and Syria, only to be confronted with the “three no’s” of the Arab League summit at Khartoum: no recognition, no negotiation and no peace with the State of Israel. In fact, no offer was ever made, and the process of colonization quickly got under way. Ever since then, Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land have been the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East. The three no’s of Khartoum were the excuse, not the cause, for Israel’s relentless intransigence in the post-1967 era.

Ross is right to stress that the two sides have a fundamentally different approach to peace negotiations. The Israeli mindset focused on practical, highly detailed matters, and on the security dimensions. By contrast, the Arab and Palestinian mindsets were drawn to principles, generalities and their broad claims: Return their land, and peace–or at least the absence of war–would result. The onus to start the process was on Israel, not on them, because it was Israel that had occupied their land. From these very different starting points stemmed the different ideas about peace negotiations, their purpose and the tactics that should be employed.

Ross’s involvement in the story began with the peace conference that James Baker convened in Madrid in the wake of the Gulf War. It was the mother of all Middle East peace conferences and a real landmark. Prior to Madrid the question was: Could negotiations ever take place? Afterward, it was: Could the negotiations ever produce peace? The conference itself was in fact more significant at the symbolic than at the practical level. It ended the taboo on direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It also established the ground rules: bilateral negotiations on the basis of UN Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace that they incorporated. After the conference, as always, the slow coach was Israel. Yitzhak Shamir was dragged to Madrid kicking and screaming, and as long as he remained prime minister, the bilateral talks went nowhere slowly.

With the rise to power of Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor government in June 1992, the American peace team was back in business. Within a matter of months, Bill Clinton was firmly ensconced in the White House. Both leaders tended to favor a “Syria-first” strategy, believing that a deal with Syria would change the entire strategic landscape of the region in a way that a deal with the Palestinians could not. Rabin was prepared to contemplate a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for complete peace and security. This conditional offer became known as “the pocket,” as it was placed in Warren Christopher’s pocket. Christopher embarked on a shuttle between Jerusalem and Damascus that brought the two sides to the brink of peace. But the final terms that Assad offered fell short of Rabin’s expectations, so he accelerated the secret talks with the PLO that culminated in the Oslo Accord.

The implicit bargain was statehood for security. A historic threshold had been crossed. Having been upstaged by the Norwegians, the American peace processors did not sulk in their tents; they immediately rallied round to promote the PLO-Israel accord, to elevate it and to generate momentum behind it. Clinton succeeded brilliantly in turning the signing ceremony of the Declaration of Principles into the most spectacular diplomatic event of the 1990s. A year later, Rabin surprised Clinton again by presenting him with a peace agreement with Jordan on a silver platter. But a year after that an Israeli extremist, Yigal Amir, assassinated Rabin, dealing a body blow to the peace process.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory over Shimon Peres at the polls in May 1996 was most unwelcome to the Americans. Clinton had told Rabin that if the prime minister ran risks for peace, the United States would act to minimize those risks. Now that Rabin was dead, Clinton felt responsible for preserving his legacy. Netanyahu posed an unmistakable threat to this legacy. As prime minister, Netanyahu was not as bad as people had expected–he was much, much worse. In his first meeting with the President, at which Ross was present, “Netanyahu was nearly insufferable, lecturing and telling us how to deal with the Arabs. He would respect the Oslo agreement because a democratically elected government in Israel had adopted it, but there would have to be adjustments and new negotiations over parts of it.” After Netanyahu left the room, Clinton observed, “He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.” No one, according to Ross, disagreed with that assessment.

Following Netanyahu’s visit, Ross traveled to the region to brief Arab leaders. “My visits with both Assad and Arafat were successful,” he writes, “but Netanyahu–believing that his policy of talking tough but not doing anything was working–squandered what I delivered.” Netanyahu also strained relations with Jordan to the breaking point for no apparent reason, provoking an uncharacteristically emotional and personal attack from King Hussein. In a meeting at the White House, the King accused Netanyahu of threatening the hopes for peace of Arabs and Israelis alike with his refusal to respect agreements, immaturity and poor judgment.

Ehud Barak’s 1999 victory over Netanyahu raised expectations sky-high in Israel, among the Palestinians and within the Clinton Administration. Whereas Netanyahu only scored points, Barak promised to solve problems. Clinton said that he waited for Barak’s arrival in Washington like a child waiting for a new toy. The American peace processors were back in business. Clinton hoped that Barak would fulfill all of Israel’s outstanding commitments to further troop withdrawals from the West Bank and then proceed without delay to negotiations on a permanent-status agreement with the Palestinians. But he yielded to Barak’s insistence on aiming for a deal with Syria first. Barak and Assad were realists. They knew that what mattered to the Syrians was the land, and that what mattered most to the Israelis was security and water. There was thus a basis for a deal, for “a peace of the brave,” as Assad liked to call it. Barak’s initial approach to the Syrians, however, was based on a faulty premise: that he did not have to reaffirm Rabin’s conditional commitment to withdraw to the lines of June 4, 1967, which would place Syria on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Barak wanted Israeli sovereignty over the lake and a strip of about 400 yards to the east of it.

When Ross accompanied Madeleine Albright to Damascus in December 1999, it was clear that something had changed. Assad put forward ideas but did not impose any conditions for resuming negotiations with Israel. This paved the way for a meeting between Barak and Farouk al-Shara at Shepherdstown, the following month. At Shepherdstown the Syrians were willing to go forward, but Barak held back. Unbeknownst to the Americans, Barak received the results of a poll that led him to believe that full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan would arouse widespread domestic opposition. He therefore decided to hold fast regardless of the Syrian moves. It was then, Ross later came to believe, that the deal was probably lost–and with it the possibility of an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon within the framework of an understanding with Syria rather than under pressure from Hezbollah.

Clinton made one more effort to broker a deal by inviting Assad to a summit meeting in Geneva on March 26, 2000. Prior to the meeting Clinton elicited from Barak his bottom lines. At the meeting, Clinton announced with great drama that Barak, based on “a commonly agreed border,” was prepared to withdraw to the June 4 line as part of a peace agreement. Ross tells us that Assad was simply not interested. But his account of the summit is inaccurate and unreliable. Instead of acting as an honest broker, Ross cooperated with Barak in an attempt to trick Assad. Assad’s position was consistent and unswerving: He insisted all along on full withdrawal to the June 4 line in an exchange for full peace, nothing more and nothing less. Barak, on the other hand, played games, using Clinton to intimate to Assad that the Israelis were going to offer this if he came to Geneva. But when everyone assembled at Geneva, the proposal that Barak presented still had Israeli control over the whole of the Sea of Galilee. Barak did not offer to withdraw to the June 4 line. He did offer territory elsewhere in exchange for keeping control of the shoreline, but Assad considered this unacceptable. He claimed that “the lake has always been our lake; it was never theirs…. There were no Jews to the east of the lake.” He could not last in power for one day, he said, if he were to agree to what Barak was asking.

The meeting in Geneva thus ended abruptly in high-visibility failure. The most charitable explanation of this failure is that a misunderstanding had occurred: Assad expected to have his needs met as he defined them, and he simply shut down when he saw that the President had not delivered what he expected from Barak. Ross, however, suggests a different explanation. He thinks that Assad, conscious of his failing health, was preoccupied with insuring a smooth succession for his son Bashar. A deal with Israel was no longer on his agenda. This explanation, however, ignores two facts: Assad had prepared his public at home for an imminent agreement, and he brought a large team of experts to Geneva, including military officials. As they left the conference room, Assad went up to Ross and grasped him by the upper arm. Ross reciprocated this silent gesture of friendship. Though Assad did not seem weak, Ross noticed as he grasped his upper arm that there was nothing there– no muscle, no fat, no tissue, just bone. This seemed to confirm the reports about the Syrian dictator’s declining health. But whatever the cause of Assad’s intransigence, the Syrian track was dead.

Having left the Palestinians to twist in the wind, Barak now had no choice but to resume negotiations with them. Once again he asked for American help, and once again he expected the Americans to do everything his way. As Yossi Beilin testifies, Barak called Clinton often to comment, criticize and complain. Like his predecessor, Barak treated the President of the United States like a clerk and got impatient when his orders were not carried out immediately. Many of the technical details with which Barak burdened the President could have been safely left to the subministerial level. Barak is a most peculiar individual, combining high intelligence with a complete absence of interpersonal skills. In the army they used to call him “little Napoleon” both because of the physical resemblance–short and stocky with a pear-shaped head–and the authoritarian personality. His style of negotiation is best described as the extension of war by other means, or peace by ultimatum.

Barak refused to fulfill Netanyahu’s commitment to a third redeployment on the West Bank. This undermined Palestinian trust in him. Brushing aside their protests, Barak insisted on a summit meeting between the top leaders to conclude a final-status agreement, and Clinton obliged. Arafat felt that a summit was premature and that if it failed, it would make matters worse. He suggested lower-level talks to close the gaps and lay the groundwork for the summit. Clinton persuaded Arafat to attend the summit and promised him that if it failed, no one would be blamed: There would be no finger-pointing. The summit meeting was duly convened at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, and lasted fourteen days, from July 11 to 25, 2000. Ross provides an exceptionally detailed and gripping account of what transpired at the summit, day by day, almost blow by blow. His account demonstrates complete mastery of the issues, considerable psychological insight and a keen sense of drama.

Barak emerges from Ross’s account as a man who played his cards very close to his chest, driven by conflicting impulses and utterly exhausting and exasperating to deal with. To be fair to Barak, he did bring to Camp David a set of ideas that touched on all the most sensitive issues at the core of the conflict: Palestinian statehood, borders, Jerusalem and refugees. His great fear was that Arafat would pocket whatever he offered and demand more, forcing Barak to move again beyond his red lines. He could contemplate withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank, but he was worried that the Palestinians would retain the animating grievances of the conflict–Jerusalem and the right of return of the 1948 refugees. In short, Barak was worried that Israel would come under pressure to give up a great deal but get nothing in return. His mood was darkly apocalyptic, seeing everything in life-and-death terms. So stressed was Barak that he choked on a peanut and required the Heimlich maneuver to resume breathing. Barak’s way of dealing with these anxieties, however, was self-defeating. He would not accept anything that he did not hear directly from Arafat, yet he refused to meet Arafat. In the two weeks at Camp David the two leaders did not have one serious face-to-face discussion. This left Clinton with the unenviable task of serving as a messenger between the two taciturn and surly leaders.

On the seventh day of the summit, Clinton’s patience was exhausted and he flipped his lid. Barak gave Clinton a paper that he wanted him to present to the Palestinians as his own. Not only did the paper pose questions as if the Palestinians had a test they must pass, but it walked back some of the key moves that Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak’s foreign minister, had made earlier. Clinton exploded: “You want to present these ideas directly to Arafat, to the Palestinians, you go ahead and see if you can sell it. There is no way I can. This is not real. This is not serious. I went to Shepherdstown and was told nothing by you for four days. I went to Geneva and felt like a wooden Indian doing your bidding.” His voice rising and his face red, Clinton shouted, “I will not let it happen here. I will simply not do it.” This outburst evidently had a sobering effect, for the next day Barak finally presented his bottom lines. Clinton duly conveyed the new ideas to Arafat, underlining their historic significance. Were they a basis for concluding an agreement, yes or no? The answer came back: No. Nor did Arafat make any counterproposal. This sealed the fate of the summit. Clinton promptly laid all the blame for the failure of the summit at Arafat’s door, breaking his promise that there would be no finger-pointing in the event of failure.

With Clinton’s support, Barak’s version of events rapidly gained ground, particularly in Israel and the United States. According to this version, Israel made the most generous offer imaginable at Camp David, but Arafat rejected it flatly and made a deliberate decision to return to violence. This allegedly demonstrated that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. In The Missing Peace Dennis Ross supports this version, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. During the crisis at Camp David, he muses that Arafat may simply not be up to making a deal: “He is a revolutionary; he has made being a victim an art form; he can’t redefine himself into someone who must end all claims and truly end the conflict.”

The Barak-Ross version of the collapse of the Camp David summit is simplistic, selective and self-serving. It is also contradicted by Ross’s own account. If he and Barak didn’t think that Arafat was up to doing a deal, why did they convene the summit and pressure Arafat to attend it? Didn’t the intimate relationship with the Israelis cast some doubt on America’s claim to be acting as an honest broker? Was there no basis for Arafat’s suspicion of an Israeli-American conspiracy to corner him at Camp David? Arafat has many faults, but he has demonstrated his ability to make historic choices, notably by opting for a two-state solution in 1988 and by signing the Oslo Accord in 1993. By contrast, Barak had been unhappy about the accord with the PLO; he abstained in the cabinet vote on the 1995 Oslo II agreement; and he had never been a member of what Yossi Beilin calls “the peace mafia” in Israel. The most fundamental cause of the failure of the Camp David summit lies not in Arafat’s psychological makeup but in Barak’s package. On the one hand, he offered only limited concessions on Jerusalem and the refugees, and on the other hand he insisted on an absolute end to the conflict. He insisted that the Palestinians sign on the dotted line that they had no further claims against the State of Israel. This remorseless insistence on finality was in fact part of the problem, not the solution. Peace by ultimatum did not work.

Barak’s package was a reasonable basis for an interim agreement, not for the final end of the conflict, which he wanted so badly. Israelis like to demonize Arafat, but no Palestinian leader, however moderate, could accept the package on offer at Camp David. Arafat, in fact, represents the broadest consensus within the Palestinian community. That is the source of his legitimacy and the secret of his strength. Arafat’s real mistake was not to reject the much-vaunted “generous offer” but to encourage, or at least to tolerate, the resort to violence from his side following the collapse of the Oslo peace process. The Palestinian resort to violence in the al-Aqsa intifada had disastrous consequences. It came close to destroying the peace camp in Israel, convinced the public that there is no partner for peace and brought to power the most aggressively right-wing government in Israel’s history.

The Missing Peace is a comprehensive and fascinating memoir about the trials and tribulations of an American peace processor. It covers a period of thirteen years on all the tracks, and it ends with some general reflections on the perils and pitfalls of peacemaking. It is easy to pour scorn on a process that absorbed so much time and energy from all the parties involved and yielded such meager results. But the years since the end of the Clinton presidency have shown all too clearly the cost of not having a peace process. A peace process does not invariably produce a settlement, but it usually keeps the dogs of war at bay. Talking, however protracted and inconclusive, is preferable to fighting and mutual carnage. As Winston Churchill used to say, “Better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.” Dennis Ross and the other members of his team therefore deserve our gratitude for all their efforts to bring a measure of peace and stability to a region that is notoriously prone to irrational behavior and violence. And Ross himself deserves special commendation for producing such a revealing record of these efforts.

Yet The Missing Peace raises serious questions about the soundness of the Israel-first school of which Dennis Ross is a prominent member. The American emphasis on Israel’s security at the expense of Palestinian rights was one of the reasons for the failure of the American-sponsored peace process. The asymmetry in power between Israel and the Palestinians is such that a voluntary agreement between the parties is simply unattainable. A third party is needed to push Israel into a settlement, and that third party can only be the United States. What is more, the Americans have the capacity to bring effective pressure to bear on Israel. America supports Israel to the tune of $3 billion a year. Never in the annals of human history have so few owed so much to so many. It simply does not make sense for America not to exert this leverage in the cause of peace. Paradoxically, the most serious charge against the Israel-first school is that it does not serve Israel’s true, long-term interests. Israel’s real interest, like that of the Palestinians, lies in an end to the occupation and a two-state solution. In the absence of a fair and equitable solution, the two communities will remain locked in a fatal embrace, an endless dance of death.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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