A Conversation with Dennis Ross
     by Pamela Chaiet

Ambassador Dennis Ross’s new book is The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. He is counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as a diplomat and point man on the peace process in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He was instrumental in assisting Israelis and Palestinians in reaching the 1995 Interim Agreement; he also successfully brokered the Hebron Accord in 1997, facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and worked tirelessly to bring Israel and Syria together. Ambassador Ross worked closely with Secretaries of State James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright. He served as the special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton and earlier as the director of the State Department’s Policy Planning office under the first Bush administration. In that position he was a prominent player in developing the U.S. foreign policy toward the former Soviet Union, the unification of Germany and its integration into NATO, arms control negotiations and the of the 1991 Gulf War coalition.

During the Regan administration, he served as director of Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff and as deputy director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. Ambassador Ross was awarded the Presidential Medal for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President Clinton, and Secretaries Baker and Albright presented him with the State Department’s highest award. He has also received honorary doctorates from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Syracuse University.

Ambassador Ross has published extensively on the former Soviet Union, arms control, and the greater Middle East. In the 1970s and 1980s, his articles appeared in World Politics, Political Science Quarterly, Orbis, International Security, Survival, and Jornal of Strategic Studies. Since leaving the government in 2001, he has published in Foreign Policy and National Interest, as well as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times.

(Editorial note: This discussion took place before the death of Yasser Arafat, an event which has drastically altered Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. To maintain historical perspective, the questions and answers regarding Arafat's leadership have been retained.)

Chaiet: First let me say thank you for allowing me time from your busy schedule to conduct this interview. I read your book over the weekend and found it candid, straightforward and a surprisingly intimate review of the Middle East peace process. You have been a major player in these negotiations and it was fascinating to watch your own story unfold though out the book. Your book verifies that finding peace is a frustrating process as well as illusive. I am sure the American public will welcome this well documented summary. It is, as you have said, a story that must be told and retold so that we can learn from mistakes and remove the myths. I found it astonishing that you could remain hopeful during this arduous conflict.

I have learned that you will be starting on a book tour for The Missing Peace can you provide some details?

Ross: Yes, I will be traveling starting in September and will be traveling pretty much around the country for a couple of months. This provides me the opportunity to talk about the book, why I wrote it and what I hope it will achieve.

Chaiet: I found the structure of your book to be an asset for the reader. The inclusion of maps provides those unfamiliar with the Geography of the Middle East time to gain his bearings. Your coordinated listing of all the prominent people involved in this history and their organizations or countries keeps the massive presentation of information from being overwhelming. The book title is a play on words.

Ross: Right.

Chaiet: In your book you state that the missing pieces that create The Missing Peace can be numbered as follows:

1. A lack of public conditioning for Peace
2. A reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other sides grievances and needs.
3. An inability to confront myths.
4. Difficulty of transforming behavior and acknowledging mistakes.
5. Getting both sides to move at the same time.
6. An unwillingness to make choices.
7. An absence of leadership, particularly among the Palestinians.

You begin your book with a first chapter titled THE END can you explain the intent of opening with THE END?

Ross: Well it was the end for me, at least in terms of being the negotiator. Here was the moment of truth, when we thought all the stars had been aligned in the right way, when we thought we had prepared the groundwork, when we thought we had reached some concluded agreement but unfortunately we had a leader on the Palestinian side that was incapable of ending the conflict.

So here is the event that is The End. I knew after this, as I say in the prologue, my odyssey to produce peace, as a negotiator, was not going to be realized, at least at that time.

Chaiet: At that time, the end always marks a beginning or so we hope.

Ross: Right. The intent for the purpose of this book was to tell the story of trying to negotiate peace and as the missing peace is to the title of the book the end is to the prologue. As if to say here is how we ended it how did we get to this point? The rest of the book is about that.

Chaiet: In reviewing your career one cannot help but see it as a magnificent evolution. You have achieved a great deal. You served as an Ambassador for twelve years. You assisted the Israelis and Palestinians in reaching the 1995 Interim Agreement; the Hebron Accord in 1997 as well as facilitating the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty among others. You are an accomplished scholar and policy maker for the United States. You started your professional journey in Marine County, CA where you grew up and secured a liberal education at UCLA working as a teaching assistant for a leading scholar for Arab studies, Malcolm Kerr. You worked for the Bobby Kennedy campaign in 1968; the George McGovern campaign and traveled to Israel several times before graduating. Did you ever imagine that you would be working with so many historically relevant people and dealing with ideas and diplomacy that would shape the future of the globe? How did you view your ultimate career aims?

Ross: I was certainly, in many respects a product of the 1960’s and the ethic of John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, in terms of public service. So I became socialized to believe that you choose to be committed to public service but that you also should try to effect policy. At this time, I think because of our growing involvement in Vietnam I became more and more interested in affecting American Foreign Policy.

After the McGovern campaign I had decided I had enough of politics and that I preferred policy. I went back to graduate school so that I could focus heavily on effecting what our policy would be.

Did I know I would do all the things I have done no but I had aspirations to try to do that.

Chaiet: So you did have aspirations from the very beginning to bring about major change! How wonderful to see that the American Dream , of each individual citizen being able to directly influence the policy direction of the United States can come to fruition with hard work , intellect and a steady focus.

Ross: Right

Chaiet: You do appear to have a natural proclivity for problem solving. You have a boldness in your presentation and can easily communicate you ideas to others. I site an example. When you were starting out you became familiar with VP George Bush and you straightforwardly asked him to put together a set of principles for Israel, Jordan and Egypt to use in their peace negotiations. You did not know the Vice President very well at the time . Some might have called it brazen or lacking protocol. What drove you to insist the idea was right?

Ross: Well whenever you expect to determine policy you have to be able to come up with new ideas. If you are not expecting to effect policy but just getting along by going along, well then you will not wind up doing a lot.

I am driven, like you said, to try and solve problems. When I was in a position to do that I felt I had a responsibility to try and do something. It did not occur to me to be shy or hold back on ideals. The fact is decision makers can always say forget it.

But if you don’t try you will never know what you can accomplish so I just had a need to always try.

Chaiet: You say in your book that you had an appreciation of the Palestinian people and what they were going through. You felt compassion for them in their trying to find their place in the Arab world and the West. There was a conflict of realities over who they were even Golda Mier at one time said that the, “ Palestinians are not a People”.

Ross: Right

Chaiet: The Palestinian Front arose to claim their identity. Do you feel that the Palestinian view of themselves has been gaining a healthy maturity and making progress?

Ross: No, I think the biggest problem on the Palestinian side is unfortunately the lack of responsible leadership. I say in the book and I quote Anwar Nusseibeh who was a Palestinian who lost a leg in the 1948 war, “ I underestimated the strength of my enemy and overestimated the strength of my own people”. Nusseibeth commented that those in command succeeded as symbols but failed as leaders. Jerusalem was content to be a symbol but not to take on the burden of world leadership. I think this problems has plagued the Palestinian movement ever since but certainly what Arafat has done as well.

Being satisfied with symbols rather than choices of leadership, I think is one of the greatest tragedies of the movement. I think they could have found people that could have done it better. What is interesting, at least for me anyway is that there are those out there trying to assume responsibility because they recognize the failings they have.

Chaiet: You have some diplomatic problems in that the Palestinians believe that the Israeli will never surrender control over them and that the Israeli still fear the insecurity of the Palestinian Terrorists.

Yet you display an undying optimism when you say that, “ the Middle East is hopeless only if we make it so “.

This seems to share the sentiments of a famous phrase, “ all we have to fear is fear itself”. So do you think that the idea of hopelessness will be overcome?

Ross: Yes, I think that I the end neither side can wish the other away. The Israelis are there and they are always going to be there. The Palestinians are there and they are always going to be there. So as I say they can have a situation of ongoing struggle and pain and suffering on each side or they can find a way to co-exist. So I am of the belief that you can find a way.

Chaiet: You also say too that, “Only America can Lead”. You made the additional point that you are pro American involvement in the Middle East. You refine your concept by adding that the United States cannot impose peace as an assumed mandate over the Palestinian People. This is a little contrary to your view that the United States shortcomings are the result of a lack of staying power, as well as a lack of oversight and guidance. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Ross: I think there is a big difference between monitoring and imposing. Imposing means you say here is the outcome and you dictate it. Some how you force society to accept it. I don’t think we can ever do that.

My concern is, especially with imposition, is that neither side will have any stake in the agreement so the first opportunity that arises to defect from that agreement they will. Some of the Israeli and Palestinians see their conflict as deeply rooted. It has the burden of the past weighing on each side. With so much invested psychologically, with so much suffering that has taken place each side has to believe that what they have agreed to is right. Each side has to stand up for it. They have to defend it they have to invest in it. They have to believe in it against what will be inevitable opposition. If it is imposed from the outside no on will do that. No one will believe it. If it is not their agreement it will be over and in the end when they have a chance to defect from it they will.

So when I talk about monitoring that is different. Monitoring and accountability is when they reach an agreement and you then hold them accountable to what they agreed too. And that is important to do publicly. If they sign the agreement, if they support the agreement then when they radiate from it they will have to explain it to their own people. If it was forced upon them why should they accept it? Especially in the Arab world where there is such a resistance for anything imposed. Their whole history, as seen from their eyes is one of humiliation being the result of what has been imposed from the outside. To believe that one more imposition from the outside is going to be accepted, not a chance.

Chaiet: Your comments certainly raise many new questions. I hope to get to them at a later date. Let me for now move to what you have said of past U. S. administrations. You have said that if they had approached the Middle East differently the outcome may have been different. The Reagan administration wanted to be active in the Middle East but most of their initiatives bore little fruit. The Clinton administration also assumed an active role but when George W. Bush took office in 2001 he produced a policy of disengagement. How do you feel about that policy direction?

Ross: I think the Bush administration adopted a policy of disengagement and at a certain level it was reasonable to test that for after all we had made under Clinton the supreme effort. You could not have had greater American involvement and we hadn’t succeeded. We went to the brink of peace but we couldn’t produce it. So it wasn’t wrong of the Bush administration to say look we are not going to do that we will draw back.

But with any approach you then have to measure the outcome and what we did was we succeeded In breaking taboos and we also succeeded I preventing a war between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Engagement did not produce peace but it prevented a war. Disengagement neither produced peace nor prevented a war. Diplomacy is often measured by what you achieve not by what you prevent.

Chaiet: It appears that we had to pick from the lesser of two evils.

Ross: If you can’t make peace you have to try and contain it. The task of diplomacy is to determine what is possible. I have no criticism of the Bush Administration in saying that peace is not possible right now. The reality is that peace is not possible right now. It has become even more distant in the last three years. The last three years were not just an uprising they were a war with profound consequences in the psyche.

Peace making is about recognizing what you can do and what you can’t do. It is also about containing a situation so you can get back to peace negotiations again. That wasn’t done these last few years.

Chaiet: Of course that kind of back and forth could go on for a thousand years or five thousand.

Ross: Yes but it is better to have people talking than dying.

Chaiet: You suggested when discussing the Road Map that the EU pushed the United States to adopt the Plan. The Bush administration did not really rush to create it and you additionally suggest that it was wrong to develop the Plan only with the UN, Russia and the EU and then impose it on the two parties actively involved I the war.

You indicated that the Road Map initiative dissipated quickly and that President Bush pushed it forward perhaps in an attempt to gain support for his Iraq Policy. There also appears to be a strong leaning toward the Oslo Plan over the Road Map.

Ross: The problem with The Road Map was that it was not done with the parties that actually have to carry it out, so all the paragraphs of The Road Map produced a set of guidelines that can be useful today. I was often asked is The Road Map dead and I answered “ How can it be dead when it was never born”?

I don’t reject The Road Map. I say that The Road Map to this point has never actually been applied. Those that were supposed to carry it out were not among the parties asked to the negotiations. They were never asked for their comments. They never shared their opinions. The Israelis interpreted all their obligations minimally and the Palestinian’s obligations to the maximum degree. The Palestinians interpreted their obligations minimally and the Israelis’ to the maximum degree. No meeting of the minds on what constituted performance. No effort was made by the U.S. to define what would constitute performance. So how can it be carried out?

Chaiet: I would like now to address the issue of the Israelis building the fence. What is you view on the need for such a barrier?

Ross: I think we have to look at the issue of the fence in the context of what was happening. Had the Palestinians been stopping Terrorists, the Arab Terrorists coming from Palestine into the territories of Israel there would have been no need for a fence or barrier, but they did not. They did nothing to stop them so that the Israelis were left with no choice.

The choice was either to maintain a siege, which meant no Palestinian movement at all or build a more passive approach to protecting the settlements with a fence. We have to ask ourselves what would we do if one of our neighbors were allowed free border access and then they came and blew up our buses, our theaters, our restaurants. Some how I think the American response would not just be to build a barrier.

Chaiet: No this is true. Yet the Israelis and the Palestinians must live together. They cannot stop all daily exchanges. Yet there is a vast difference in size between Israel and the Arab world. They have to protect themselves.

Ross: There is a need for security without question. In Israel the Luekund Party was against building the barrier because once you have a barrier you have some Israelis on the one side and others left on the other side. It was basically a Labor Party idea and Sharon embraced it because there was logic for it from a defense perspective when so many Israelis were dying. So it was a response to this issue more than anything.

Chaiet: Do you believe in the two State Solution? Do you think it can work?

Ross: I believe it is the only solution . There is no other alternative. You see the two national movements; you are not going to satisfy them until they each have their own State. In the end it is up to the Palestinians to get their act together because they have someone like Arafat that wants the One State Solution. The Barrier is the way Israel will resolve the problem from both a security standpoint and a geographic standpoint. Rabin was the father of the Barrier. He was a believer in a separation of the two States. He wanted to do it through negotiations but if he couldn’t he wanted to do it through a separation via a Barrier.

Chaiet: In your book you say the Palestinian’s view regarding violence began to change as of 2003.

Ross: Right.

Chaiet:A poll in 2003 showed that 73% of the Palestinians wanted the one-year cessation of violence with Israel. The Palestinians did not want to unseat the icon Arafat but they didn’t want his type of government. Yet Abu Mazen ‘s government failed within three months. He had no direct support from President Bush to make him a real partner for peace and Arafat was constantly under minding his position. The attempt at a new government was hopeful but it failed. So is there a possibility of a new leader arising in Palestine while Arafat is still alive?

Ross: It would be difficult for one person to emerge as an alternative to Arafat. Arafat is a symbol an icon. He put the Palestinians on the map. He gave them their cause, recognition and standing internationally. He gets credit for that but the Reform Movement wants change. Arafat lives in the past he has no future. And what you will see are many more direct challenges to him. No one wants to confront him directly, no one wants to humiliate him, no one wants to be the one to force him out but there is an increasing sense that the Palestinians would like him to be a ceremonial figure- head. As long as he holds power nothing is possible for the Palestinians except suffering. What you are seeing among the Reformers right now is an increasing effort to marginalize him in terms of actually having power. While they are not challenging him they are saying we have to reform. When they are saying we need a “rule of law” to protect everyone. They are saying they need protection against him. He doesn’t want a “rule of law” because it prevents him from acting arbitrarily.

When they press to have reorganization of security forces and have a professional chain of command they are saying they do not want him in control of them. When they want transparency and accountability it is against whom? Arafat. So this is homegrown and they are pressing it and no doubt he will accommodate to the extent that he has to but then he will try to subvert it the same way he did with Abu Mazen.

Chaiet: I thought it particularly helpful that you put in the Appendix Bill Clinton’s Promise of Peace.

Ross: Right.

Chaiet: In this document the President makes clear the parties should not come to the negotiating table to refine and restate what they want but to redefine the boundaries within the already prescribed set limits. President Clinton provides a timetable for claiming peace. He addresses the problems of territorial disputes, security problems, Jerusalem, the refugees and he ends with a personal note to both the Palestinians and the Israelis. He tells them that he has done his best and he describes to them the benefits of putting an end to conflict.

Is all the blame for this missed opportunity; one sought with such earnestness by the United States be laid at the feet of Arafat?

Ross:Well, he said NO! It is not complicated. These ideas were not pulled out of the ocean. They were derived from long negotiations on both sides, exhaustive discussion with both sides. The purpose of the document was not to state what he, Arafat wanted but to state what he could live with. He knew this was the end of the road.

Chaiet: Why don’t people in the world community see him as foolish? All he does is equivocate. He makes everyone delay. He has temper tantrums like a child. Why does everyone put up with it?

Ross: He is still a unique Icon this way. It is hard to break old habits. He lives in his own world, a world of mythology. He stays in the shadows of mythology.

Chaiet: After 9/11 your views seem to have changed. You say very clearly that we can no longer ignore the Saudi Arabian regime and others with regard to how they treat their people. Their treatment arouses anger, hopelessness and is a breeding ground for terror. A statement like this is a tall order. We are presently dealing with, Israel, Palestine and Iraq. Do we take on the entire Arab world? Do you think our efforts making change work and spreading freedom with emanate to surrounding areas. Do you feel that other Arab leaders are beginning to see the necessity of accepting their nation’s responsibility to the global community? Do they see isolationist dictatorships are not the ultimate answer?

Ross: I think the more we talk about this issue the more they have to address it one way or another. It is in their interest. It is not something that will be fixed because America desires it. It will get fixed because of a need on their side. Look at Saudi Arabia, 75% of the entire population is under the age of 25 years. They feel very alienated. It is in the Saudi interest to reach out to them not to leave them feeling there is no possibility of participation. Saudi Arabia is planning for the first time to have a public election. That is not happening because they woke up one day and said this is a good idea. It is happening because they realized that they have a problem. So that is good. We have a responsibility too. Our responsibility is to be true to our values.

When we dealt with the Saudis before it was to say, “ we will provide you security and you provide us oil at a fair price. We won’t pay any attention to what goes on inside. We won’t pay attention to what is a breeding ground for hatred. We won’t pay attention to funding to questionable religious charities that teach basically socialized intolerance and hatred. “ Now we can not turn a blind eye any longer nor can the Saudis because it comes back on them. Al Qaida declared war on them. They did not declare war on Al Qaida. They didn’t have a choice. They are going to have to transform themselves and to a large extent they recognize this. But we have to be consistent regarding what we believe in.

Chaiet: You gave testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 24, 2004 and you made comments regarding Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from the settlements. You said it was going to be almost a complete withdrawal and that it was a revolutionary opportunity for change. You also said you did not want this opportunity to be missed and that it was necessary for the Palestinian to accept responsibility for their actions. They must finally stop being victims and stop calling themselves victims. You went further and said that you wanted both the Palestinians and the EU to put money and massive effort to bring about change. You called for the President of Egypt to put direct pressure on Arafat. You warned, “ don’t play games and lose you chance a second time.” You were very determined in you presentation and if everyone rallies to what you said you would have your resolve.

Ross: The Egyptians are in fact making a good effort. Their efforts are right now unprecedented. They are playing the role we have always played. We have now been passive. They are the ones trying to reassure the Israelis on withdrawal. They are trying to prevent smuggling. They are the ones trying to reorganize the Palestinian Security Forces and come up with a pan for monitoring them and making sure they are doing what they are suppose to be doing. They are the ones trying to broker between Israel and the Palestinians because there has to be some kind of hand off when Israel gets out. So in fact Egypt is playing a major role in this area.

I would like to see the Europeans be much more public. The Palestinian public looks to who are their friends. The Europeans are basically supportive of the Palestinians. So I would like to see the EU publicly embracing the Reformers ideas, publicly saying that if Arafat continues speaking for the Palestinians the EU will not be providing support. I would like to see the Europeans establish what they expect from the Palestinians once the Israelis get out. This would affect the mood on the street. It would provide a greater international pressure for Arafat not to resist

Chaiet: Let us end our discussion on perhaps a lighter note. You say that you were invited to discuss something at Arafat’s house. When you went in there were Revolutionary posters on the wall of Arafat as a young man. Arafat is now an old man. You say he was watching on television of all things The Golden Girls, which is written and produced by Jewish media persons. It is Jewish humor. What did you think of his selection of TV shows?

Ross: There are incongruities in life, like walking into what is suppose to be a Revolutionary Headquarters for an emerging political movement and seeing Arafat now older watching The Golden Girls. One thinks, what kind of revolutionary hang out is this?

Chaiet: I suppose it shows the human side. May make people realize that these are just people not only the heads of evil empires as they are portrayed in the news and by some of their actions. Both sides in this controversy have known each other for many many years and in your book you display photos where they look much more like close friends than enemies. They often look like a bunch of pals.

Ross: The negotiations particularly between the Israeli and Palestinian people would surprise many. They are not people that hate each other and in fact there is a kind of almost familiar feelings to the meetings. So the truth is they are neighbors. If we could have exposed that picture where they actually get along at a personal level??

Chaiet: What sort of time-frame are you anticipating for progress in the Middle East? Do you think you will be able to maintain the American attention span for the amount of time needed? I thought you book appeared to be trying to tell the American people that progress is being made and that it was not all negative. You seem to be saying that it will be a long task but we should stay until Democracy and Freedom are in place.

Ross: I think again we don’t have a choice. We cannot be indifferent to what goes on over there because it will touch us. We cannot stand aloof and think it will never affect us. 9/11 transformed that reality. So we can’t be indifferent we have an interest. We have to express our interest and do what we can. I am not without the belief that we can make a difference, we can.

Chaiet:I think we can too. Shimon Peres has always been a person of primary interest to me. I have read his books and although he does have a very expansive plan for the Middle East development and he is very idealistic, he is right.

Initially you said that you felt that his plans to transform the Middle East were grandiose.

Ross: Right

Chaiet: But when one looks at what you have put forth you really have absorbed a lot of what he has said.

Ross: I think that in many ways he is more right than wrong.

Chaiet: I agree I say this because America could well be accused of having in its history may grandiose plans but we have always managed to make changes for the better. We have accomplished more than most by being dreamers that could transform the dreams into practical reality. I do not think that I would want you or anyone to ignore vision because it appeared initially too grandiose. Dreams are the Future.

Ross: I am more persuaded that you do have to have the grandiose even while you have to have an eye on what can be done today.

Chaiet: Thank you for your time

Ross: It was a pleasure.


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