TP's Pamela Chaiet Talks with Ambassador Dennnis Ross
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December 2006

Pamela Chaiet and Dennis Ross discuss the changing face of Middle East Politics

Ambassador Dennis Ross is a scholar and diplomat who has worked closely with Secretaries of State James Baker, Warren Christopher and Madeline Albright. Ambassador Ross was point man for the peace process in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He brokered the Hebron Accord in 1997 and facilitated the Israeli-Jordan peace treaty. He served as director of Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan Administration, and as deputy director of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment. In 2004 he authored the popular book THE MISSING PEACE, The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. He is presently a distinguished fellow and counselor for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Chaiet: Thank you for speaking with me again. So much has happened since we last met. Many of the events that have transpired could bring about significant changes in the politics of the Middle East. Hamas has been elected to govern the Palestinian People, Iran is threatening the use of Nuclear weapons, Russia is vying for a larger more pronounced authority in the region and Iraq is struggling with its establishment of Democratic rule and the avoidance of a civil war. Everything is in turmoil and changing rapidly.

Is this the right time for Secretary Rice to be touring the Middle East promoting support for and adherence to the Road Map? Her visit to Egypt, in my view did did not go as well as might have been expected. Rice appeared to be talking to herself.

Ross: This is the best time to negotiate if you are trying to work out a coordinated strategy before everyone shapes what their positions are going to be. The question is going to be how open are those she is taking to, to the position she is trying to convince them to take.

It is clear the Egyptians are not on the same page. The Egyptians want there to be some power sharing deal between Hamas and Fatah. The Bush Administration would look on a power sharing deal as legitimizing Hamas, allowing them to pursue their own agenda and to escape making decisions they should have to make. It would be wise to attempt to work out a more consistent approach between The United States and Egypt.

Regarding the involvement of the Saudis and the UAE, if the Islamic charities are allowed to finance Hamas, Hamas will pursue its own agenda and not have to make choices. So I think the timing is actually good. I would not find fault with the timing of Secretary Rice's visit. I think the real question is going to be how responsive are the people she is talking to, to the message she is conveying, and how solidly will the Quartet, as an example, stand together on how to deal with Hamas. The fact that you have an agreed upon statement released by the Quartet and then to have Russia announce that they are going to see Hamas independently arouses some concern about how solid is the Quartet in terms of what gets done.

Chaiet: The Egyptian President said to Secretary Rice, "Give Hamas a chance", Then on the side he said, "don't worry Hamas will come around and accept Israel". Does this mean that Hamas's victory in Palestine should have been seen as a benefit for Israel?

Ross: I don't

Chaiet: You don't?

Ross: I think Hamas has no interest in recognizing Israel. I don't think Hamas is inclined to change who it is at all. I think there may be fissures within Hamas that know they have to face the responsibilities and realities of governing. It is not so easy to maintain your purity when you actually face real dilemmas and choices. The core of Hamas is not inclined to compromise at all.

I read last night an interview by Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas leader from Damascus, who said," yes we are in favor of a "hunta" meaning a truce, yet he describes it as the equivalent of the hunta that existed between 1948-1967. Now there may not have been a war all the time but there was terror all the time. The Fatahian groups were continually terrorizing Israel, so if this is what he describes as a truce, if that is the model then a) they are not giving up on the idea of rejecting Israel, and b), their definition of "truce" certainly is not going to be an Israeli definition of truce.

Chaiet: Does long-term truce really mean just bidding time for Hamas to collect itself and get established, to find alternative funding sources and then become even more of an aggressor against Israel. Do you agree?

Ross: I do.

Chaiet: Now I would like to turn to the question of the leadership ability of President Mahmoud Abbas. We portray him as the best conduit for negotiations with the West. Yet he appears to be a very weak and ineffective leader. He has never established freedom for the Palestinians nor put a viable government in order. His government is totally corrupt and he vacillates constantly in his position regarding Hamas.

His original intentions were to: 1. Collect the military into one unit under the central government control. 2. Promote religious pluralism. 3. Revive peace negotiations with Israel.

He has accomplished none of these and Hamas has none of these policies on its political agenda. Is there no one else to work with? Following the road with Abbas appears to be a dead end. Are we wasting our time? However, he says that he is in favor of a quick return to the U.S. backed "road map."

Ross: He is the President of the Palestinian Authority. He is the only one elected and that is the sole reason we talk to him. You don't have any other legitimate Palestinian leader that you can talk to.

You may want to have ties with Palestinians that are not officially part of the political establishment. You may want to have ties to private sector people. You may want to create links of that sort. Right now Israel has not made that decision.

Chaiet: Is Israel thinking of doing this?

Ross: I don't know.

Chaiet: Abbas as President has certain political powers. He can fire the Prime Minister. He can disband the Cabinet. He does not have the authority to dismantle the Parliament. Do you foresee him using his Presidential powers to control Hamas or fashion a moderate Parliament?

Ross: I don't. He can't confront Hamas directly given Hamas's strength. I think Abbas's position will be to give Hamas full responsibility and let them fail. This approach is one of passivity, where you let something happen and then in effect hope for the best.

Chaiet: Does the rest of the Arab world really want Hamas to fail?

Ross: I don't think they are thrilled about Hamas's success. Hamas strengthens The Islamic influence and the Islamists are a threat to most of the other Regimes.

The question is how prepared are they to confront them and that is an open question.

Chaiet: Israel does have some important governing powers that can directly affect Hamas's ability to govern. Israel has economic control, water control and control over Palestinian electricity. Does Israel use these powers to its best advantage?

Hamas needs money. They have been getting aid from the EU of $600 Million and the United States has been supplying them another $70 to $150 million dollars. The Israeli tax base of $50million dollars a month pays the salaries for over half the Palestinian employees. These benefits are expected to end now that Hamas is in power. Secretary Rice is presently backing Israel's withholding of the taxes. The Unites States does not recognize Hamas as a government.

Ross: Right.

Chaiet: Why don't they use these controls to come down harder on Palestine?

Ross: Israel does not want to assume economic responsibility for the territories nor do they want to precipitate a humanitarian disaster that would force them to do something. Israel wants to strike a balance saying to Hamas, "we don't want to make it easy for you but we don't want to force a collapse".

If Hamas isn't delivering what they have promised it is thought that the Palestinian people will move in a different direction and away from them.

Chaiet: Hamas is $700 million dollars in debt. You have made it clear in your own writing that we should, "give Hamas nothing for free". Can Hamas find funding from Iran, Russia or China?

Ross: I don't know that is an unknown at this time. The Palestinian Society is pluralistic and inclined toward democracy. They voted Fatah out because it was corrupt and did not delivery anything. Hamas has told them that they can produce order out of chaos and provide them with a better life. If they cannot do this and fail on all these counts they will try to gain control of all institutions of power and rule out any subsequent elections. Will they continue to deliver democracy in some fashion is unknown at this point. Yet it is thought that if they do fail the public will turn away from them.

Chaiet: How do you feel about the media promotion of Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas. They discuss his background in such a way as to suggest what he has done is the result of Israeli abuse. I personally feel the coverage of his biographical material was and is extremely bias against Israel.

Ross: I have not viewed the specific news clip from which you are drawing your Conclusions. I will say this. Ismail Haniyeh is a pragmatist in terms of what Hamas needs. He completely agrees with and promotes the destruction of Israel. He advances the increase of violence.

Note: Ambassador Dennis Ross wrote the day after the conversation via e-mail to the author (Pamela A. Chaiet)

I am not very hopeful these days. What is happening in Iran is very disturbing and Iran's President (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) plays on anti-Semitism and virulent anti-Israeli sentiments in the Arab world to build his following—and to play on anti-Western feelings. None of this is good and Hamas' victory is part of a wider Radical Islamic Tide. It serves no useful purpose to single out individual Palestinians at this point so I won't do that.

INTERVIEW UPDATE (additional commentary and analysis by Ambassador Dennis Ross):

"Don't blame Israel, get to the root of the problem", is the outlook that the United States and it's allies are backing. Iran and Syria are the puppet masters for Hezbollah, without their economic, military and political support there would be no Hezbollah. This terrorist organization has been used by Iran to create unrest in the Middle East and a diversion from Iran's international ultimatum that they will not stop the advancement of their nuclear weapon production efforts.

Now that Israel has been forced into a position of self defense, resulting from Hezbollah's attacking Israel on the Lebanese/Israel border and kidnapping Israeli military personnel, Israel wants to complete the task of crippling or destroying Hezbollah. Israel is demanding the creation of a "New reality" on the ground. The United States supports Israel's right to take what time is needed to get the job done. Ambassador Dennis Ross of The Washington Institute effectively sums up the problem when he says," No one wants a ceasefire with the seeds of it's own destruction.". Ross says the Arab viewpoint has been "no occupation no violence" and "if Israel gives up land there will be peace". However, this has not proven to be the case. Israel has given up land and entered into many border agreements in the past. Israel has abided by the rules set down through international negotiation. Yet, time and again, Hezbollah and Hamas have broken these agreements. Other border agreements such as UN Resolution 1559 were never completely or effectively implemented. When Israel has relinquished land they have gotten violence.

July 25, 2006 saw Hezbollah firing 65 rockets into Israeli territory. Olmert says "Israel will take severe measures to defend itself from Hezbollah.". The International Community fears this conflict will escalate. England's Prime Minister Tony Blair one of several leaders has called for a meeting in Rome to broker a diplomatic solution for long-term peace. Ambassador Ross indicates that there will be no end, to long-term fighting until the surrounding Arab nations and international organizations such as NATO create an umbrella for Lebanon and "box in Hezbollah". He feels the developing Saudi Arabia peace plan if presented as an effort to save Lebanon and not as a plan to assist Israel might succeed in attracting other Arab states that do not relish Hezbollah dominating the Middle East political arena. Dennis Ross who brokered the 1996 Middle East Cease Fire stated without hesitation that any multinational forces utilized to monitor the border and provide a buffer between Israel and Lebanon should not be under the administration of the United Nations, which in his view has no credibility as being an effective peacekeeper. He feels that both Lebanon and Israel want to live in peace and that it is the terrorists organizations sponsored by Iran and Syria that are working to prevent this.

Hezbollah continues to call for the total destruction of Israel and Iran's President declares he wants to wipe the state of Israel off the face of the earth. Presently both sides are using violence to advance their cause but all know that eventually a military plan must be interwoven with a political plan to bring resolve and peace to the region. Ambassador Ross continues to meet with Middle East leadership to affect this end.


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