Politics & Policy

Rewinding Ross

In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, former U.S. Mideast special envoy Dennis Ross revealed longstanding reservations about the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” The article was a critique of the “road map” that is supposed to guide future negotiations and was largely ignored — maybe because of the Israeli election. Now that the voting is over, it deserves attention.

Ross admits, “At no time during the Oslo process were those who carried out acts of terror against Israelis treated as enemies of the cause by the Palestinian leadership. The road map, like Oslo before it, makes no effort to de-legitimize terror and violence.” The very least that Israelis should have been able to expect from a “peace process” was a cessation of Palestinian terrorism. But Ross now acknowledges that throughout nine years of negotiations no attempt was made to achieve even this minimum level of security.

The problem, of course, is that Ross, more than anyone else, was responsible for the conduct of the Oslo negotiations from beginning to end. While a diplomat, Ross never indicated any doubt that the successful conclusion of the Oslo process would lead to peace. Only after leaving government has he suggested that Oslo was badly flawed.

Ross explains away this inconsistency by insisting that before the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 he believed that the “peace process” was making progress, because Yasser Arafat and the PLO had made a real commitment to ending the conflict with Israel. In the July-August 2002 edition of Foreign Policy, he wrote, “Through the Oslo peace process everybody involved — Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, Egyptians, Saudis, and other Arab leaders — shared the belief that Arafat wanted peace with Israel. It seemed logical. After all, Arafat had crossed the threshold and recognized Israel, incurring the wrath of secular and religious rejectionists.”

Before Camp David, Ross argued, it was possible to account for Arafat’s obstinacy: “Although Arafat held out to the last possible moment and strived for the best possible deal, he eventually made the compromises necessary to reach . . . interim agreements.”

Elsewhere, however, Ross had already hinted at severe doubts about Arafat’s desire for peace much earlier in the Oslo process. Almost a year earlier, in a letter to the New York Review of Books in September 2001, he described Arafat’s negotiating style in much harsher terms: “His style was to respond, not [to] initiate ideas. If [this] was only a tactic, it should have stopped when serious ideas or package proposals were put on the table. Whether the Israelis put a generous offer on the table is not the issue. The issue is, did Yasser Arafat respond at any point — not only at Camp David — to possibilities to end this conflict when they presented themselves.”

Along the same lines, in the very same Foreign Policy article in which he professed to have believed right up until Camp David that Arafat wanted peace, Ross also wrote, “Every agreement he made was limited and contained nothing he regarded as irrevocable. He was not, in his eyes, required to surrender any claims. . . . During the Oslo peace process, he never prepared his public for compromise. Instead, he led the Palestinians to believe the peace process would produce everything that they ever wanted — and he implicitly suggested a return to armed struggle if negotiations fell short of those unattainable goals. Even in good times, Arafat spoke to Palestinian groups about how the struggle, the jihad, would lead them to Jerusalem.”

In the same article, Ross discussed Arafat’s failure to comply with existing agreements — mainly by failing to control Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians throughout the Oslo process. “Notwithstanding his commitment to renounce violence, he has never relinquished the terror card.” Ross also explicitly acknowledged that Arafat was completely capable of stopping terrorist attacks against Israel. He argued that Arafat had demonstrated this ability in the past — “notably in 1996 when he cracked down on Hamas and also in the first year of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s administration, when Israel, for the first time in its history, had a year in which it did not suffer a single fatality from terror.”

And, perhaps most damning of all: “Whether one thinks . . . Arafat directs the violence or simply acquiesces to it, the unmistakable fact is that he made no serious or sustained effort to stop the violence.”

What was the Clinton administration’s reaction to all this? According to a Washington Post op-ed by Ross, “The prudential issues of compliance were neglected and politicized by the Americans in favor of keeping the peace process afloat. . . . Every time there was a behavior, or an incident, or an event that was inconsistent with what the peace process was about, the impulse was to rationalize it, finesse it, find a way around it, and not allow it to break the process.”

Knowing what the Americans already knew about Arafat’s unwillingness to conclude a conflict-ending treaty with Israel, and with bombs going off in Israel’s streets, what was the point of the frenzied diplomacy to negotiate a peace treaty in Bill Clinton’s last days in office? Clinton was more interested in his image of a peacemaker than actual peace, and it is likely that he expected the “peace process” to collapse. He probably made the calculation that he would get credit for a peace treaty signed under his watch, whereas blame for the eventual collapse of the peace process would be assigned to the president then in office.

Diplomats like Ross, in theory, only implement the policies of their political superiors. But if Ross had the doubts that he is now expressing about Oslo while he was Clinton’s envoy, he had a duty to act on them. Ross probably had enough influence to get the Clinton administration to change course; but even if he didn’t, he had a moral responsibility to resign, and maybe even publicly to articulate the reasons for his resignation.

When he published his memoirs, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was widely criticized for not speaking out against American intervention in Vietnam while he was still in office. By going public with his misgivings, McNamara could have forced the Johnson administration to withdraw immediately, saving the lives of soldiers and civilians who subsequently died in that war.

The same could be said for Ross. The people of the Middle East, particularly Israelis, have paid dearly for the “peace process.” The creation of the Palestinian Authority, really the single tangible product of Oslo, has only provided a safe haven for the planning and execution of suicide bombing — a form of warfare that the Palestinians never employed before Oslo. Oslo’s provisions for the arming of a Palestinian “police force” were used to assemble what amounts to a Palestinian army that has already engaged Israelis in fighting, and may have an important role in any larger war. Ross’s newfound candor cannot compensate for any of this.

— Martin Krossel is a freelance political journalist living in New York. Sandi Rosenbaum assisted him in the preparation of the article.


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