By Tzvi Fleischer
The Review spoke to Ambassador Dennis Ross in May 2001, a bare six months after he was a central player in the US Clinton Administration’s last-ditch attempt to create an Israeli-Palestinian peace in December 2000. At the time, he remained the unflappable diplomat’s diplomat, controlled and punctilious in speech. But amid the carefully parsed phrases he was also clearly developing and exploring in his own mind what went wrong in the 12 years of efforts which he devoted to Middle East peacemaking on behalf of two American administrations.
Dennis Ross: Still passionate about peacemaking
Ross was later to publish many of his conclusions in his groundbreaking memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, which remains the best overall work on the history of the Oslo peace process available to this day. He also told us that he believed the time had passed for the sort of major plans for conflict resolution that Clinton had attempted in his last year, and “management and defusing the conflict” were the order of the day. But he did say he thought the conflict was resolvable within a decade.
The Review met Ross again during his March visit to Australia, six years into that decade. Carefully spoken as ever, it was plain his passion for Middle East peacemaking had not diminished.
A hint of irritation showed through as he gently excoriated his State Department successors for, in his opinion, not making intense enough efforts in the Middle East. He said, “Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], whose intentions, I think, are for peace, is far less capable of making it than he might have been two years ago. If you were going to pick a time for the US to get involved, right after Arafat died, when Abu Mazen was elected on a platform of non-violence which was absolutely unprecedented in the history of the Palestinian movement, that would have been a time where a much greater investment of effort and resources of the US would have promised to produce a lasting outcome. I think it has been a mistake to say that we shouldn’t be involved, I think it’s been a mistake to walk away from the process.”
Ross was keen to move beyond his call for greater direct American engagement to advice about what the diplomatic goals should be. He maintains his scepticism about big final status initiatives, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent effort to build a “political horizon”, an outline of the parameters for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“I am glad the Secretary of State wants to get involved,” he said, “but I think the critical question is going to be, will she shape her involvement around an objective that is achievable or will she shape her involvement around an objective that is not achievable? That is the critical question.”
He went on to say the “political horizon” path is “difficult” because of “the weakness on the Palestinian side and because of the low approval rating on the Israeli government side… You can’t ask a government that doesn’t have a strong political base to make existential concessions.”
He backs up this pessimism with a detailed analysis of the current state of Israeli and Palestinian politics; “If you build your objectives around a political horizon…you are doing it in a context where the Hamas part of the Palestinian leadership will reject it and Abu Mazen, at this point, hasn’t demonstrated that he is prepared to impose anything on Hamas. If you look at the Mecca deal…all the concessions were made by Abu Mazen, not Hamas. Compare this deal to September, when he announced he had reached a deal with [Hamas PM] Ismail Haniyeh. At that time the Palestinian government was going to be led by technicians, not Hamas members. Today the government is supposed to be led by a Hamas prime minister. All the social welfare labour ministries are led by Hamas…
“Point two, the conditions of the Quartet: at least in September, there was more of an effort to acknowledge some sort of recognition of those conditions, maybe [with] some ambiguity. But today there is no ambiguity. Hamas does not recognise Israel and said so immediately after the Mecca deal. Hamas does not renounce violence and the only thing they have said is that they would honour previous agreements. I said ‘honour previous agreements’. I did not say ‘honour previous Israel-PLO agreements’. There is no modifier there… They can choose or decide which ones they accept or not accept, which ones they honour or which ones they do not… All the concessions were made on one side. So if you now focus on a political horizon the problem is that on the Palestinian side you have, at best, a division.
“On the Israeli side you have a government that may want to do something and I think that is the meaning of Prime Minister Olmert saying he is looking forward to a meeting of the Arab League at the end of the month and I am wanting to see them adopt the positive elements of the Saudi initiative. But that is still a far cry from dealing with a political horizon. A political horizon,…at least as defined by the Secretary of State, means accepting the principles of the contour of a permanent status deal, meaning you are accepting the core compromises.”
He then put forward his preferred alternative to such efforts:
“I think that a much more achievable goal is one where you pursue a genuine comprehensive ceasefire between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Because, in a sense, that reflects what may be a common interest on both sides. Israelis certainly want that and the Palestinians want to be able to breathe again economically.”
Neither Abbas nor Olmert are in a positon to make concessions at the moment
This, he explains, means something more than the recent hudnas, which were far from comprehensive and allowed large-scale weapons build-ups. “When I talk about a comprehensive ceasefire I mean no attacks against Israelis anywhere. I mean no smuggling of weapons, no bomb-making labs… Because if there are bomb-making labs or they are building infrastructure for attacks, Israel won’t sit back and wait to be hit. That is why it’s something that has to be understood, you have to spell it out. It’s not a slogan. You will have to negotiate it. It will have to be very finely spelt out, what it is and what it isn’t. In return, the Israelis don’t carry out intrusions, so you won’t see them go into Nablus. They don’t make arrests and they don’t do targeted killings.”
Ross insists this is potentially feasible because of the interests of the parties. “I didn’t say it is likely. [But] it is possible because Hamas has such an interest in this. Fatah would have an interest in this. The Israelis would have an interest in this… I can assure you Hamas would like to have the pressure taken off them…
“Hamas has a view of itself, of Palestinian society and of Fatah. And Hamas…will out-compete Fatah. They are better organised. They will actually produce programs. Fatah is corrupt. Fatah is divided amongst itself and so from their standpoint, a) they could use the respite [and] b) they think they will be able to take advantage of it… If Hamas wanted to enforce a ceasefire, they would be capable of doing so. A combination of Hamas and Fatah determined to enforce a ceasefire…could do so.
“…Hamas has never made an effort to enforce a cease fire because Hamas has never been prepared to give up the concept of resistance. I am saying if they have an interest in creating calm, they don’t get to do it on the cheap. In the past, in 2003 and 2005 they observed it but they didn’t enforce it and their own members were in Popular Resistance Committees carrying out attacks or trying to carry out attacks. And when there were attacks carried out, they rationalised them, they supported them. That is not what I am talking about. I am talking about negotiating a comprehensive ceasefire. You do it between Olmert and Abu Mazen. Hamas would be a party to it but by being a party to it means they are not just obligated [to observe it] they have to enforce it. Maybe it is also not achievable, but to my mind it is a better bet to do that and change the day-to-day reality.”
Ross returned to the subject of political horizons. “Even if you had a political horizon,” he said, “I am not sure that the Palestinians would take it very seriously. Part of the rationale for pursuing it is because we want to build Palestinian moderates by showing that the Palestinian moderates can produce a future… [But] if their day-to-day reality remains a very difficult one where they can’t move, where their economy is frozen and they are promised something at the end of the rainbow…a lot of Palestinians are going to say, ‘gee, why should we believe that?’ So even if you are serious about a political horizon, you have got to do something to change the day-to-day reality. The day-to-day reality isn’t going to change unless you have something like a comprehensive ceasefire. Why did [Israel] go into Nablus last week? Because they had a number of threat alerts. If you are pursuing a political horizon and the Israelis suddenly get a number of threat alerts about suicide bombers coming into Israel, guess what is going to happen? They are going to go after the suicide bombers and immediately that is going to bring out a response that says, ‘you see, they don’t want the political horizon.’ So you have to do something that creates and affects the day-to-day.”
When I ask Ross whether such a comprehensive ceasefire is feasible, given the state of Palestinian society, where armed gangs seem increasingly independent of control, he concedes the difficulty but argues that an effort is nonetheless essential. “Is it going to be hard to do this, is there…a breakdown of authority and order on the Palestinian side? Absolutely. And the longer you delay trying to change that reality, the harder it will become over time. Do you think we are better off today than we were six months ago trying to deal with this? What will we be like six months from now? The breakdown and disorder is only getting worse. So it is not a question of the difficulty… I am suggesting it will get harder, not easier, unless you make an effort now.”
Ross does go out of his way to stress that he does see another route for moving forward to longer-term peacemaking, beyond his comprehensive ceasefire plan. He says the Arab League’s revival of the Saudi plan may have the potential to provide political cover for the parties to talk about final status issues. But he says it will require Arab League readiness to modify past positions and reach out.
He argues, “If you want to go to the real political horizon, you can do it but what it requires is the Arab world to create an umbrella, a cover for Abu Mazen and an argument for Ehud Olmert. The cover for Abu Mazen is that if the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Tunisians and the other Gulf states all say: ‘We accept, as an example, there will be a right of return to [the Palestinian] state but not to Israel. We accept that a deal is going to require that.’ If they are prepared to say that, then Abu Mazen can say, ‘I haven’t made a concession, their leaders have made the concession.’ Now that gives him a cover. Now in Olmert’s case, if suddenly there is this historic transformation in the Arab world, perhaps because of their concerns about Iran… [If] they are prepared to…say ‘we accept there is not going to be a right of return for passing refugees to Israel’…that puts Olmert in a position to go to the Israeli Government and say ‘something has changed dramatically in the Arab world. By saying this, they are accepting a compromise that goes to the heart of what it takes to produce an agreement, and if they are prepared to accept that kind of compromise, we have to find a way to respond.’ That is what I mean. They give him an argument. What is his argument today? Is he going to make core concessions to Palestinians at a time when Hamas leads the government and rejects them? Is he going to make core concessions just on the basis of what the Arab world is doing right now? Not at this point.”
Ross urged the US to explore whether such Arab efforts are feasible, arguing, “if the US wants to make an effort, the effort needs to be focused on quietly ensuring that Arab leaders are going to embrace publicly…unmistakeable commitments that are not vague. For example, if what emerges from this Arab League meeting at the end of the month is a new commitment to the Saudi initiative but that the Saudi initiative when it comes to refugees is still ‘a just resolution to the refugee problem,’ that doesn’t do anything, it doesn’t say anything… If you want to produce a horizon then you are actually going to have to produce something concrete from the Arabs on core issues.”
The conversation moved to the effectiveness of US policy in stopping the Iranian nuclear program. “The Administration’s position is they don’t want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. That is their position and they are working through a diplomatic process of the Security Council. That is a very gradual process. The critical question to ask is; ‘is the pace of the Security Council keeping up with the pace of the Iranian nuclear development?’ And the answer at this point is, no. So if you stay on the current track we are going to have an Iran with nuclear weapons.
“Now it doesn’t mean that you can’t change that track. We have already seen signs of dissent among the Iranian leadership. They’re acutely aware of their own economic vulnerabilities and given that awareness, you can translate those vulnerabilities, I think, into changed behaviour. But it’s going to have to operate on a more intensive effort to raise the cost to the Iranians than has been the case so far. For all those who don’t want to see force used against Iran, they need to understand that the likelihood of force being used goes down the more they squeeze the Iranians economically. The more they squeeze the Iranians economically, the more likely we are to see the debates formed within Iran transform from discussion into changed behaviour. At this juncture we have the potential for a change in Iranian behaviour but it is not being translated. If you want it translated you have to play upon their sense of the economic cost, which they don’t want to pay.
“A couple of years ago the then German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer saw Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. And Khamenei said to him, ‘you in the West will never be prepared to pay $140 for a barrel of oil.’ The implication was, ‘you are not prepared to absorb the price we know you really want to impose on us.’ But the implication also was ‘if you were, we [Iranians] would have to think differently.’
“I would suggest to you that you do not even have to do an oil and gas embargo on Iran to affect their behaviour. They have profound economic problems – high inflation, high unemployment, their stock market has basically plummeted. Thay have to import 40% of their gasoline because they don’t have refinery capacity.
“They need to generate high revenues to preserve social peace because they subsidise most of the economy. And yet it is harder and harder for them to generate the revenues, notwithstanding the high oil prices, because their own oil production is dropping.
“Their oil production is dropping and their consumption internally is going up, which means they have less revenues available. They’ve had very high oil prices and yet they are having a problem. So the point is, [you need to] find ways to cut them off from the international financial system. If the Europeans, as an example, won’t provide $18 billion in loan guarantees a year to their companies doing business with Iran, [this sends] a message to the Iranian leadership that is focusing on this, and it’s not Ahmadinejad, it is other parts of the leadership, but they include Ali Khamenei. And then you could change Iranian behaviour. But we are not on a track right now that promises to do it. It has the potential to do it, but we just have to do better what we are doing.”
The above is based on an interview with Ambassador Ross in Melbourne on March 13, 2007, which included other journalists as well as the representatives of the Australia/Israel Review.