The Very Long, Very Hard Road to Middle East Peace
Review by Robert Chira
The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. By Dennis Ross. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. Pp 840. $35 hardcover)
“One puts this book down with the feeling that the title should have been “The Missing Leaders” rather than “The Missing Peace.” What seemed to be lacking in the twelve years of negotiation that Ross was an integral part of were leaders on both sides who felt able to make the difficult decisions and then convince their peoples of the need for compromise.”
This 800-plus page book in small print presents in overwhelming detail the multitude of negotiations from 1988 to 2000 between Israel and its neighbors, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians, and the extraordinary efforts made by the parties to reach a final peace. Its author, Dennis Ross, was the central U.S. State Department negotiator under both the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, having come to know Bush when he was Vice President under Ronald Reagan with the task of briefing him on his first official trip to the Middle East. Later, as president, Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, retained Ross as the main staff level U.S. negotiator. When Clinton assumed office, Ross was by then so knowledgeable about the issues and history of past efforts to reach agreement, and so sufficiently respected by the principal leaders in the Middle East that he was asked to stay on in the new administration as the prime U.S. interlocutor. Although working for Clinton’s two Secretaries of State (Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright) Ross was the one who usually met with those principal leaders and he was the one who communicated their positions to each other and made suggestions on how to reach common ground. When matters reached a serious enough stage with major agreements within sight, Ross would brief the Secretary or President and also act as their principal adviser on how to proceed. Ross left his unique and powerful staff position at the end of the Clinton administration, some four years ago. His account of the negotiations until that point is essential reading for any future negotiators to know what had already transpired. By reading it in all its detail, one can also appreciate the complexity of the unresolved issues, the differences in approach and outlook of the parties, and how difficult it has been for them to reach even minimal agreements. This book may also be useful should future negotiations take place between the parties although much has changed in the last four years to undermine the basic framework that was central to the prior twelve ones.
Ross apparently kept copious notes of nearly every meeting, telephone call and event of which he was a part. Hence, this book purports to present the exact words and positions of the parties throughout the many years of negotiations. Indeed, at times, he is able to consult his detailed notebooks and inform the principals of exactly what they had said in any past meeting or telephone call. As Ross recounts those events in excruciating detail, we see that the negotiations were endless and repetitive, that whatever was tentatively agreed upon would usually be re-negotiated later on in the same meeting or at the next one. None of the parties stuck to their positions; instead they repeatedly haggled for more or raised new issues that torpedoed prior understandings.
As an American Jew who became somewhat observant as an adult, and as someone raised with a deep understanding of Israel’s history and significance, Ross has an instinctive feel for Israel’s basic outlook and needs. In an introductory chapter he outlines both its underlying needs and that of the Palestinians. For the Israelis, Ross notes that any and every agreement had to assure it of security from attack by its neighbors and put an end to the violence inflicted by terrorists upon its citizens. Unless it promoted such security, no proposal would meet its essential need. Every major act of violence against its citizens frustrated its then current leader’s ability to make concessions toward a peace deal. Also frustrating to its leaders was the hard line view of the Israeli settlers who had moved to the West Bank and Gaza (with major subsidies, encouragement and support of each Israeli government since Israel gained such areas following the 1967 Six Day War). These settlers did not want to give up any of their homes in any final deal with the Palestinians, although no deal would be possible without a major retreat by them back to Israel proper or areas annexed by it as part of the final agreement. The settlers, constituting some 400,000 people depending on how they are defined and counted, are a small fraction, indeed less than 10 per cent, of the entire Israeli population. However, as Ross notes, they have exercised a disproportionate influence on the negotiating process, threatening each Israeli leader with a crisis to his fragile coalition government should any significant concession in territory in the West Bank or Gaza be made to the Palestinians.
Ross has spent enough time with Arabs and in the Middle East to also have a basic understanding of their outlook and how they view Israel but he has much less of a feel for how they think and behave. He was, however, mainly respected by the Arab leaders as a fair interlocutor with the Israelis. In his analysis of the essential Palestinian outlook, Ross notes that for them and many other Arabs, Israel is an outsider, not a nation indigenous to the neighborhood and populated by long standing peoples from the area. Rather, as Ross notes, many Arabs still view Israel as a foreign entity primarily populated (or at least initially) by European Jews who had to flee from the Holocaust and pogroms of Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. As Semites themselves they are not anti-Semitic, but many do not accept Israel and reject its presence on the very lands they consider their own. Most Arabs view the problem of anti-Semitism as European in origin and not part of their history. For them, many Jews lived for hundreds of years in the Ottoman Empire and Arab lands peacefully before 1948 when Israel became a state and for some they are welcome to remain but as citizens of an Arab state. However, for those persecuted Jews, their only refuge was to come to Palestine where they purchased and settled on Arab lands; then, mostly as a result of wars, Israel enlarged its initial territory at the expense of Arabs and Palestinians, displacing hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, of the original inhabitants in the process. Thus, for nearly all Palestinians, the return of their lands and the rights of their refugees to return to them are prime requirements of any final peace deal. However, they also know that to reach a peace with their more powerful Israeli neighbor, backed as it is by the might of the United States, they will have to settle for only a partial return of some of their lands, that is the West Bank and Gaza and not Israel proper. They also realize that they must make a significant compromise to any right of their refugees to return to what is now the state of Israel. As Ross describes the parties’ differences in outlook, the central premise of any final peace for Israel is security, while for the Palestinians it is justice, as to their right to land that was theirs and which they believe has been taken from them through no fault of their own.
Ross comes down hard on Yasir Arafat for the Palestinians and blames him for the missing peace. Ross plainly believes Arafat should have accepted the final proposals made by President Clinton in December 2000, not ask for more clarification and negotiation with the Israelis of any of the points being presented since time was running out for Clinton to try to close a deal with both sides. The Israelis had already signaled their acceptance in principle to those proposals with some reservations, but Arafat wanted a further meeting with them to go over his concerns and need for clarification which was impossible in the circumstances.
While blaming Arafat, a close reading of the book reveals that there is plenty of blame to go around on the Israeli side for the missing peace. Throughout the twelve-year period of negotiations, its leaders (Yitzhak Shamir, 1986-92; Yitzhak Rabin, 1992-95; Shimon Peres, 1995-96; Benjamin Netanyahu, 1996-99; and Ehud Barak, 1999-2001) could never come to agreement with the Palestinians without endless bargaining and changes of position. Then, when finally one leader reached an agreement, a subsequent one would not live up to the deal made, even if in writing, by his predecessor. For example, this was the fate of the interim accords of 1995 that followed the 1993 Oslo Accords. Under the Oslo deal, Israel was supposed to withdraw its military forces in phases from parts of the West Bank and Gaza and turn over sovereignty to the Palestinian Authority headed by Arafat in a measured but progressively larger area. By the end of a five year phased withdrawal process a degree of mutual trust was supposed to have been created so that the parties could complete their accord by negotiating the permanent and final status issues governing territory, refugees, Jerusalem and security. Although agreed to by Rabin and then Peres of the Labor Party, those interim accords were not adhered to on time or in full by their successor as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Instead, he tried to placate his right wing Likud Party coalition ministers by delaying the agreed upon deployments and refusing to withdraw Israeli forces from all but a small portion of the agreed upon amount of territory. Netanyahu claimed, with some justification, that the Palestinians had not lived up to their part of the deal since they had not controlled terrorist acts by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other fundamentalist militants opposed to the Oslo agreements and any peace with Israel. Without such security, Netanyahu would not further transfer the agreed upon areas to the Palestinian Authority. The interim agreements were also undermined by Netanyahu and his Labor Party successor, Ehud Barak, who insisted that the parties move to the final status issues instead of implementing the interim accords. Those final status issues posed even more difficulties for the parties to come to agreement on and a few weeks after Clinton left office the Barak government was replaced by Ariel Sharon and his Likud Party. Sharon’s government promptly dismissed the entire Oslo process and formula of trading land for peace and security and it collapsed along with the interim accords.
In addition to seeing Arafat as the main culprit for the lack of a final peace deal with the Palestinians, Ross also blames Syria’s president, Hafez al-Asad for the missing peace Israel sought with Syria. But again, a close reading of what transpired shows Israeli leaders also to blame for going back on what had previously agreed to and for not sticking to the most basic Syrian requirement for a deal, i.e., that Israel give up all of the territory it occupied in the 1967 War so that Syria’s borders would be fully restored.
Only the peace deal between Jordan and Israel went smoothly, but there was little at stake between those parties. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had long since given up hope of controlling the Palestinians who inhabited the West Bank. That area is situated between Israel’s borders on June 4, 1967, the day before the war broke out, and the international border of Jordan. All Israel wanted from Jordan was the right to place some of its troops along a thin line next to Jordan’s border in the Jordan Valley; since this intruded on only the potential claims of the Palestinians to all of the West Bank it was agreeable to Jordan. In return, Jordan was promised some stay in the final agreements reached on control over the holy sites in Jerusalem and some sharing of water supplied from rivers that flowed from outside into both nations. A separate treaty ending hostilities and establishing normal relations thus was signed by Jordan and Israel in 1994.
The Syrian problem was not solved due to endless renegotiating of basic positions by the Israelis and a failure of leadership on both sides. It remains outstanding. Syria was only interested in negotiating a final peace if it was absolutely clear that it would receive the return of all of the Syrian land Israel had occupied and which Syria had sovereignty over prior to the 1967 war. Thus, its sine qua non was Israel’s full withdrawal to the pre-June 4, 1967 lines. Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin understood that Syria would not settle for less and would not even enter into negotiations unless that was clearly understood and agreed to by Israel. The peace agreement with Egypt had restored the entire Sinai and all of Egypt’s other territory Israel had occupied after the 1967 War to Egypt as part of Israel’s peace treaty with that nation. Knowing Syria’s essential position, Rabin assured the U.S. (which kept his promise in its own pocket) that Israel would restore all of the Golan Heights and complete a full withdrawal from the other areas it occupied near the Sea of Galilee to the prewar, June 4, 1967, line. Subsequent prime ministers of Israel—after Rabin was murdered by an Israeli religious zealot for negotiating the return of any part of the West Bank to the Palestinians—would not agree to that position (nor believe that Rabin had gone so far in his talks with the United States). They believed it hindered Israel in claiming rights to the waters of the Sea of Galilee, water essential to Israel’s needs. Hence, the subsequent Israeli prime ministers tried to hedge on the border with Syria, claiming a ten-meter piece of the eastern bank of the Sea as part of Israel, a position that Syria would not accept. Hence, despite many years of negotiation between the countries and Clinton’s final meeting with Asad in Geneva in March 2000, no peace deal was made. Again, Ross blames Asad for the missing peace, but a close reading of the book shows there is also much blame to be accorded to the Israel leaders who succeeded Rabin. They tried to rescind what Rabin had promised to the United States, which was essential to any deal with Syria.
Most of this book is devoted to the endless and mind-boggling haggling between the Palestinians led by Yasir Arafat and his advisers in the Palestinian Authority on the one hand, and successive Israeli governments on the other, to reach a deal by which two states would emerge at peace with each other. Each one of these major issues went through hundreds of conversations, exchanges of position, arguments, further discussions and repetitious renegotiation (involving tens of thousands of hours). Every word of every text was similarly subjected to endless interpretation, modification, and renegotiation. But in the end there was no resolution and no final agreement made.
According to Ross, the parties’ efforts were thwarted time and time again by the violent acts against Israelis of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other religious fundamentalist Palestinian entities that refuse to accept the legitimacy of the state of Israel and have vowed to destroy it. Ross blames Arafat for riding the waves of violence instead of acting to disarm these militant groups, arrest their leaders, and create security for Israel. In addition, time and time again, efforts to reach final agreements were thwarted by either Arafat or his counterpart Israeli leader trying to renegotiate what had been previously agreed to. Every Israeli move toward granting Palestinian land or rights was offset by the Israeli leader’s fear of how their own settlers would react and how their fragile coalition governments would stay in office if such concessions were made. To offset the settlers, each Israeli government also continued to build settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, further undermining the Oslo process by which those areas were to be ruled by the Palestinians.
In the final part of the book, Ross deals with the denouement of the negotiations that he was at the center of for twelve years. This occurred at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and then at the end of the year: it centered, finally, on parameters or proposals made by President Clinton to bridge the gaps between Israel and its Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinians led by Arafat. In his final meeting with Arafat (whom Clinton apparently met with more times than with any other foreign leader in his eight years in office), held at the White House on January 2, 2001, Clinton asked Arafat to accept that the Palestinians would control not only all of Gaza (which Israel did not want and which contained only about 8,000 of its settlers), but also about ninety-four to ninety-six percent of the West Bank. Israel would annex the other approximate five percent. That portion to be annexed consisted of settlement blocks occupied by about eighty percent of the Israeli West Bank settlers. Israel would also grant the Palestinians one percent to three percent of its land as part of a swap for the settlement blocks it was annexing. If further adjustments were needed, other lands could also be leased by one or both sides. In the final analysis, the Palestinians would have one contiguous and viable territory in nearly all of the West Bank while the Israelis would be able to protect most of its settlers there. As for the remaining settlers in settlement blocks not retained by Israel, they could either continue to live in the Palestinian controlled West Bank or relocate back to Israel. Arafat did not reject this territorial compromise in this last meeting with Clinton but it is not clear whether further negotiation would have been opened by him or the Israelis or both before a final treaty was signed; their past behavior suggests that this is precisely what would have occurred.
Clinton also proposed that Israel’s security required a military presence in the Jordan Valley located in the West Bank, thus placing Israeli forces between the Palestinians and Jordan. Clinton also proposed that Israel would maintain a few ground early warning stations in the West Bank areas adjacent to Israel for a number of years, and have a right to use the airspace of the new Palestinian entity for training and operations. The emerging nation of Palestine would be a non-militarized state; hence only having police and border control forces, not an army or air force, and would be allowed to have only sufficient weapons to control its internal affairs and suppress Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other violent extremists. What Arafat did ask Clinton in that final meeting was why Israel had to have any right to the airspace of the new Palestinian territory? Since the negotiations broke off after this meeting, that issue was never resolved (although some limited right of Israel to use the space for training or to thwart an air attack might have resulted from such further negotiations).
On greater Jerusalem, Clinton proposed that the Arabs in the city be ruled by the Palestinians and the Jews by the Israelis, thus dividing the city from a legal perspective into two sovereignties, although practically it would function as one municipality with water, sewer, and other services provided by joint commissions of both sides. As for the holy sites, the Palestinians would control the Haram or Temple Mount where their sacred Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock are located and which is the area above the Wailing Wall, the holy site to Jews with its remnants from the original temple that had once stood on that site which Israel would control. However, Clinton also put forward the Israeli position that it control the rest of the Western Wall, a part that is not visible but which intrudes into the Arab area. Excavation under these holy sites would require mutual consent of both Israel and the Palestinians. To this proposal, Arafat asked Clinton why the Western Wall was included as part of Israeli sovereignty and not simply the visible Wailing Wall that forms a part of it and which apparently had been the subject of prior negotiations.
As for the rights of Palestinian refugees to return, under the Clinton proposal they would not be able to return to Israel proper (unless under Israeli law some were permitted). They could, however, return to the new state of Palestine in the West Bank and to the swapped areas of Israel to be given to the Palestinians in exchange for the settlement blocks in the West Bank retained by Israel. Arafat told Clinton he needed more of a statement of principle as to the right of return, presumably subject to certain numerical limits, and wished to negotiate directly with the Israelis about it.
Because Arafat refused to accept unconditionally each of Clinton’s proposals, and without necessarily knowing whether the Israelis would agree to them in all of their details, time ran out for Clinton to hold a summit to sign a treaty and close the deal. Ross blames Arafat for raising questions or seeking more clarifications as to the above-mentioned points, given the time frame involved, and knowing that the Barak government was facing a general election and might be defeated if it did not produce the final peace deal it had promised when assuming office. From the other 600 or more pages of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, it seems to this reader that despite Clinton’s best effort, there was no assurance either party would accept his final proposals in all of the details required by a peace treaty. Ross, however, blames Arafat for not accepting them flat out at that time, thus depriving Clinton of the chance in his remaining days in office to try to seal the deal. One should note that much of what Clinton was proposing was controversial to many Israelis, including the Likud Party in opposition to Barak’s Labor government. Indeed, a few weeks later Barak lost the election and was replaced by Likud’s Ariel Sharon. The new Israeli government immediately repudiated the Oslo Accords and rejected the Clinton proposals; indeed, upon assuming office it refused to negotiate at all with Arafat, blaming him for inciting the violence of the intilfada. This Palestinian uprising resulted soon after Sharon made a point of visiting the Temple Mount a few months earlier in September 2000 to show that he, Sharon, believed it was under Israeli sovereignty.
One puts this book down with the feeling that the title should have been “The Missing Leaders” rather than “The Missing Peace.” What seemed to be lacking in the twelve years of negotiation that Ross was an integral part of were leaders on both sides who felt able to make the difficult decisions and then convince their peoples of the need for compromise. There is no doubt in Ross’ account that had he lived Prime Minister Rabin of Israel came closest to meeting that standard. Ross believes he had the stature and ability to both make and sell a final deal to his people. Israel’s subsequent leaders, Peres, Netanyahu, and Barak, lacked Rabin’s stature as a war hero and were much weaker. Ross is critical of each of them, particularly Barak and Netanyahu, for whom he has some particularly highly critical comments. As for Arafat, Ross laments that he constantly quibbled with details and missed the larger picture presented by Clinton by which he and the Palestinian Authority would have obtained about ninety-five percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza to rule, and have sovereignty over its holy sites and a capital in East Jerusalem for an emerging Palestinian nation.
The same can be said for the missing peace with Syria; what was missing were leaders on both sides willing to make and stick to a deal. The Israeli leaders after Rabin could not agree to a full withdrawal from Syrian territory; instead, they insisted on retaining land to access to waters of the Sea of Galilee. For the Syrian leaders then and apparently now, no deal is possible unless there is such a full withdrawal. But, for their part, the Syrian leaders failed to negotiate for Israel to have rights to some of that water. A treaty with Jordan was sealed when Israel reached an accord on sharing water with it.
Finally, one puts this book down with a feeling that it is an anachronism: not only has four years passed since the last meaningful negotiations took place between Arafat and the government of Israel, but much has changed since the Sharon government took office in January 2001. Under his leadership, Israel has abandoned the “land for peace” formula of Oslo and decided instead to tackle the problem of its security needs directly rather than relying upon Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. Sharon blames Arafat for not making any real effort to lessen the Palestinian protests and Intilfada or to suppress the violence from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other terrorists. To achieve security, the Sharon government has directly assaulted these groups by the targeted killing of its leaders. It has also militarily occupied most of the Palestinian cities and town, and from time to time enters them and nearby refugee camps in sweeps to destroy weapon depots. This has resulted in much collateral damage inflicted on civilians, the confinement of Palestinians to their towns and villages and the absence of opportunity for them to work in Israel. Overall, they are suffering severe hardship with a large percentage of their population living in extreme poverty. But after three years of this Israeli approach at great cost to its economy and with a severe strain on its military, these strong arm methods have in fact failed to bring about Israeli security while alienating and hardening huge segments of the Palestinian population. Indeed, to many observers, including some of Israel’s top military and intelligence officials, for every terrorist leader killed by the Israelis there has arisen more Palestinian youths ready to sacrifice their lives by retaliating against Israel.
More recently, the Sharon government decided to proceed with a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the construction of a fence and wall around the West Bank to separate itself from the Palestinians. To date, the fence and wall have succeeded in reducing the number of suicide bombings and terrorist acts, but not entirely eliminated them. Overall, it would appear that Israel’s current policies toward the Palestinians have not only not solved the security problem but to many observers has worsened it. In effect, the Sharon policies may have so hardened sufficient numbers of Palestinians in their hostility toward Israel that the prospect for any future peace between the parties has been eliminated for today’s generation. Instead of the missing peace, Israel’s present government is pursuing a separate one, living apart from the Palestinians and Syrians and turning inward and toward Western Europe (the place that rejected them in the first place and caused their exodus to Palestine).
As for Arafat, the Sharon government has placed him under house arrest in the West Bank town of Ramallah where he is confined to a small compound. For the past three years, he has been surrounded by Israeli tanks as punishment for the Intilfada and other acts of terror and suicide bombings inflicted on them by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. No one can credibly believe that Arafat either commands or controls those fundamentalist groups; indeed they are and have been his long-standing rivals as each group tries to wrest control and power over the Palestinian people. Shunned, isolated and blamed for the violence of the extremists, Arafat has also endured the wrath of the present U.S. administration which has decided that he is no longer a partner worth negotiating with. Indeed, the present Bush administration seems to support unconditionally the policies of the Sharon government in not dealing with Arafat and in its targeted killings; they have also joined Sharon in calling for the Palestinians to replace Arafat with a new leader who will rebuild its security forces, suppress the extremists, and restore some semblance of security to Israelis.
In an epilogue that reviews the past four years in which Ross has not been involved, he faults the Bush team for not engaging as he and prior administrations did in the difficult negotiating process. Ross firmly believes no peace agreement can come about between the Palestinians and Israelis if left entirely up to them. However, his extensive account of past negotiations and their failure to achieve peace is hardly an endorsement for similar engagement efforts by the United States in the future, but that is Ross’ advice to the current administration.
Given the past history of negotiations described in excruciating detail in this book, it seems hardly likely to this reviewer that the present or a future U.S. president will invest the time or effort that Clinton gave to the negotiations. Instead, when and if there are deals made by the parties, perhaps the best one can expect is that the United States will assist in implementing them. As for imposing a peace on both Israel and the Palestinians along the lines of the Clinton proposals, no U.S. president dares to even suggest that approach and Clinton did not. Ross notes that U.S. domestic politics precludes our politicians from exerting any such untoward pressure on Israel.
Sadly to this reviewer, it may require a future generation to come into being before the violence and hatreds now separating the Israelis and the Palestinians will have abated sufficiently for a final peace agreement to be made. The escalating violence by both sides pose a still further serious problem for America in its war against radical Islamists. They look at this conflict and see the U.S. support of Israel as one more grievance to rally their forces around in their unrelenting war of terror against us. Thus, it is in our national interest that a final peace is made between the parties and the United States should do everything it can to make it happen despite the enormous difficulties past negotiating efforts have entailed as recounted in this extraordinary book.
The reviewer practices law in New York City. A graduate of Harvard, the London School of Economics, and Columbia Law School, he follows foreign affairs with interest.