Israel and the Arafat Question

Dennis Ross
Dennis Ross; drawing by David Levine


Few issues of US foreign policy have been as thoroughly identified with one man as was the “Arab–Israeli peace process” with Dennis Ross. During the four years of the first Bush administration and, even more so, the eight of Clinton’s presidency, Ross virtually was the process, allowed to work independently of bureaucratic institutions, personally devising US strategy for negotiations in the Middle East, and carrying it out. Ross attended every significant meeting; he has a prodigious memory and his note-taking was legendary. All of which makes his book important to read, his factual account difficult to dispute, and his conclusions all the more deserving of close scrutiny.

Ross eludes easy classification. A lifelong Democrat who worked on Robert Kennedy’s and George McGovern’s campaigns, he later joined Reagan’s and the first Bush’s administrations. Transferred, along with Secretary James Baker, from the State Department to the White House to try to salvage the President’s then-dwindling chances at reelection (Ross, incidentally, suggested Bush drop Dan Quayle from the ticket and replace him with Colin Powell), he was nonetheless retained by the Clinton administra-tion and named special Middle East coordinator.

He was attacked by many Arabs for being blinded by his Jewish faith and by some Jews for being blind to it. Arafat, in his angrier moments, held him responsible for the failure of the peace process, though at other times he pleaded with him to intervene; Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad asked Clinton to remove him from the team (Clinton politely, but firmly, declined); Israeli Prime Minister Barak began his tenure telling Clinton he had no patience with “bureaucrats” (an inapt description, but the target was clear) yet ended it assailing Ross with phone calls. Ross would alternate keeping ideas to himself and working as part of a team—and as one of that team’s members for three years, I can attest that he never shied from a good argument and often thrived on it. Finally, in a profession that tends to prize aggressive self-promotion, he survived through graciousness of manner and superior mastery of fact, to the extent that he is one of very few policymakers who could end up in either a Kerry or a Bush administration.

The Missing Peace is several books rolled into one. It is the story of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, the attempt in 1999 and 2000 to reach a final settlement, the Clinton administration’s efforts to broker a deal between Israel and Syria, and Ross’s involvement in all of these. It is an honest account, with all that the word implies: the peace process as he saw it, words as they were spoken—so much so that, even as he writes from a distance, he displays little of it. But what will at once be most awaited and most controversial is Ross’s analysis of what went wrong with the Oslo agreement, what went wrong at Camp David, and, perhaps most anticipated…

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