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Israel and the Arafat Question

Dennis Ross
Dennis Ross; drawing by David Levine

1.

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 of all, what is wrong with Yasser Arafat.

2.

The 1993 Oslo Accords outlined a process intended to gradually resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The Palestine Liberation Organization renounced violence and pledged to fight terrorism; Israel, as a first step, would withdraw from most of the occupied Gaza Strip, except for Jewish settlements, and from the West Bank city of Jericho. Further redeployments would follow, and a newly established Palestinian Authority (PA) would assume control over these areas.

As further spelled out in Oslo II, the interim agreement signed in September 1995, Israel was to redeploy its West Bank troops in several stages to “specified military areas,” enabling the Palestinians to administer (to varying degrees) additional territory. On the eve of talks on a final settlement of the conflict, due to begin after two years and be completed by May 4, 1999, the PA’s jurisdiction should have extended throughout the West Bank and Gaza, except for places—East Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, and security locations—to be negotiated at those talks. As detailed as it was on interim steps, Oslo was silent on the final outcome, saying nothing about the ultimate disposition of territory, the fate of Jewish settlements, the solution for Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees, or whether the Palestinians would have a state. These, it was hoped, would be better addressed after both sides had increased their mutual trust.

Things did not work out as planned. The PA was established; Israeli troops began to redeploy (albeit with some delay); the Palestinians were given jurisdiction over 90 percent of their people in the West Bank and Gaza; and the two parties periodically cooperated on security matters. But deadlines were repeatedly ignored. Israel suffered deadly terrorist attacks. The hostility to Israel expressed in the Palestinian press, radio, and television and in mosques went unchecked. West Bank settlements grew swiftly and Israel continued to expropriate Palestinian land. Through an assortment of economic, political, and military measures, Israel maintained tight control over Palestinian lives. By the date negotiations over the final status were expected to be completed, they hadn’t even begun. When Barak and Arafat met to start them in 2000, Israel had yet to conclude its scheduled redeployments and still held roughly 30 percent of Gaza and just under 60 percent of the West Bank. Armed militant Palestinian groups remained active. Mutual mistrust was running high and in September 2000, soon after the collapse of the Camp David summit between Clinton, Barak, and Arafat, full-scale violence erupted.

Why did the process outlined at Oslo collapse? One can make a plausible case that it failed because of a succession of catastrophic events. Notwithstanding the missed deadlines and unfulfilled commitments, Prime Minister Rabin and Arafat, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders when the Oslo agreements were signed, had developed a working relationship. That ended in November 1995 when Rabin was murdered by an Israeli extremist. While his successor, Shimon Peres, was committed to Oslo, he shifted his attention to Syria, believing that an opportunity for an agreement was at hand and that rapid progress with the Palestinians would alienate voters.

In February and March 1996 four Hamas suicide bombings doomed Peres’s electoral prospects. When Israelis went to the polls, foremost on their minds was not Rabin’s assassination but the murder of sixty-two Israelis. In May 1996, they gave Benjamin Netanyahu the narrowest of victories. A fierce opponent of the Oslo agreement (he likened it to acquiescing in the PLO’s goal of destroying the Jewish state), he was now the prime minister entrusted with carrying it out. Though he grudgingly signed a few more interim agreements covering Israeli redeployments and Palestinian security measures, between 1996 and 1999 he would, in Ross’s words, consistently take “steps that would appease his right-wing constituency…[and] inflame Palestinian opinion.”

In Ross’s account of Oslo, historical contingency has an important part, though not the only or even the central one. For him, tragedy was inevitable; the more important question is why the process was so vulnerable as to succumb to it. His explanations essentially come down to one: the persistence of both sides in destructive behavior. The Oslo agreements presumed that steps taken during the interim period would help the two sides to learn to live together and to resolve the more intractable issues between them. Instead, Palestinians continued to incite violence, released suspected terrorists from their jails, and failed to disarm militant organizations. Israel delayed its territorial withdrawals, expanded settlements, confiscated land, demolished homes, and imposed restrictions on the movements of Palestinians. Subjected to constant humiliation and oppression, Palestinians saw a harsher occupation. Confronted by deadly attacks, Israelis saw continued violence.

Ross attributes this failure to the parties’ inability to “transform” themselves and resist the pressures of domestic politics. Lacking in democratic legitimacy, he argues, the Palestinian leadership under Arafat was loath to confront the militant Hamas or Islamic Jihad, instead placating them with anti-Israeli rhetoric. In their own fragmented and competitive political environment, Israeli leaders felt they had to address demands from their right-wing constituencies or coalition partners. Whenever terror struck, Netanyahu regularly suspended negotiations or froze the process of implementing agreements. Not only Netanyahu but Rabin, Peres, and Barak continued building settlements to strengthen their political support and stave off opposition from settler groups and hard-line religious parties. Both sides reneged on their commitments, using the other’s breach as an alibi for its own. Ross comments: “Each new interim deal would thus produce more cynicism about the process than belief in it.”

Ross’s explanation for Oslo’s failure is, by now, broadly accepted, though some of his critics mention several other reasons. Ross and the Clinton administration sought to maintain exclusive US sponsorship of the peace process, resisting potentially useful European and especially Arab involvement. Failure to give Arab states a genuine role in the process relieved them of any responsibility for its success. Much criticized as well is what Aaron Miller—Ross’s deputy throughout this period—describes as a US tendency to renounce its independence of judgment and defer instead to Israeli preferences. Still others take issue with the US practice of working out proposals with Israel before trying to sell them to the Palestinians. As Ross writes,

“Selling” became part of our modus operandi—beginning a pattern that would characterize our approach throughout the Bush and Clinton years. We would take Israeli ideas or ideas that the Israelis could live with and work them over—trying to increase their attractiveness to the Arabs while trying to get the Arabs to scale back their expectations.

But the most common criticism of all was that Ross emphasized process over substance, pursuing talks for their own sake. Often, he would seek to bridge differences by resorting to constructive ambiguity, papering over deep disagreements with skillful formulations, allowing Israelis and Palestinians to believe they got what they wanted, even as the things they wanted were irreconcilable. Ross acknowledges this limitation. He defines his role during Netanyahu’s years as “forcing meetings and producing minimal understandings that preserved calm and continued a political dialogue.” More generally, he reflects that “every negotiating process has within it the seeds of its own justification. Often the process becomes self-sustaining and essentially an end in itself.”

As for what should be done, Ross says the answer is not to allow one reality to develop around the negotiating table and a different—far more hostile—one on the ground. In this, he writes, the US did not live up to its responsibility, failing to hold either Israelis or Palestinians accountable; for the sake of peace, it ignored actions that undermined peace. “Too often we shied away from putting the onus on one side or the other because we feared we would disrupt a process that had great promise.” In the future, he urges, the US should insist that both sides accept a code of conduct and it should make its involvement dependent on “public conditioning for compromise, on each side fulfilling commitments and behaving in a way that fit the objectives of the negotiating process.”

3.

Ross’s analysis raises a central question: Does his proposed solution fit the critical analysis he presents?

If one accepts Ross’s explanation that their domestic politics drove the two parties away from Oslo’s spirit—and I find no grounds for disputing it—it is hard to see what could have brought them back. “Transformation” is a noble objective, though seldom accomplished through noble intent alone; it would have required a new political balance of forces on both sides, which never came about. Israeli and Palestinian leaders did not shirk their responsibilities because they failed to appreciate their domestic situation but because they understood it too well. Ross says the US ought to have pressed them harder. But neither heightened US pressure nor public condemnation of the parties would have significantly altered their political calculations. Real pressure by the US with concrete penalties might have had an effect, but while one could imagine American sanctions against the Palestinians, it is inconceivable that they would have been imposed on Israel. Ross shows how difficult it was to publicly press Israel because of “potential political problems here,” and there is no reason to believe those problems will diminish.

Besides, putting the process on hold—not imposing penalties—is as far as Ross says he is willing to go, which leads straight into another wall. As he recognizes and has repeatedly practiced, the US under Clinton did not want to walk away from the peace process for fear that it would collapse; and even had it been so inclined, Ross would have advised against doing so. Indeed, he levels some of his harshest criticism at the Bush administration’s current disengagement from the conflict, leading him to conclude, in light of the continuing violence, that “the cost of not having a peace process has never been so clear.” Ross either believes that stepping back from the process is the only way for the US to get recalcitrant parties to live up to their commitments, or that it is the surest way toward even more destruction: it cannot be both.

Everything Ross writes in regard to Israeli, Palestinian, and even American politics points to a defect at Oslo’s core that he does not confront: there was a failure at the outset to address key issues and define the shape of a permanent peace.1 This has had several harmful consequences. Far from encouraging the “transformation” Ross desires, Oslo helped to avoid it. Because the parties were not asked to accept a compromise outcome, they could commit themselves to interim steps without surrendering their maximum and clearly incompatible positions. The agreement was sold by Israeli leaders to their public as a means of enhancing security at minor cost and by Palestinian leaders as a way of recovering land with minor compromise.

Because the ultimate destination remained undefined, each side sought to increase its leverage. Skeptical that Palestinians would accept a Jewish state, Israel was loath to give up territory. Dubious about Israeli willingness to withdraw from all occupied land, Palestinians were reluctant to relinquish the use of violence, which they considered their only means of pressure. Unable to justify concessions by pointing to the ultimate prize, neither party had the political will to confront opponents—settlers, Islamists, among others—who could draw attention to the obvious costs of compromise while dismissing its elusive gains.2

The conclusion to which Ross’s analy- sis leads is that the process ought to be turned on its head, with the US seeking to describe the endgame at the outset and with the parties agreeing on the means of getting there afterward. While Ross does not directly refer to this possibility, one senses that he dislikes it. Implicitly referring to the argument that the US should put forward a comprehensive peace proposal, he writes,

The most important American role is not putting our best judgments on the table…. Ultimately, the United States may make its greatest contribution to peace by standing against efforts to impose solutions.

That’s quite a startling conclusion when we consider both that Clinton’s proposals for a final settlement (in which Ross had a heavy hand), belatedly presented to Israelis and Palestinians in December 2000, probably will have a longer-lasting impact than any other US initiative, and that the decision in March 2000 to present Barak’s proposals to Syria’s President Assad in Geneva rather than come up with original US ideas (a move Ross oddly describes as “wise”) likely doomed any remaining prospect for an Israeli–Syrian agreement at the time.3

It’s also a highly questionable conclusion, since filling in the outlines of a final deal and promoting it in tandem with key Arab partners could help to mobilize moderate constituencies on both sides to support it and do far more to transform the two parties than anything Ross suggests. In dismissing this approach, Ross conflates two ideas: presenting one’s best judgment and imposing it. Like him, I would reject an imposed settlement on grounds of principle and pragmatism; unlike him, I believe that by putting forward a clear idea of a desirable outcome, based on the history of the parties’ negotiations and protective of their vital interests, the US would significantly improve the chances of peace.

4.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of Ross’s exposition, and it brings us to an issue that clearly preoccupies him. Ross devotes countless pages to the intricacies of Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, explaining why they failed. Yet he also introduces another theory—it is hard to tell if it is an alternative or a complement—which boils down to a single word: Arafat.

Arafat is the “missing peace” of the title. The book opens with the Palestinian leader and closes with him. Ross castigates the administration of George W. Bush in virtually all but one respect, conceding: “President Bush and those around him were right to believe that we had indulged Arafat too much.” Oslo failed, he argues, because neither Israelis nor Palestinians underwent the necessary transformation. Yet, he adds, Rabin took a revolutionary psychological leap when he recognized the PLO in 1993, whereas Arafat recognized Israel “not because he made a choice, but because he had no choice”—as if eminently practical and pragmatic considerations (such as the first Palestinian intifada and the burdens of occupation) were not also on Rabin’s mind. “To be sure,” he adds, “I would not now be writing about the failings of Oslo if it had not been for Yasir Arafat.”

Ross’s fixation on the Palestinian leader is an instance of the overly personalized approach that has characterized the peace process, but his views should not be taken lightly. After all, no high-level US official has dealt with or seen Arafat more frequently and, barring a truly revolutionary turnaround in US diplomacy, none ever will. Ross’s indictment of Arafat is straightforward. He refused to de-legitimize violence, prepare his public for peace, or reach an agreement either in July 2000 at Camp David or in December 2000, when Clinton presented his “parameters.” This record proves he “never went through any transformation,” “could not give up Palestinian myths,” “could not compromise or concede in order to end the conflict,” and, in a comment that will strike many as a touch ironic, “could live with a process but not with a conclusion.” His verdict: Yasser Arafat has “definitively demonstrated that he could not end the conflict.”

Was a deal with Arafat possible? Ross is of course correct—in a strictly tautological sense—that had Arafat accepted the deal, there would have been one. But from there it is a singular leap (the result, I suspect, as much of frustration as of logic) to the conclusion that Arafat is unable to bring the conflict to an end and that this alone accounts for Camp David’s collapse. In an earlier article in these pages, Hussein Agha and I described Palestinian, Israeli, and US missteps and misjudgments and in particular the factors behind the Palestinians’ unresponsive behavior at Camp David.4

The Palestinians believed the summit was premature, a US-Israeli ploy to pressure them into hastily accepting a flawed deal. Their delegation was deeply divided, popular opposition at home was intense, and Arab countries—kept away from Camp David—were not there either to encourage or to pressure Arafat. There was, too, Arafat’s animosity toward Barak, who from the start, he was convinced, had sought to skirt commitments, impose his own timetable and tactics, and generally humiliate, manipulate, and trap the Palestinians. Throughout his book, Ross persuasively argues that Arafat will do his utmost to defer rather than make decisions, and that the right blend of pressure and incentives is required to force him to choose. From that perspective, circumstances at Camp David were, to say the least, far from ideal.

Although the conventional account (that the Palestinians turned down a generous Israeli offer, rejected the Jewish state’s right to exist, then turned to violence) remains predominant, what used to be called “revisionist” accounts of Camp David are increasingly being heard. Shattered Dreams, by Charles Enderlin, a French journalist who conducted interviews with participants on all sides, provides persuasive backing to the view that responsibility for failure was widely shared.5 Members of Barak’s team and two US witnesses, Aaron Miller and Martin Indyk (the US ambassador to Israel at the time), have offered nuanced analyses in which the collapse of the talks is explained by numerous factors other than by Arafat’s incapacity to end the conflict: neglect of the Palestinians and emphasis on the Syrian track in the early months of Barak’s tenure; Arafat’s and Barak’s mutual mistrust; US insensitivity to internal Palestinian dynamics; and defects in the proposed deal.

Ross mentions many of these factors in his meticulous narrative and, in a book that is all about the art of negotiations, one would imagine they would have some importance. But they become virtual sideshows in his denunciation of Arafat. “Negotiations do not take place in a vacuum,” he observes, before proceeding to create one around the Palestinian leader.

None of this necessarily tells us whether under different circumstances Arafat might have acted differently. But I find much of the debate about whether he could ever reach a final agreement misconceived, and, in its broader policy implications, pernicious. The quest for a leader’s underlying—and static—essence is curious, at odds with much of the history of the contemporary Middle East. As Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli minister, observes in his recent book The Path to Geneva, leaders are not “unmasked,” they evolve, accepting one day what they rejected another, and making decisions (often tragically misguided ones) on the basis of criteria that change. “What would we have exposed of Sadat, had we wanted to?” he asks.

Sadat who caused the Yom Kippur War…? Or Sadat…visiting us in November 1977, immediately becoming the most popular man in Israel…? Which Barak would be exposed?… Barak fighting against acceptance of a Palestinian state, or Barak taking it for granted three years later?… Barak declaring on Jerusalem Day that the city would never be divided, or Barak at Camp David, two months later?6

Ross’s one-dimensional take on Arafat is all the more peculiar in a book characterized, for the most part, by nuance. His pen is often sharp, but almost invariably forgiving. Between 1996 and 1999, Netanyahu put obstacles on the path to peace and would have accepted neither the Camp David ideas nor Clinton’s. Yet, in the end, Ross gives him a mixed review, as someone who was unable to “reconcile his ambition to be a historic peacemaker with the reality of his political tribe, which did not believe peace with the Palestinians was possible.” Writing of the 1999 Israeli–Syrian negotiations at Shepherdstown, Ross explains—as had Clinton before him—that an agreement was at hand but that Barak, initially so eager to reach a historic deal, suddenly went from hot to cold, “as domestic opposition to a Syrian deal began to mount.” Ross recalls the brutal, distressing reflection of a prominent member of the Israeli team some two years later: “The Middle East changed the day in Shepherdstown when…Barak received the results of a poll that made doing the deal with Syria more problematic than he had thought.”7 Yet Ross simply notes that Barak acted as he did “for reasons that made sense to him.”

Even Assad, hardly Ross’s favorite character, and who, unlike Arafat, systematically refused to deal with Israelis, gets more sympathetic treatment than the Palestinian leader. After the Shepherdstown meeting, in a final attempt at Israeli–Syrian peace, Clinton asked to meet Assad in Geneva in March 2000. This time, Ross states, the Syrian leader arrived determined to turn down the deal—any deal. Still, he explains Assad’s behavior, saying, “He had something more fundamental to deal with. He was preoccupied with succession.” In none of these cases does Ross try to analyze a leader’s attitude by uncovering his unchanging intentions. Timing, domestic pressures, shifting calculations, and miscalculations, personal dynamics, the intangibles of a negotiation—Ross takes these into account for all of them, except for Arafat.

In fairness, Ross highlights a factor that he believes sets Arafat apart: in his view, Clinton’s proposal of December 2000 was Arafat’s last chance. According to the “parameters,” Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank. Israel would annex the remaining 4 to 6 percent, which would allow it to retain key settlements and roughly 80 percent of the settlers. As partial compensation, Palestinians would get territory in Israel proper equivalent to 1 to 3 percent of the West Bank, the intent being to create a state equal in size to approximately 97 percent of the West Bank. In East Jerusalem, Jewish and Arab neighborhoods would fall, respectively, under Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty. Palestinian refugees would have several choices, but admission into Israel would be subject to its decision.

From a Palestinian perspective, this proposal was superior in all respects to what was presented at Camp David, though it fell short of their aspirations in at least two ways: they wanted recognition in principle of the refugees’ right of return, although they were willing to accept limitations on the numbers admitted, and they insisted on a one-for-one territorial swap so that they would suffer no net loss of land. (In opposing this latter demand, Ross notes:

I wanted to address what each side needed, not what they wanted and not what they felt they were entitled to…. I felt strongly about 6 to 7 per cent annexation, and I was not prepared to lower the ceiling. Nor was I prepared to introduce the idea of an equivalent swap.

But he never explains how he assessed each side’s needs, why Palestinians should accept this unequal exchange, or on what grounds they should be denied the 100 percent territorial restitution that both Egypt and Jordan received and that Syria was offered.)

When Clinton presented this proposal, he had only a few weeks left in office; Barak hardly more.

This was not a case of tactics or bargaining…. Arafat had the best deal he could ever get. He could not get more and he had hit the proverbial wall.

At the time, this was quite clear to American and to Israeli leaders. And in hindsight, it is now painfully clear to many more, including Palestinians. But was it clear to Arafat then? What he saw on one side was the intifada, seething Palestinian rage at Israel that seemed as easy to exploit as it would be difficult to mollify, and the absence of strong Arab or Palestinian pressure to accept the parameters. On the other side, he contemplated a rushed deadline from a departing US president and a departing—and despised—Israeli prime minister to accept an interesting but imperfect deal. For a man who never was a strategic or long-term thinker but has always sought to maximize short-term gains—who, as Ross observes, moves only when all other options are foreclosed—the situation, despite the allure of the deal, probably did not look like a last chance. In his eyes, the Palestinian problem was not about to go away and its basic terms would remain unchanged; even a new US president and Israeli prime minister would have to address it.

The status quo presented some political advantages (he could ride the wave of Palestinian armed struggle and suffering, gaining domestic and international stature), while accepting the deal presented potential risks. Waiting for another day likely seemed the safer bet. In all this Arafat was hardly alone. Despite Ross’s claim that the other Palestinian negotiators would have accepted the deal, there is ample evidence that the most influential among them were either passive or actively lobbied against it. Weighing his position at the moment against the uncertain benefits of a putative agreement, he followed his political instincts—wrongly, alas.

Besides, as Ross’s account illustrates, the Palestinian leader had been given reason to doubt that Clinton’s offer was the best he could expect. At Camp David, Ross recalls, Clinton had first told Arafat that in order to accommodate Israeli settlements and security interests, he could do no better than offer Palestinian sovereignty over a little more than 90 percent of the West Bank, plus a symbolic swap of land, and Palestinian sovereignty over “several outer neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.” Clinton subsequently revised his proposal at Camp David; the Palestinians would receive 91 percent of the West Bank and would be compensated with a swap of Israeli land equivalent to 1 percent of the West Bank, as well as Palestinian sovereignty over several Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem proper. But Clinton said this was stretching the offer as far as Israel could go. (Upon hearing this, the then director of central intelligence, George Tenet, “asked incredulously, ‘Why hasn’t Arafat accepted this?'”) Several weeks after Camp David, Ross advised Arafat that Barak is “going to need 7 to 8 percent annexation…with a 2 percent swap.” A little later, he confidently told a Palestinian negotiator, based on what he had heard from the Israelis,

You know I have never misled you…. I am quite certain the Israelis will not go below 7 percent annexation…with a 2 percent swap but you will not do better than that.

That very evening, the Israelis told the Palestinians they could accept a 5 percent annexation. (Ross says he was furious upon hearing this, though interestingly he directed his anger at the Israelis for providing the US bottom line rather than at the US and at himself for mechanically conveying it.) As has been said, the December 2000 Clinton parameters—the “culmination” of the negotiations—included a 4 to 6 per- cent annexation of the West Bank, a 1 to 3 percent swap, and Palestinian sovereignty over all of Arab East Jerusalem. Throughout this period, the US never showed the Palestinians a map (at one point in his book, Ross confesses that “we did not know the terrain [or] how each percentage of land might affect particular settlements or roads”), did not specify what areas Israel would annex, or what areas Palestine would receive as compensation. With such ephemeral bottom lines, and with positions that seemed grounded less in logic than in fluctuating assessments of how far Israel was prepared to go, it is little wonder that Arafat would, as Ambrose Bierce once put it, see in every ultimatum a last demand before the next concession. He apparently did not foresee that Israel’s acceptance of Clinton’s terms and his rejection of them would be used again and again as absolute proof not that he did not want that deal, but that he did not want any deal at all.

5.

Coincidentally, Ross’s book appears at the same time as a debate in Israel on the uses and misuses of intelligence regarding Arafat and how they affected critical policy decisions—a debate not without resemblance to US discussions of the Iraq intelligence fiasco. According to Amos Malka, head of Israel’s Military Intelligence from 1998 to 2001, the notion that Arafat refused the 2000 peace proposals and then launched the intifada because he rejected a negotiated two-state solution and dreamed of Greater Palestine was inaccurate, based on deliberate distortion of intelligence for politi-cal purposes.

The conclusions Israeli intelligence officers reached in 2000 and 2001 were by no means charitable to the Palestinian leader. In violation of commitments made at Oslo, he had never relinquished the possibility of using violence; once the intifada broke out, he chose to ride it rather than try to end it. But Malka and others consistently concluded that Arafat remained committed to a diplomatic solution which he considered the only realistic option, the one he had pursued for years; that he saw violence as a means of achieving a political end—not the end of Israel; and that he was prepared to reach a final two-state settlement on terms that were better than, though not radically different from, those offered at the end of the Clinton administration.8 Ross, interestingly, at no point puts forward an alternative theory of what, other than a negotiated two-state settlement, Arafat’s ultimate goal since Oslo might have been.

By now, the consequences of the view that the Palestinians turned down the Camp David and Clinton proposals because they reject the existence of a Jewish state have become plain. Together with the intifada, it has helped to destroy Israel’s peace movement, delegitimize negotiations, and severely constrict the range of policy options that the US and Israel have been willing to consider.

 

In view of all that has happened in the Middle East since Ross left office there is an abstract, almost surreal quality to debates about what he might have done differently. In abandoning the Israeli and Palestinian people to themselves, the Bush administration has obliterated virtually all that Ross had helped to accomplish, renouncing his two central principles: active commitment to Arab–Israeli peace and faith in the power and importance of US engagement.

Of course, what kind of engagement is not a trivial matter, and on this our opinions differ somewhat. I believe the US ought to push the parties toward ending their conflict, rather than wait until they are somehow ready to do so; build on the Clinton parameters to spell out the components of an acceptable deal, rather than press for incremental steps; and seek to form a broad coalition with European and especially Arab allies to promote this plan, rather than act alone. Still, throughout the Clinton years, and in no small measure thanks to Ross, US dedication to the peace process and an Israeli–Arab dialogue were preserved and protected. With approximately three thousand Palestinians and nine hundred Israelis killed since Bush took office, and with the prospects of a two-state solution increasingly remote, how much of either can be said to remain?

—September 8, 2004

  1. 1

    In an intriguing aside, Ross mentions that during Netanyahu’s time, it became clear to the administration that “we could not continue with the step-by-step approach that had been the hallmark of the Oslo process. We would not and could not walk away from Oslo, but it was being overwhelmed by actions that were destroying confidence step by step. So we should try for an accelerated approach to permanent status.” Yet, despite this insight, “in the end, we gravitated back to a quasi-Oslo posture,” without the problems inherent in that position having been addressed. 

  2. 2

    On this, see Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “The Last Negotiation,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002. 

  3. 3

    By March 2000, Israeli–Syrian negotiations basically had come down to one issue: whether Israel would withdraw to the borderline that existed on the eve of the 1967 war or maintain sovereignty over a strip of land along the northeast shoreline of Lake Tiberias to protect the country’s main water reservoir. Barak insisted on a strip a few hundred yards wide; Assad held firm on his demand for a return to 1967. Clinton, in internal discussions with his team, was drawn to a compromise under which Syria would enjoy nominal sovereignty over the strip that would become an international peace park under neither side’s full control. At Geneva and at Barak’s urging, the US chose to put forward his proposal. Assad turned it down. 

  4. 4

    See Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,” The New York Review, August 9, 2001. 

  5. 5

    Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995–2002, translated by Susan Fairfield (Other Press, 2003). 

  6. 6

    See Yossi Bellin, The Path to Geneva (RDU Books, 2004). 

  7. 7

    Clinton, on the same subject but with his own charitable touch, comments, “Barak had not been in politics long, and I thought he had gotten some very bad advice.” 

  8. 8

    According to Malka: “We assumed that it is possible to reach an agreement with Arafat under the following conditions: a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and sovereignty on the Temple Mount; 97 per cent of the West Bank plus exchanges of territory in the ratio of 1:1 with respect to the remaining territory; some kind of formula that includes the acknowledgment of Israel’s responsibility for the refugee problem and a willingness to accept 20,000–30,000 refugees.” See Akiva Eldar, “Popular Misconceptions,” Haaretz, June 11, 2004. At Camp David, as has been said, Arafat was “offered” 91 percent of the West Bank plus a swap equivalent to 1 percent—a 1:9 ratio. The Clinton parameters provided for Palestinian sovereignty over 94–96 percent of the West Bank with a swap of 1–3 percent, the intent being a ratio of between 1:2 and 1:4. Neither proposal would have allowed significant refugee return to Israel.