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Israel and the Arafat Question


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.


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.”

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