Activism, the Peace Process, and the Contemporary Middle East: A Discussion with US Ambassador Dennis Ross
Written by Avery Weinman and Zachary Brenner
Photo courtesy of Nrbelex
Ambassador Dennis Ross served as Director of Policy Planning in the State Department under President George H.W. Bush, was the Special Middle East Coordinator under President Bill Clinton, and was a Special Adviser to the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He also advised President Barack Obama. We interviewed Ambassador Ross before the talk he gave at Stevenson College on April 19th so we could hear the perspective of an individual who has engaged, firsthand, in the arduous Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In our interview, we aimed to leave our own politics and opinions behind us in favor of attempting to discern a better understanding of how activism and Israel-Palestine rhetoric is viewed by someone who has actually been in the negotiating rooms and directly participated in the discussions, decisions, successes and failures of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We hope that our interview with Ambassador Ross encourages all of our readers to engage with some of the most difficult questions surrounding Israel and Palestine and to pursue a more productive discourse on campus.
Zachary Brenner: Our first question is about activism. As college students a lot of our direct contact with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes through interactions with various activist groups who endorse a wide range of varying goals and positions. In your opinion, does activism actually influence Israeli and Palestinian leadership in a meaningful way, a productive way? Or does it pressure the leadership to pursue potentially extreme and unviable options?
Dennis Ross: It depends on what the nature of the activism is. Activism that is designed to demonize one side is almost always going to be very counterproductive. It produces a negative defensive reaction from those who are being demonized and it tends to polarize in a way that makes any serious effort at problem solving harder to do. Activism that’s designed to try and overcome differences between people, activism that’s designed to promote tolerance and acceptance of the other, activism that is geared towards coexistence, activism that legitimizes the very idea of conflict resolution — that helps. It creates a context. It tends to create a sense of the possible. It creates a sense of hope. The biggest problem in this conflict, and in others that are really intractable, is that there tends to be a sense of no hope, no possibility. So activism that is geared towards demonization basically deepens the sense that this impossible because you’re rejecting one side. You’re not peacemaking when you’re rejecting one side.
Avery Weinman: A follow up for that — in your own experiences, in your time during negotiations, do you have an example of a time when activism that was happening in either Israel/Palestine itself, or in America, or anywhere else in the world actually did influence how negotiations went down in the room itself?
DR: I can say this, when we were negotiating the Interim Agreement in 1995, the right-wing in Israel was active all over the country — there were demonstrations, blocking traffic — it created a climate within the negotiating room that was more tense than it might have been otherwise. On the Israeli side, there was a tendency to try to prove that they weren’t naive and somehow giving things away that they shouldn’t. On the Palestinian side, there was a kind of concern that these right-wing demonstrations will get the Israelis to be less responsive, less forthcoming. So then I felt [pressure from activism] pretty strongly. You could feel the impact of what was going on.
To be fair, the things that were much more damaging were not the demonstrations, it was the bombings. The bombings actually brought the negotiations to a halt. And every time we were making progress in the 1990s, we would face that. I’ll tell you a story. Six months before his assassination — I used to see [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin] all the time. When I was our negotiator I saw him all the time for obvious reasons. On Shabbats, on Saturday afternoons, he liked me just to come over to his house just to have a more relaxed discussion that was more strategic in nature and less on the moment. Six months before he was assassinated, he asked me, “Who do you think will determine the next election in Israel?” So I tried to prove how smart I was about Israeli politics — proving the opposite — and so I said “Aryeh Deri of Shas (a Mizrahi-religious Israeli political party).” And he said, “No, guess again.” And I said, “No, no. Tell me.” And he said, “Two Hamas bombs. Two Hamas bombs and [Benjamin] Netanyahu will be prime minister and I won’t be.” So what really made it more difficult than anything else was the violence. And that cuts both ways. When Palestinians got killed, you had a reaction on their side. So to be fair, that’s what really was much more disruptive and strengthens the hand of those who are rejectors on each side.
AW: Another question. One of the things that makes the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict unique is that it has a near mythic ability to reinvent itself in terms of whatever the global political trend of the day is. For instance, we’ve seen it go through a really Marxist, anti-colonial orientation in the 60s and 70s, we saw it was influenced by the rise of Islamism and political Islam in the 80s and 90s, and I would argue that today we’re also seeing it go through another very romantic-nationalist orientation where the national narrative really takes precedence over anything that is rational.
AW: So since the conflict changes so quickly, the possibilities of the conflict can also change really quickly as well. For example in 1960 it was pretty much universal in both the Israeli Right and the Left to oppose the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, but now it’s pretty much the base position amongst a wide majority of the Israeli political spectrum. So in terms of strategies that have previously been considered too radical or too unviable to try — for instance, a one state binational solution — should we consider perhaps trying [radical solutions] or at least not being surprised if they were to come to fruition in the future?
DR: Look, I think the point is that there can be an evolution, but where there hasn’t been an evolution, however, is in the reality of two separate national movements with two separate national identities. In the Middle East, if you look at any state in the Middle East that has more than one identity whether it’s tribal, whether its sectarian, whether it’s ethnic, or whether it’s national what you’ll find in that state is that it’s at war. So if you want to take two separate national identities and say one state, what you’re going to guarantee is an endless conflict. You can talk about how the conflict may look different at different periods, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is two separate national identities. And it’s not going to change. In the end, the Israelis are not going to go any place, and the Palestinians are not going to go any place. Those who say one state — and there are Israelis on the right who say one state, and what they have in mind is one state where Israelis have rights and Palestinians have limited rights. The Palestinians who want one state, they don’t invision equal rights in truth. If you talk to the Palestinians, if you say, “Ok look, let’s say tomorrow you have one state, so what does the state look like?” The Palestinians will say, “Oh, a Palestinian will be Prime Minister. And there’ll be no Right of Return for Jews.” And you say to them, “Well actually, for at least another twenty to twenty five years Palestinians would actually be a minority in that state, so how could it be that that would be the outcome?” Because that’s not their image of one state. So the two have completely different images of one state, which is ultimately why the only thing that will ever work is two states for two peoples. The problem is how do you get there from where we are now.
ZB: Given the United States’ changing position on both the global stage and in its perception as a fair arbiter in the peace process, how do you see the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process changing, if you see it changing at all? Do you think any of the proposed alternatives to changing the structure of the peace process like the implementation of an international, multinational mediating body are viable?
DR: I’m not a fan of multinational mediating efforts because, by definition it’s very difficult to ensure that those different mediators actually view things the same way. And then the parties will play upon the differences that they see in the mediators. You know if you look at the 5+1 model (the model used in the United Nations to negotiate the recent Iran Deal), there was an umbrella of 5+1, but it was really a bilateral negotiation between the US and Iran which the other members then accepted. Whether the Trump administration can prove that it can be a mediator remains to be seen, but there is a simple reality — there is nobody else who can play the role because nobody else has the relationship with Israel. Israel is the one that has to give up the tangibles, the Palestinians give up intangibles. Nobody else is going to persuade the Israelis, nobody else can give the Israelis the set of assurances or commitments that make it easier to make decisions that are very hard. In the end, no matter who the mediator is, if the parties aren’t prepared to make certain decisions, you’re not going to succeed anyway.
One of the things that Rabin used to say to me was, “I know that we have to give up more than they do, but I need to see that they’re prepared to do something that’s hard for them too. It can’t be only that Israel takes the hard decisions.” The success of a mediator depends on understanding that you have to meet the needs of both sides, not of one side, and that both sides will have to do things that are hard for them. And it can’t be just, “Oh yeah, I’ll do things that are hard for me.” I used to say to John Kerry when he said, “They say they’re serious.” I’d say, “That means nothing. Outline the specific steps that they need to take to prove that they’re serious about doing something. If they’re ready to take on the constituencies that they know are going to be opposed to peacemaking, then you know you’re actually in a place where you can settle the whole conflict. If they’re not, you should scale back your objective.”
ZB: Do you feel that it’s necessary to have a mediator?
DR: Yeah, I do. I don’t believe that the Israelis and Palestinians on their own can reach an agreement. They need to have their own negotiations, the US shouldn’t be in every negotiation — and there are no negotiations at all right now. But I can tell you that the Clinton Parameters emerged from our bringing the two sides together after I’d had a conversation with [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat where, after a conversation on December 11th of 2000, we then brought both parties together on December 17th. The conversation with Arafat was there were five weeks left in the Clinton administration and I said, “I’m not going to fool you, you’re not going to fool me — is there a deal here? I sort of talked around and I’ll tell you what I believe the Israelis can do on each of the core issues. You tell me whether you can accept it.” So I went through it in a way that was not that far from what we then presented later on because obviously I knew where the Israelis were coming from. And [Arafat] said yeah he could do it. This was done in Morocco, so I called Clinton and he said, “How come you’re not more excited?” And I said, “Because I don’t believe him. I think it’s easy for him to say when he’s sitting alone with me that he can do it, the proof will be can he do it when he knows this will have to be exposed publicly.” Then I said, “However, the fact that he said this — we oughta test it.” So we brought both delegations to Washington, they were on Boeing Air Force Base, I actually shrunk the differences between them to start these negotiations, and I said, “Ok, come up with a solution.” Three and a half days of effort on their part and they say, “We can’t do it we need a bridging proposal.” That’s what the Clinton Parameters were, they were a bridging proposal. I tell you this story because I believe the same — if they ever get back into a serious negotiation, let’s say the administration comes out with a serious peace plan that the two sides may not love but they’ll accept as a basis for negotiation — at the end of the day they may get here, but to get that final part they’ll need a proposal they both react to. We shouldn’t be presenting it prematurely unless we know where they’re really coming from. Unless we know how we can tailor it so that it’ll be hard for them not to say yes. Unless we prepare the grounds so the the Arabs embrace it, the Europeans embrace it, so there’s a context and a climate that makes it hard for them to do anything except say yes.
AW: You mention that the Europeans need to accept it and that the Arab states need to accept it too. When I think of how most people think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think they think of it in terms of just two parties: just Israelis and just Palestinians dealing with each other. But, I wanted to know more about the other parties involved like, for instance, a Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran-Russia connection, an Israeli-American-Saudi sphere, how Egypt and Jordan, and how bodies like the European Union and the United Nations factor into the conflict. So the question is, how important in the negotiating room actually are the goals and aims of those other factors?
DR: They’re not prominent, and they won’t be. In the 1990s when I was our negotiator the Europeans always wanted to be part of the negotiations. And the foreign minister [of Spain] Javier Solana used to say to me, “You keep us out.” And I’d say, “I don’t keep you out. If I wanted you out, but the parties want you in, you’re in. If I want you in, and they want you out, you’re out. I’m not the one who keeps you out, they’re the ones who keep you out.” Anyone who is seen by the two sides as being central to reaching an agreement can play a role. The truth is — the reason I bring in the Europeans and the Arabs — on the Palestinian side, the only thing the Palestinians believe that they have achieved is international acceptance of their cause. If it looks like they’re putting that in jeopardy, then they will move.
AW: As a final question, an overarching question but one that’s good to end on, what reason should we have to be optimistic about how the peace process will go, or what reason should we have to be pessimistic about how the peace process will go?
DR: Well it’s a lot easier to focus on the latter than the former right now. The reason to be optimistic is because, ultimately, there is no alternative. I said it before, the Israelis are not going any place and the Palestinians are not going any place. They can choose to continue to live in a way that imposes a price on both, or at some point they can find a way to accept what is the reality that they have to live next to each other in a way that both of them will ultimately benefit. Now how we recreate a climate that makes that possible is the challenge, and we’re far from that right now.
AW: Great. Thank you.
ZB: Thank you so much.
DR: My pleasure.