- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

Why did Camp David II fail in July 2000? Was it the fault of the Israelis or the Palestinians? Could peace have been achieved between Syria and Israel?

These and other questions about the history of Arab-Israeli diplomacy are answered with remarkable clarity in this masterfully written book, which documents the history of the Arab-Israeli peace process from the preparations for the Madrid conference in 1991 until the end of the Clinton administration in 2001.

The author, Dennis Ross, was the chief U.S. negotiator on the Arab-Israeli peace process under both the first Bush administration and under the Clinton administration.

This book, however, is more than just a very well-written diplomatic history by a key participant-observer. It contains three other elements which the general reader, as well as the specialist, will find of great interest.

The first is a very valuable discussion of the “narratives” of each side — the combination of myth and history that has influenced both Arab and Israeli decision-makers. The second element is Mr. Ross’ extremely candid portraits of the individuals with whom he worked and negotiated, American, Arab and Israeli.

Finally, one can find throughout the book what might be termed “Ross’ rules” of how to negotiate. These are lessons on the techniques that work during negotiations and those that should be avoided. Though written in the context of the Arab-Israeli peace process, these lessons have a general applicability to negotiations in the international arena.

In discussing the narratives of each side in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mr. Ross’ goal is for the reader to understand, whether or not he or she agrees with, the perspectives of the negotiators.

As regards the Israelis, Mr. Ross underlines their historically-influenced concern, if not obsession, with security. This was caused not only by the Holocaust, but also by Palestinian attacks on the Jewish community of British-Mandated Palestine in 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1936-39. (The Jewish community’s presence in Palestine was politically legitimized by the 1917 Balfour Declaration.)

Invasion by its Arab neighbors when the U.N.-approved State of Israel became independent in May 1948 further reinforced the Israeli concern about security, as did the narrow borders the country was left with after the war, even though it emerged victorious.

Nonetheless, Mr. Ross also indicates the willingness of the Israelis to make far-reaching concessions — if they believed they had a genuine partner for peace. This was the case with former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, to whom they gave back the entire Sinai Desert, captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, in return for peace.

On the Palestinian side, Mr. Ross emphasizes the Palestinian sense of victimization. Unlike the Egyptians under Sadat, the Palestinians have seen themselves as victims, and they were thus “entitled” to the land and did not have to make concessions. Furthermore, it was not their responsibility to end the conflict but that of the Americans or Israelis.

Reinforcing the Palestinian feeling of victimization was their sense of powerlessness in inter-Arab affairs, and the failure of their Arab brethren to help them at critical junctures — such as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when PLO forces were surrounded in Beirut.

Given these differing narratives , it is not surprising that it has been so difficult to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, despite the best efforts of Mr. Ross and the other members of the American negotiating teams.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are Mr. Ross’ descriptions of those with whom he worked or negotiated during his decade-long effort to achieve Arab-Israeli peace agreements. Possibly because his early training was in Sovietology, not diplomacy, Mr. Ross does not pull any punches, and his portraits of the key actors are extremely candid.

Among those he respects the most are former Secretary of State James Baker, whose tireless diplomacy made possible the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991, despite obstructionism by both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Syrian President Hafiz Assad.

Mr. Baker is praised for his loyalty to former President George H.W. Bush, and for teaching Mr. Ross the art of negotiating. In the author’s words, “I could not have had a better teacher.”

Mr. Ross also has kind words for former President Bill Clinton, whose strengths and weaknesses are described in the following way:

“President Clinton’s great strength as a negotiator was his extraordinary capacity to marry the details on issues with great empathy for those with whom he was dealing … but … if I briefed him on the key trade-offs too early, he tended to play the ideas prematurely.”

On the other side of the spectrum, the author is extremely critical of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and most of all, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Throughout the book, Mr. Ross complains about divisions within the Palestinian negotiating team (by contrast, the Israelis were far more united), and he attributes these to individuals such as Mr. Erekat, who deliberately took a hard line so as to curry favor with Mr. Arafat.

As Mr. Ross notes, “I came to believe that he [Mr. Erekat] could talk Arafat out of any understanding negotiated by other Palestinians — at least before Arafat was ready to do a deal,” as in the early stages of the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians on a partial Israeli withdrawal from Hebron.

Mr. Barak also comes in for serious criticism. Mr. Ross sees him as both eager for negotiations — as in the talks with Syria in 1999 and 2000, as well as in Camp David II — and surprisingly unprepared once the talks begin, even when Mr. Clinton had committed his personal prestige to the negotiations. “As was often the case with Barak, as soon as you pressed him for answers, he needed time.”

But the author saves his most scathing criticism for Mr. Arafat, whom he blames for the failure of Camp David II, for failing to quell the al-Aksa intifada when it erupted in September 2000, and for rejecting Mr. Clinton’s outline for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement offered in December 2000.

In the debate over the failure of Camp David II, the position taken by Mr. Ross is critical. Unlike Rob Malley, the National Security Council’s director for Middle Eastern affairs who blamed Mr. Barak and the Israelis for the failure, Mr. Ross (who notes Mr. Malley’s sympathy for the Palestinians) clearly blames Mr. Arafat.

After describing how Mr. Barak, after some very tough negotiations at Camp David II, had finally been willing to make a series of concessions — on the amount of territory Israel would annex, on the Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, and especially on Jerusalem — Mr. Ross condemns Mr. Arafat for not making concessions in return.

Indeed, to Mr. Ross, Mr. Arafat’s behavior had confirmed Mr. Barak’s worst fears — that the Palestinian leader would simply pocket all the concessions Mr. Barak had made and then demand more.

The outbreak of the al-Aksa intifada in September 2000 further confirmed Mr. Ross’ negative feelings about Mr. Arafat, whom he saw as deliberately not moving to quiet the uprising so he could strengthen his bargaining position: both vis-a-vis Israel and vis-a-vis the leaders of the Arab states, whose populations became increasingly restive as they saw, on Arab television, the daily clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.

Finally, Mr. Ross, who had devoted more than a decade of his life to working for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, was furious that Mr. Arafat refused to accept the final Clinton peace parameters that Mr. Ross and his staff had worked out.

These included, in addition to the proclamation of a Palestinian state, giving all of Gaza and virtually all of the West Bank to the Palestinians; giving the Arab areas of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, with Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall; and situating an international force in the Jordan Valley.

Dennis Ross concludes his book by citing the words of a prominent Palestinian, Anwar Nusseibeh. Nusseibeh described Hajj Amin el Husseini — the mufti of Palestine during the British Mandate — as a man who had “succeeded as a symbol and failed as a leader.”

Mr. Ross writes, “tragically for the Palestinians and the Israelis, these words capture the essence of Arafat fifty-three years later.”

Robert O. Freedman is the Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University, and visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. Among his publications are “The Middle East and the Peace Process” and “The Middle East Enters the Twenty-First Century.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide