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Lost Opportunities

The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace
Dennis Ross
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, $35.00

On January 2, 2001, five days after the American-imposed deadline for responding to the Clinton Plan for ending the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Yasser Arafat finally met with President Bill Clinton. According to then-Ambassador Dennis Ross’s new book, The Missing Peace, when asked if the Palestinian side accepted the plan, Arafat said yes, then proceeded to reject crucial elements of it. Arafat had just derailed the peace process, Ross writes: “The game was over. For the foreseeable future, it would be necessary to switch gears; we would be out of the peacemaking business and back to a preoccupation with crisis prevention and the defusing of conflict.”

Since the collapse of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, the outbreak of the second intifada, and the defeat of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak by Ariel Sharon, participants and scholars have sought to assign blame for the diplomatic failure and the ensuing violence. The Missing Peace is a particularly important contribution to this discussion. An ambassador in the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, Dennis Ross spent 12 years shepherding the negotiations. At virtually every key juncture he was there to talk, negotiate, pressure, threaten, and cajole. He apparently kept careful notes, because his book is deeply informed and rich in detail. Unfortunately, Ross’s conclusions about both Israeli–Palestinian and Israeli–Syrian relations are highly misleading, and because he was such an important player, his arguments are likely to carry great weight—and do great harm. The idea that the Palestinians are not serious about negotiations—and that negotiating with them is therefore a waste of time—enjoys wide currency. The conventional evidence for that view is the failure of Camp David and the Palestinian rejection of the Clinton plan. By canonizing that story here, Ross reinforces current American and Israeli policy.

In 2004, Arafat and the same group of Palestinian negotiators remain in power. By claiming that the Palestinians refuse to accept a negotiated settlement, Israel asserts that it has no negotiating partner. If this is true, bilateral diplomacy is no longer an option, and Israel must rely on unilateral action, including military force. Thus, an inaccurate understanding of the events of 2000 and 2001 constrains policymakers and forecloses the one path—diplomacy—that has the best hope of bringing some normalcy to Israeli-Palestinian relations.

On December 23, 2000, President Clinton read his plan for a final settlement of the conflict to Israeli and Palestinian officials. Ross observes that Arafat dragged his feet until January 2, 2001, then accepted the plan, and then immediately offered three reservations that Ross calls “deal-killers.” Arafat accepted Israel’s sovereignty over the central Jewish holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem known as the Wailing Wall but not over the entire ancient temple wall of which it is a part; he objected to Israeli use of West Bank air space; and he requested a different formula for dealing with Palestinian refugees. Arafat answered after the Clinton-imposed deadline, but as Ross explained during earlier negotiations over Hebron, “No political leader I have ever dealt with or observed relishes taking a difficult, potentially costly decision if he or she can avoid it or delay it.”

In January 2001 Barak publicly rejected the Clinton plan’s call for Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. This rejection was no less fundamental than Arafat’s opposition to the refugee formula.

Contrary to Ross’s claim that Arafat’s three objections vitiated the Clinton plan, only the refugee point seems fundamental. At the same time, Ross ignores or minimizes Israeli reservations, barely noting them in the book’s preface (with no specifics), and then, near the end of the book, dismissing them with the claim that they “were within the [Clinton] parameters, not outside them.” In fact, Barak gave Clinton a 20-page letter outlining Israel’s reservations, some of them quite significant. Furthermore, in January 2001 Barak publicly rejected the Clinton plan’s call for Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. This rejection was no less fundamental than Arafat’s opposition to the refugee formula. Moreover, Barak also expressed reservations about Clinton’s proposal on refugees. In hindsight, Israel’s response to the Clinton plan probably benefited from a more politic presentation. Arafat agreed to the plan and simultaneously offered his reservations; Barak had the Israeli cabinet approve the Clinton plan and then, in a separate time and place, presented Clinton with its own list of reservations.

Despite this jockeying by both sides in early January 2001, high-level Israeli–Palestinian talks began a few weeks later, on January 21, in Taba, Egypt. The Taba talks were serious and largely based on the Clinton plan, according to Ross himself in an August 2001 interview (“What was done in Taba was basically to focus on the Clinton ideas”) and according to the concluding communiqué issued by the high-level Israeli and Palestinian representatives at Taba (the “two sides took into account the ideas suggested by President Clinton together with their respective qualifications and reservations”). And the two parties reported unprecedented progress: the final statement from Taba, issued about ten days before Sharon trounced Barak in the Israeli elections, announced, “The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged with the resumption of negotiations following the Israeli elections.” Yet Ross discounts the importance of Taba, giving it only two sentences, late in the book. While Ross’s friend, the journalist and scholar David Makovsky, has written that Taba was unimportant, many others have drawn the opposite conclusion, including Akiva Eldar of Ha’aretz, Alain Gresh of Le Monde, and Charles Enderlin of France 2 television (the Jerusalem bureau chief, who has also written a book of his own on the period called Shattered Dreams). Miguel Moratinos, the European Union envoy who attended the Taba negotiations, released notes of the talks that reflect substantive exchanges. David Matz, a negotiations and conflict-resolution specialist at the University of Massachusetts, interviewed most of the negotiators and concluded that they were actively seeking a settlement.

That Ross is willing to overlook the developments at Taba for the sake of bolstering the credibility of the side he favors is not surprising given his views on diplomacy. He explains that there is room for manipulation: “Never lie in a negotiation. You don’t have to tell the whole truth, you can certainly manipulate, but you should never lie. It will come back to haunt you.”

If not at the Clinton–Arafat meeting on January 2, 2001, when was the “game” really over? After Taba ended and newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Sharon chose not to resume the talks.

In blaming Arafat and fixing his responsibility on January 2, Ross largely ignores a more compelling explanation for the failure of the peace process. The alternative story begins at Camp David in July 2000. The American–Israeli offer there was simply insufficient, so Camp David was not a true test of Palestinian intentions. The offer, seen in the most favorable light, would have given to the Palestinians 92 percent of the occupied territory. The 92-percent figure included sections of the Jordan Valley that Israel would control for as long as 12 years. And the Palestinians were not offered sovereignty in a number of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The Palestinian refugee question, at least as far as can be deduced from Ross’s account, did not receive the sustained attention the subjects of land and the holy city did, so, not surprisingly, it was not ready for resolution.

Clinton’s December 2000 plan, then, was set up to be a true test of both sides. The new Palestinian state would include a contiguous 97 percent of the West Bank, and Israel would control the Jordan Valley only “in fixed locations” and for up to six years, not 12. In East Jerusalem, all Arab neighborhoods would fall under Palestinian sovereignty. Both aspects of the plan came far closer to meeting Palestinian needs. On refugees, the details were more concrete and favored the Israelis: Israel would retain the sovereign right to determine how many Palestinian refugees could enter Israel. The vast majority would receive compensation and live outside of Israel. Because Sharon’s election and rejection of the process came so soon after the efforts in Taba to move the Clinton plan forward, we do not know whether the Clinton plan would ultimately have provided the basis for a settlement.

Why did it take until December 2000 through January 2001 for Israel and the United States to grasp what it would take to meet the minimum Palestinian needs in a two-state solution? Why this possibly fateful delay?

Ross obscures this history in part by making the territorial proposals at Camp David look better than they really were. In 2002, Barak conceded that he had not envisioned a contiguous Palestinian state at Camp David: “The Palestinians were promised a continuous piece of sovereign territory except for a razor-thin Israeli wedge running from Jerusalem through from Maale Adumim to the Jordan River.” This wedge would have cut the West Bank in two. As mentioned already, Israel also planned to control the Jordan Valley for as long as 12 years. Ross’s own map of the “Actual Proposal at Camp David” is contiguous and makes no mention of the decade of Israeli control of the Valley. And he explicitly contrasts his illustration with the post-summit Palestinian “characterization”—which does include a non-contiguous West Bank—and calls it inaccurate.

Why, then, did the United States present the Clinton plan in December rather than in July at Camp David? Why did it take until December 2000 through January 2001 for Israel and the United States to grasp what it would take to meet the minimum Palestinian needs in a two-state solution? Why this possibly fateful delay? At this point, the answers are tentative.

Part of the problem was the second intifada. The Palestinian uprising erupted in the fall, just as the United States was about to present a proposal along the lines of the Clinton plan. But the question of why it took a failed summit to get to that point remains. Were the Americans and the Israelis simply hoping to low-ball the Palestinians?

Another candidate for blame is Barak himself. It was Barak, after all, who pushed for a summit in the summer of 2000 and who resisted following through on previous Israeli commitments in part because he thought they would all be wrapped up in a summit anyway. Why bother wasting political capital on the third “further redeployment” (Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories), the release of a few more Palestinian prisoners, or even greater Palestinian authority in some Arab villages on the edge of East Jerusalem, if the two sides were about to settle the entire conflict?

These calculations occurred, Ross reminds us, as Barak’s broad coalition government was crumbling. Moreover, by the time of Camp David, as Ross explains, Barak’s political instincts and bargaining skills were not only limited but also as likely to get Barak and Bill Clinton into trouble, as they were to bring peace in the Middle East. In Ross’s account, Barak’s hubris, impulsiveness, and inexperience knew no bounds.

The fault for delaying the more serious proposal, then, may lie in Barak’s wishful thinking. He wanted a summit, needed it domestically, and so believed it would work despite initial American doubts, Palestinian reluctance, and Israeli skepticism. Ross speculates that Barak’s detached behavior at the Camp David summit revealed that “price he was going to have to pay for a deal was higher than he’d envisioned and it went against everything he had ever believed.”

To probe Barak’s agenda and reject Ross’s finger-pointing is not to absolve Arafat of all responsibility. In Ross’s book, Arafat emerges as a poor strategist and flawed negotiator even if he, like Barak, meant to reach a two-state solution. One can easily imagine the extreme frustration of working with him. Leaving aside Ross’s misplaced conclusion about the implications of Arafat’s January 2001 comments, his account still tends to reinforce the words of the Palestinian academic Yezid Sayigh from the fall of 2001: “Arafat is guilty of strategic misjudgement, with consequences for the Palestinians of potentially historic proportions.” It was not that Arafat had the wrong strategy (that is, rejectionism), but rather, as Sayigh suggests, that he lacked a strategic frame altogether.

While it may be true that Barak and others who received Palestinian signals about a final deal were poor receptors, it is equally plausible that the Palestinian signals were confusing or inadequate. In 1995, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) negotiated a secret final status agreement with Yossi Beilin, an Israeli minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s government. Abbas later disowned the Beilin–Abu Mazen agreement, leading some to call it in jest the “Beilin–Abu Beilin agreement.” More generally, the competition for leadership roles and influence at the level just below Arafat was intense (and remains so). That tension alone could explain a situation in which Palestinian leaders were unable to project a clear message leading into the final status talks and the Camp David summit. Neither Ross nor other commentators ever give the impression that Arafat pressed for precise consistency on the core issues of those talks.

Whereas Ross wants to focus blame on Arafat, he takes a more balanced approach with respect to the Israelis and the Syrians. The Israelis and the Syrians had two decisive moments. According to Ross, the first one was ruined by Barak and the second by Syrian President Hafez al-Asad.

When Barak first took office in 1999, his highest priority was signing a peace agreement with Syria. The problem was that all three of Barak’s immediate predecessors—Rabin, Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu—had agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured and occupied in 1967. Even more troubling from his perspective was that they had agreed to use the June 4, 1967, line as the basis for the new Israeli–Syrian border after Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan. The June 4 line was more favorable to Syria than other options, such as the 1923 international boundary. Could Barak too make the leap?

The first test was the talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in January 2000, and Barak failed that test. Washington and Damascus both sent representatives to the talks thinking the two sides would have a major breakthrough. Barak, who was allowing himself to be guided by unsettling polling results from Israel, had other ideas. For Barak, Shepherdstown became an opportunity to probe the Syrians rather than one for an actual policy shift and peace agreement. The Syrians, who had believed an agreement was possible and had sent their foreign minister Farouk al-Shara to negotiate, were outraged, and they were not alone. As Clinton derisively told Barak at the later Camp David summit, “I went to Shepherdstown and was told nothing by you for four days.”

The second test came on March 26, 2000, when Clinton met Hafez al-Asad in Geneva. Again many observers thought a deal was in the offing. Asad brought a massive delegation, apparently expecting to negotiate and write a peace treaty.

However, in a now well-known debacle, Clinton had barely begun his presentation to Asad when the Syrian president objected. As Clinton told Asad that Israel would withdraw to “a commonly agreed border” at the June 4 line, Asad said it was a “problem.” When Clinton tried to continue by adding that Israel would retain control of all the land around the Sea of Galilee, Asad replied, “Then they don’t want peace.” The two leaders never recovered, and the meeting was a prominent public failure.

But even if Ross’s account is correct and Clinton did refer to the June 4, 1967, line, Ross plays fast and loose with the definition of that line.

To Ross, the explanation for the failure was that Asad did not want peace. “In the end,” Ross wrote, “Asad passed.” Asad himself had always insisted on the June 4 line. How could Ross explain Asad’s rejection of a deal that included Israeli withdrawal according to his own terms? Asad must have changed his mind about resolving Syria’s conflict with Israel.

The question of exactly what Clinton said to Asad is still open to debate. In Shattered Dreams Enderlin writes that Clinton mentioned an “agreed-upon boundary” without a reference to the June 4, 1967, line. In his account, it is obvious why Asad rejected the deal.

But even if Ross’s account is correct and Clinton did refer to the June 4, 1967, line, Ross plays fast and loose with the definition of that line. According to Frederic Hof, an expert on the Golan border area, Syria controlled land all the way up to the shoreline in the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee as of June 4, 1967. This was more land than Syria was entitled to if one accepted the 1923 international border—that earlierline was ten meters back from the water. At one point, Ross suggests without elaboration that the 1923 line and the June 4 1967 line are both ten meters back from the water.

Yet whether one takes Hof’s or Ross’s view of the 1967 line, the map Ross showed Asad on March 26, 2000, was even more generous to Israel in the northeast corner of the sea. How do we know? Ross relates that upon seeing the map, the Syrian Foreign Minister al-Shara “immediately pointed out that the narrow strip off the lake was to the east of the 1923 line.” Ross’s response was that “it was true that at that point the line was marginally to the east of the 1923 line,” though Syria would get more land in the southeast part of the lake. Further east meant even further from the Sea of Galilee. In short, even if one accepts Ross’s view of the June 4, 1967, line as conterminous with the 1923 line at this part of the Sea of Galilee, the map he presented in 2000 did not follow that line.

If Ross rejected Hof’s research on the June 4, 1967, line, he should have made a stiffer defense of his interpretation. The absence of such an argument makes one suspicious of the rejection of Hof’s carefully researched claim that Syria controlled the water’s edge on June 4, 1967, in the northeast section of the sea. Moreover, even if one adopts Ross’s approach, the line he showed Asad and the others on March 26, 2000, was more than ten meters from the Sea.

Thus, it appears that the offer the United States presented to Syria on March 26, 2000, was a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, line in name only. The United States and Israel hoped to call it that and then get Syria to agree to a demarcation that was not actually the June 4 line. While Ross had heard several Syrians suggest that Syria could accept a new line that was not on the water, he never heard it from Asad, the Syrian leader who held Syria’s cards.

What does this all mean? Barak probably did not agree to a withdrawal to a genuine June 4 line. He allowed the United States to use the terminology that Asad wanted as long as the actual demarcation protected Barak on the Sea of Galilee’s shoreline. No wonder, then, that Hafez al-Asad cried foul.

We do not have a complete understanding of why American and Israeli negotiators thought this proposal would be sufficient for Asad’s Syria. As mentioned, Ross himself had heard several statements of flexibility as part of previous American–Israeli–Syrian talks. Or maybe it was simply Barak’s hubris or his belief that he and the Americans could outsmart Asad. In either case, the end result was the same: no deal. Three months later, Hafez al-Asad was dead.

Without Oslo, the two populations would not have been as committed to a two-state solution as they are today.

On both fronts, Israeli–Palestinian and Israeli–Syrian, the future may actually be brighter than Ross’s book suggests. Despite past failures, the parties now know what it will take to come to an agreement if they are ever willing to re-engage. The Clinton plan sets out a reasonable framework for a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and the exact definition of the June 4 border is known to be the major sticking point for Israel with Syria.

Moreover, it is easy to forget the importance of the earlier process that began in Oslo. Since 2001 Oslo has commonly been thought of as a failure, and it certainly was in the sense that it did not conclude with a resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Without Oslo, however, the two populations would not have been as committed to a two-state solution as they are today. It is telling that one of the central critiques today of the Oslo process is that it was too gradual and allowed too much time for procrastination, bickering, violence, and suspicion. The two sides should have moved to resolve core issues like Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood much earlier.

Such a claim, as Ross’s narrative of 12 years of attempted peacemaking reminds us, is only possible in a post-Oslo world. Before Oslo, in 1993, Israel had not even recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization. Even the baby steps of 1993–1995 seemed novel and far-reaching. The wreckage of Oslo is strewn all over the streets of Tel Aviv and Ramallah, but a silver lining remains for the next negotiating team able to restart high-level Israeli–Palestinian talks.

Right now such talks seem distant. But a different—and more accurate—understanding of the past, with a deeper appreciation of joint responsibility for failure and correspondingly for success, might itself contribute to a different and better future.


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About the Author

Jeremy Pressman is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut and author of Warring Friends: Alliance Restraint in International Politics.

Jeremy Pressman, The Best Hope–Still?


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