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Ambassador Dennis Ross Discusses the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

October 08, 2003 // 12:30pm1:30pm

Ambassador Dennis Ross said prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians have dimmed considerably since a brief moment of reduced tensions this past spring. "There was an ongoing peace process," Ross said at a Wilson Council lunch, "but that moment has been lost."

Deteriorating living conditions for both Israelis and Palestinians, combined with sheer exhaustion from enduring violence, had motivated both sides to seek serious solutions. By May of this year, 73 percent of Palestinians supported an end to the violence, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was saying that an end to occupation must come soon.

However, the moment was lost because, Ross said, "the mechanism to translate the war process to a peace process was flawed." The concept of a "Road Map" to peace is a good one, but among the 52 paragraphs of the Road Map presented by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, not one of the steps involved assistance from the negotiators. In addition, while the Israelis and Palestinians both wanted to end the war, they had different views of how to get there. "You must be able to meet the expectations on the ground and choreograph your plan with reality," Ross said.

Violence, in the form of Palestinian suicide bombings and strong retaliatory strikes from Israel, escalated heavily following the brief lapse in the spring. Today, in Ross's mind, there remain only six options for peace.

One option is to continue to wait for both sides to be exhausted. According to Ross, however, a war of attrition should be unacceptable to both sides.

Second, Israel could cut a deal with the new Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, allowing Qurie to work with Arafat's approval. Under such an agreement, Arafat would be forced out of the process, but would not be permanently exiled. However, Ross was less than optimistic about the chances of Arafat cooperating under any circumstances.

Third, the United States could make a dramatic intervention, insisting the Israelis freeze their settlements and demanding that Arab states publicly denounce Hammas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist groups who are obstacles to peace. Arab states have thus far been unwilling to make such a declaration, for the cost of taking that kind of stand is greater than the cost of letting the Israelis and Palestinians continue to fight. An American intervention, however, would likely force Arab states to change their calculation.

Fourth, an international trusteeship could intervene, taking over for the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank that is supposed to be under PLO control. The trusteeship could help to build legitimate institutions and deal with the security issues that concern Israel. Ross warned such an option would not allow Palestinians to assume any real responsibility of their own, however. "The Palestinians need the concept of accountability to replace the concept of being victims," Ross pointed out. "An international intervention would only reinforce the idea of non-responsibility."

Fifth, Israel could expel Arafat. However, Ross emphasized, Israel could only realistically do so if it proved to the Palestinians that Arafat was an obstacle to peace. Israel would have to make a dramatic offer for peace, making concessions no one thought they ever would, and if and when Arafat still refused to cooperate, they could realistically expel Arafat as an obstacle to peace. Only under these circumstances, however, would both sides support such a move.

Finally, there is what Ross called the "default" option: build a wall or fence. Israel has already begun constructing a wall, but Ross said the path of the wall is ad hoc, whereas it needs to be part of an overall strategy for peace. "A wall has to be a step in the process if it is to be successful," Ross said. Israel should not build the wall right on the "green line" boundaries, but rather upon the realities of security and demography. Israelis would have to withdraw from many of their settlements in order to get out of Palestinians lives, as well. A wall can be a viable option only insofar as it is a step in a rational peace process – it cannot be an arbitrary wall that only serves to protect settlements.

Ross said he is less optimistic than he has been in some time, but he remains hopeful that progress can be made soon. Ambassador Ross is director and Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. For more than twelve years, Ambassador Ross played a leading role in shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process and in dealing directly with the parties in negotiations. A highly skilled diplomat, Ambassador Ross was this country's point man on the peace process in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He was instrumental in assisting Israelis and Palestinians in reaching the 1995 Interim Agreement; he also successfully brokered the Hebron Accord in 1997, facilitated the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and intensively worked to bring Israel and Syria together.

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