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The Missing Peace Part I: The Missing Piece


The "peace" process was not what any of us thought at all.

Review of "The Missing Peace," by Dennis Ross, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

In ancient Sumeria and other cultures, when a king died, his retainers were often killed and buried with him. If we consider the effects of various memoirs written by people in public life, we can begin to see the logic behind this cruel custom. Dennis Ross's huge book, The Missing Peace however, is required reading for students of the Middle East Peace Process. It has received many reviews, most which were more about the pet theses of the different reviewers than about the book itself. As it is a large book, and Ross is not a terribly inspired writer, it will probably be cited and talked about far more than it is read.

Most of the reviewers seem to have skipped to the end, and discuss only Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat and the disaster of Camp David. I already knew how the book would turn out. I was more interested in finding out what and how Ross and others were thinking, and what ingredients went into cooking the current mess.

If you actually live in the Middle East and actually read the whole book, the biggest problem of the "peace process" becomes painfully evident, at least as far as Israel and Palestine are concerned. It is not mentioned in the book, because Ross is not aware of the problem. The problem is that the "peace process" as carried out by all parties had little to do with reality to begin with. As time went on, it became progressively divorced from reality, and from the hopes, concerns and needs of actual Israelis and Palestinians. It is somewhat, though not completely, irrelevant to ask whether or not Barak had a bad attitude or whether Ross supported Barak too much as Aaron Miller insists, or whether the Palestinians refused a good offer or a bad offer. By May of 2000, even before the talks had begun, it could be evident to a neutral observer that the bases for peace were absent and the process was not so much hopeless as nonexistent.

To the average Israeli, the "peace process" between 1994 and 2000 looked approximately like this:

  • Public declarations about peace and non-violence contrasted with a long string of terror attacks, beginning with a Hamas suicide bombing even before the Oslo DOP was actually signed.
  • A series of roadside ambushes by Fatah in the West Bank helped settler advocates build a case against the peace process. The Baruch Goldstein massacre in 1994 took place against the back drop of those ambushes. It was followed by more and bigger terror hits. Palestinian leaders continued to deplore violence in English and to do nothing about dismantling terror groups. In Israel, every terror attack brought out angry crowds of right-wing extremists. Agitation and death threats against PM Rabin grew. Following the assassination of Rabin, the terror attacks got worse. The Palestinian Authority arrested some Hamas small fry and some others, many of whom were promptly freed. During the Nethanyahu administration, the violence escalated into the infamous tunnel riots.
  • The attacks were accompanied by an unceasing stream of incitement from every quarter, including the Palestinian Authority itself. These were evident in TV broadcasts of little girls promising to liberate Jerusalem, and in yearly Nakba commemorations organized by the PA. These featured people with supposed keys of their homes carrying signs reading "Haifa," "Isdood," "Birsaba," "Beisan," "Majdal" and names of other cities in Israel. The past, at least the Palestinian version of it, was not forgotten, and the Palestinian leadership would not let anyone forget it.
  • It was common knowledge that Palestinians had accumulated weapons far in excess of those allowed by the Oslo accords, and the Nethanyahu government constantly bemoaned this violation.
  • Lawlessness increasingly ruled the Palestinian territories. Everyone in Israel knew this, and it is scarcely likely that Dennis Ross did not know it. Moneys donated by the EU and the United States for development projects disappeared into mysterious slush funds. Revelations about Yasser Arafat's personal bank accounts and slush funds abounded. Automobiles stolen in Israel turned up in Palestinian cities with new special license plates issued by the Palestine Authority. Major Palestinian industries were car theft and pirated cassettes and DVDs. There was no sign that the Palestinian authority was coalescing into an orderly state. Everyone was aware of this frightening aspect of reality, but nobody mentioned it.

From the Palestinian point of view, reality was equally grim:

  • The terror attacks forced Israeli closures and increasingly stringent checkpoint inspections, so that working in Israel became impossible. People who worked in Israel had to get up at 2 AM to wait in line, and then even that work was unavailable. The Palestinian Authority offered nothing to replace the lost jobs.

  • As Israel withdrew, it took chunks of Palestinian land for bypass roads, a considerable investment that was senseless if the settlements were to be evacuated soon in any case.
  • During the Nethanyahu and Barak years, the Israeli government renewed settlement activity and seemed more and more intent on keeping land and expanding settlements in places that would make a Palestinian state impossible, such as Ariel, Gaza, Har Homa. Palestinian media and leaders constantly pointed out that the building in Har Homa was destroying the peace process.
  • Israeli leaders continued to promise Israelis that there would be no compromise on Jerusalem and that this, that and the other settlement was part of Israel forever and eternally.

The average Israeli was not unjustified in concluding that a lawless and monstrous entity was taking shape next door. The average Palestinian was not unjustified in concluding that the Oslo process had brought them nothing except corrupt government, unemployment and perpetuation of the occupation. We were encouraged in these beliefs by our leaders. Everyone understood that under these conditions there could not be peace. Everyone not in on the secret of the negotiations assumed that the purpose of the negotations was to right this warped reality. We were all wrong it seems.

If we believe The Missing Peace , for Dennis Ross and the negotiators, these consderations that ruled the lives of ordinary people were of little weight or concern in the negotiations. The negotiators were hardly interested in the issues that bothered most of us, even if they used those issues to explain why there was no deal. At most, Palestinian suicide bombings or Israeli building in Har Homa or tunnel riots were minor annoyances that deferred negotiations for a bit. In the Wye Plantation negotiations, Nethanyahu himself agreed, according to Ross, that collection of illegal weapons could be a show to satisfy public opinion. The stuff of negotiations, the real sticking points, were totally irrelevant technical and tactical points. The time of the negotiaters, during most of the 6 years since the Oslo Declaration of Principles, was wasted in transitional issues that could have no importance in the final settlement. The negotiations over Israeli withdrawal from Hebron were utterly pointless. They created an unstable and artificial situation that could only be maintained by a large Israeli security contingent. They perpetuated arrangements that were awkward and inconvenient for both sides. The "peace" arrangement in Hebron was predicated on the idea that both these peoples hated each other so much that the "peace" could only be enforced by wire fences and battalions of soldiers. It was a negotiation to produce new battle lines inside a city.

The Wye River Plantation negotiations were even worse. They took place against the background of the endlessly deferred Israeli Further Redeployments ("FRDs"). Participants, particularly Ross, were obsessed with the size of these FRDs. Everyone seemed to forget that the goal was a final settlement, not FRDs. While the Hebron negotiations at least had some result in the real world, the Wye River Plantation negotiations consisted of haggling over empty technical points that neither side intended to honor. What was the point of arguing over how big the FRDs would be in the event the Israelis actually carried out the FRDs, when it was obvious that Bibi Nethanyahu did not intend to carry out the FRDs, because the Palestinians never intended to carry out their commitments on security and incitement, because in turn, the Israelis didn't intend to meet Palestinian demands on prisoner release? Both sides made promises to please the Americans, knowing that they were meaningless, and the Americans acquiesced in the show. When Barak finally carried out the redeployment promised by Bibi, it was no longer very relevant.

A pattern emerged that would haunt the Camp David negotiations as well. Each side pleaded that they could not make concessions because of internal pressures. However, the issues were artificial ones such as FRD percentages which didn't really concern their people, and the pressures came from pressure groups that they themselves had set up and encouraged to generate pressure. Each side carefully set its "red lines" just outside whatever might be acceptable to the other side. Did Dennis Ross really believe Bibi Nethanyahu when he said that a 1% larger FRD would endanger the security of Israel and could not be carried out? Did he really believe that the Palestinians would be happy with 12% of the land and absolutely had to have 12%, but 9% would be unacceptable and result in tragedy?

The utlimate demonstration of the arbitrary nature of these numbers was the scheme whereby the magic total percentage was really composed of X% going from Area C to Area B and Y% going from Area B to Area A. So actually, the Israelis would only give up, say, 6% of the land from area C, and another 6% might be transfered from area B to area A, but one could still say that 12% of the land had been transferred. Carrying this logic to its conclusion, the West bank and Gaza could be divided into 50 levels of control, ranging from outright annexation through different degrees of partial Israeli control. to complete Palestinian autonomy. Israel could then transfer 2% from Area ZZ to Area Z and 2% from Z to area YY. Nethanyahu could tell his people that he only gave up 2% of the land, but the Palestinians could tell their people that they had gotten an FRD of 100%. Who would believe this nonsense except American voters? While the Israelis were making believe they were conceding territory, the Palestinians would conduct their sham arms control and their sham arrests - collecting the same arms that would be stolen and recollected, and arresting the same prisoners who would escape and be rearrested.

Didn't it occur to Ross that if more than 9% (or whatever tiny percent) FRD would endanger Israeli security, then certainly there could be no further Israeli concessions at all in final status negotiations, so that a final settlement was impossible to attain? And if so, what was the purpose of the FRDs? For the negotiators, it was all about how to spin whatever result they obtained so it could look like an accomplishment. Did the negotiators think that Palestinians would not notice that they didn't have any land, and Israelis would not notice that they didn't have any security? The only people who might be fooled would be Americans who did not live with the reality. There is no way to spin hungry babies and suicide bombings into rosy visions of peace.

Ross is right to include the historical context of the conflict at the start of his narrative. However, the negotiations and the reactions of the sides are unintelligible if we do not feel the reality that they are living through. Ross briefly mentions the riots that took place in May of 2000, when Barak was about to transfer Abu Dis to Palestinian control. He even notices that the riots were more or less instigated by the Palestine Authority, and that they were triggered by the Nakba day commemoration, dedicated to highlighting the issue of Right of Return. He also mentions that Barak's attitude to the peace process was hesitant and skeptical, but for some reason, Ross cannot connect the two. Similarly, he mentions Israeli building in Har Homa in the tenure of Bibi Nethanyahu. But for him, it was a side issue. In December, 2000 when Barak and the Palestinians are reluctant to make concessions because they are politically unpopular, Ross fails to note that the negotiations were held against the backdrop of Palestinian violence and Israeli repression, which had already cost quite a few lives. The reality on the ground is the missing piece in The Missing Peace.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 2 comments

I read the comments of the book and i read other articles of Ross. He has a interesting point of view but the problem is that theory of international negotiation is far different from the reality. A bunch of persons could get in a room to negotiate some points but the important thing is what they do, before, during and after that negotiation. Because the possible accord or failure will bring consecuences and they will be force to do something, and they will have to take unpopular mesures if they want to go ahead (in case if they accord). So is impossible to understand the process if you don¬īt look of the context and the actions of the goverments.
And the distance makes a difference, is easy from argentina to make conclusions and suggestions but is in israel and palestina where they have to live with the conflict.

Posted by Gabriela @ 06/29/2005 05:24 AM CST

The most absurd part of this book is when after explaining each disaster, Ross gives some lessons about how to manage peace processes. If he did this by explaining what he should have not done, then it will be OK (all in all if Titanic captain would had survived could have been a good adviser in what must not be done when there is risk of icebergs). But Ross gives the lessons basing in what he did.

There is a tragically hilarating phrase in the book that says "In ME, bad fortune can spoil the most carefully and best laid plans". He should have add "not to say our shabby improvisations based in unrealistic assumptions and targeted more to highlight our public image than to produce any practical result". Tactic without strategy, agitation vs. movement and PR against facts are the trademarks of the Peace Process, a road made long and winding to arrive nowhere as late as possible.

Posted by Aleph @ 06/30/2005 09:17 PM CST

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