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The Missing Peace II: Peace is not a Piece of Paper


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

As we saw in Part I, the "Peace Process," at least as related by Ross, took place in a vacuum almost completely unrelated to reality, with goals such as FRDs (Further Redeployments) and CBMs (Confidence Building Measures) that were entirely irrelevant to anything the sides really needed to achieve. It is easy to fix the fault for the failure of the Middle East Peace Process on one side or the other, depending on your initial assumptions, and provided that you ignore either all or most of the reality. It is especially easy if, as some have done, you begin your analysis in 1999 when Ehud Barak became Prime Minister.

For Dennis Ross, and perhaps for critics like Clayton Swisher and Aaron Miller as well as for the Nobel committee, "peace" is obtained and defined by a piece of paper signed between two sides and a handshake on the White House lawn. The goal of the "peace" negotiations is a political victory for the United States, and career advancement for the negotiators. Not surprisingly, they are all angry at one or another side for not delivering the goods, and leaving them to wallow in the relative of obscurity of "was a negotiator."

As the experience of Vietnam and the Middle East shows however, reality is much stronger than any piece of paper. By the time Barak had come into office in May of 1999, the situation was probably irretrievable. The "preparation" that should have been done for the summit, did not consist of drawing maps and learning the positions of the sides, as some seem to think. The preparation that was not done was the groundwork in changing reality that should have been done between 1994 and 1999.

The "creative ambiguity" of the Oslo agreements expressed the fact that while many of the negotiators of the two sides had the will for peace, the leaderships had only a very narrow mandate from their political base for making concessions, which was never sufficient to accomodate the basic requirements of the other side.

On the Israeli side, Shimon Peres was certainly sincere when he told the Knesset in October of 1995 that peace with the Palestinians did not necessarily imply a Palestinian state. In retrospect, the idea is preposterous, but it did not seem so at the time.

The features of "peace" as envisioned by Israelis, and the limits of the political mandate for peace were:

  • No division of Jerusalem - the Temple Mount would remain under Israeli sovereignty, as would the entire old city.

  • No evacuation of large settlements in the West Bank - with the exception of the Gaza settlements and possibly Ariel, the large settlements of the West Bank are presumed by Israelis to be part of the "consensus" that will not be touched in a peace agreement.

  • Maximal security guarantees - the IDF would patrol the borders of the Palestinian state, and Israel would maintain a presence in the Jordan Valley.
  • No right of return - Palestinian refugees would not return to Israel.

  • No terror - The different terror groups, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, DFLP, would either abjure terror or would be dismantled.

  • Palestinian and Arab recognition of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.

From the Palestinian point of view, the meaning of "peace" was quite different, and the requirements were quite different:

  • A Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, controlling the entire old city and East Jerusalem.

  • Evacuation of all the "illegal" settlements.

  • Implementation of the "Right of Return" of Palestinian refugees, which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

  • Complete control over borders.

  • No peace with "Zionists" - a slogan I heard often enough, meaning that the Palestinians fully expected that Israel would become just another Arab state once it had a Palestinian majority.

  • Recognition of the terror groups as "legitimate resistance" and toleration of their activities as long as any of the above goals were not met, regardless of any signed agreements.

The above positions were based on two opposing narratives and understandings of the nature and origins of the conflict. Ross does well to present these narratives in the introduction to his book, but he failed to understand the implications: unless the two sides could be made to modify their understanding of who was right in history, they would never move far enough to accomodate each other. Each side persists in the myth that it is the blameless victim of circumstances, and expects an apology and cessation of hostilities from the other side. It does not help at all that there is a tremendous economic gap between Israel and the Palestinians. In truth, the Palestinians in 1994 were better off than they had ever been, richer than their cousins in Syria or Egypt or Jordan, thanks to employment in Israel and limited Israeli development and social and medical services. Poverty has been a fact of life in the Middle East and certainly in Palestine for a very long time, but it is very easy to contrast the relatively well off Israelis with the poverty of the Palestinians, and conclude that the wealth of the Israelis came at the expense of making the Palestinians poor.

The time between 1994 and 1999 should have been used to build a Palestinian economy and a Palestinian state, and to educate the populations of the two sides to understand or at least tolerate each other. Instead it was used to exacerbate the existing problems. For its part, Israel continued to build settlements during most of this period, at an even higher rate than it had in the past. If Israel showed any concern for Palestinian economic woes, it was expressed only in bank transfers to slush funds controlled directly by Arafat. The international community was largely indifferent to real economic problems in Palestine, or supported anti-peace NGOs such as BADIL, the right of return lobby. Terror became worse, and not better, featuring, for the first time, Hamas suicide bombers. The terror induced closures, and the closures aided the collapse of the Palestinian economy.

Dialogue was encouraged only to the extent that it could be used to further political ends of one side or another. The Palestinians used their new freedom to spew out waves of incitement, and part of Israeli society developed a hard-core settler culture that entertained evil fantasies of transferring Palestinians out of Israel and jailing "leftist traitors" like Shimon Peres. The infamous FRDs, the Further Redeployments should have been part of a gradual process whereby the Palestinians came to control more and more of their territory, as they developed responsible government. On the one hand, the Palestinians never developed responsible government. On the other hand, Israel had not carried out the FRDs.

That was the situation when Barak became Prime Minister. He had a mandate for "peace," but only based on the parameters above, or less, because nothing good had happened since 1994. Therefore, it is beside the point to ask why Dennis Ross did not suddently pressure Barak to make concessions. Likewise, the Palestinian leadership had a mandate for "peace," but only for peace based on their own "red lines" as outlined above. The first duty of a government to itself is to stay in power. The concessions that were required of Arafat and Barak would have robbed them of their political support and put them out of office. In the end, that is exactly what happened to Barak.

Moreover, the public was right, and Dennis Ross was wrong, because the public saw the reality. The American version of the peace process was about signing ceremonies and getting credit. While the Americans are poor at understanding the political exigencies of others, they can be trusted to be very appreciative of their own political requirements. Ross was unhappy that Jordanian and Israel negotiators went ahead and negotiated a peace treaty without US help. They had to do it in secret to keep the Americans from getting in the way. The Americans also forced the Jordanians and Israelis to change the timing of their announcement so it would be convenient for the Americans.

It was not just about political gain. It was about ego too. In an exceptionally revealing passage, Ross unwittingly shows his colors. Barak had sent negotiators to Washington with a mandate to give up not more than 93% of the territory. This was conveyed to Ross, and Ross tried to get the Palestinians to agree. Without agreement on this issue, there could be no progress. Then a small miracle took place. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met, the magic of dialogue did its work, and the Israelis agreed to offer 95% of the territory.

Far from being happy at this fortunate turn of events, Ross was furious. Progress had been made without his help:

...When Gamal told me this, I was stunned and angry..

I called Gilad and told him what I had been told. While it was clear he was unhappy, he did not deny this had been conveyed to the Palestinians. I was furious. What was the point of my converying a tough posture on issues of supposed principle to the Israeli side if they were simply going to undercut me? "Don't ask me to convey any messages or reinforce your positions from now on," I told him. "I won't do it." (page 749).

Perhaps the above makes sense to Americans, I don't know. From my point of view, it is absurd. Ross forgot that the land was not his land, and that the object was to make peace, not to build his stature as a statesman. His being "undercut" was totally irrelevant to what the goals of the peace process should have been.

During the successive tenures of Rabin, Peres, Netanhayu and Barak, the sides grew farther apart, rather than closer together. Instead of bringing peace closer, the passage of time made it more impossible. Each side did the things that most annoyed the other side, and failed to live up to their treaty commitments. They could not do otherwise, because there was no political support for real peace moves within their own constituencies and they did not try to build any such support. The USA did nothing about any of this, because nobody understood the real problem or thought that it was important. The important thing after all was to get people to sign off on some FRDs and CBMs, make another checkmark somewhere, carry on and get a good job in the next administration. Failing that, one could always write a book blaming someone else.

Indeed, suppose that Ross could have pressured both sides sufficiently. Perhaps he could have brought off the handshake ceremony between Barak and Arafat on the White House lawn in time for the US elections. Perhaps Al Gore would have been elected, but for the Israelis and Palestinians the peace produced under those circumstances would have been a disaster, that would make the Oslo signing ceremony look good. The Palestinian entity did not have the will, the cohesiveness or the ability to form a state that would live up to its responsibilities. The Israelis would not do very much to help. Inevitably, in a few months we would have faced a war much worse than the second Intifada.

The political pressure - and the pressure of reality - on both sides were very real, yet Ross generally dismisses terror attacks as "incidents" that interfere with progress, and likewise failed to appreciate the full impact of the political pressure on both sides. Ariel Sharon's walk on the Temple Mount was not simply another "incident" without rhyme or reason, and the violence that was kindled with malice aforethought by Marwan Barghouti was not a happenstance either. Both of them are astute opposition politicians, doing their job, which is to represent the people and to get into power. Sharon understood that Israelis would not give up access to the Temple Mount, and he understood that Palestinians were not ready to grant it. Barghouti understood that Palestinians would be outraged by Sharon walking in the Haram as Sharif, and that Israel would react severely to riots in Jerusalem. Both saw an opportunity to gain popularity and power, while doing the will of their constituents. We cannot blame them for doing what they did any more than we can blame a shark for eating people. That is what it was made to do. Politicians like Barghouti and Sharon who understand that chauvinism and extremism are cheap routes to power, are facts of life.

Sharon's walk was the perfect way to demonstrate the emptiness of the peace process and to effectively end it. If Palestinians could not allow an Israeli to walk on the Temple Mount, there was no peace and no process. The riots were a demonstration to Israelis there would be no access for any Israelis in any holy places or sites of national importance given up to the Palestinians. Division of Jerusalem actually became politically unviable at that point, but Barak, under pressure from Ross, would risk it anyway at the end of the negotiations. There is no chance that Barak's offer would pass a national referendum.

Political and actual realities, which Ross ignores, explain why Barak could not have offered the Palestinians at Camp David what he eventually offered at Taba. In the summer of 2000 Barak's government was still a going concern. He could not go beyond the parameters of the politically possible without losing his coalition support. He pushed the envelope a bit, and as it turned out, it was a bit too far. By January 2001, it was quite evident that Barak would be out of office no matter what he did. Barak had no place to go but up, so he could afford to be generous and offer to divide Jerusalem and give the Palestinians 95% of the land, on the hope that a last minute miraculous peace agreement would get him re-elected. These offers were sincere. They were also intended to provide a backstop for further negotiations. Ross notes that Israeli negotiators tried to get Yasser Arafat to sign a memorandum of what had been agreed, so that the proposals would be somewhat binding on both sides, and would constrain Ariel Sharon, who was obviously about to be elected as Prime Minister. Arafat however, would not sign off even on the minor concessions that Palestinians had made, and so the Israeli offers became historical curios.

Another aspect of the conflict underemphasized by Ross and others is the role of other Arab states in instigating Palestinian resistance to peace. The Hamas, Islamic Jihad, DFLP, PFLP and some other groups were financed from abroad by different Muslim and Arab countries, some hoping to buy internal peace, others hoping to use the conflict for their own benefit. These countries include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Of thse, Syria constitutes the worst influence, since the Syrians had no interest in allowing Palestinian-Israeli peace as long as they have not made peace with Israel. The inter-Arab political fortunes are based on their leadership of the slowly shrinking "refusal front," and those fortunes would be ruined by an American sponsored peace between Palestinians and Israelis. As long as Syria is at war with Israel, they can be depended upon to sponsor terror groups and to ensure that those groups weaken the leadership of any Palestinian who makes peace moves. That is the reasoning behind Barak's move to make peace with Syria, which have been dismissed by some as a way of procrastinating peace with the Palestinians. Had it succeeded, there is no doubt that a wholly different atmosphere would have pervaded the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process might have had a chance against all odds. Once again, however, the reality was bigger than and more menacing than the papers and the process and the diplomatic meetings. In the end, only a few meters, and the crrucial question of who controls the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan river, separated Israeli-Syrian peace in theory. In fact, it was just not going to happen, but Barak could not be faulted for not knowing that in advance.

It is vain to look for which leader was at fault or to exhort Dennis Ross to be harder on Barak. Americans need to understand that no foreign leader is going to commit suicide - figurative or literal, in order to allow a US President to have a good photo opportunity on the White House lawn. Peace agreements are hostages to political and "actual" reality, they cannot of themselves create reality.

We can see the same forces at work today, because the reality has changed only slightly. According to Ross, Mahmoud Abbas promissed faithfully, when first elected PM, to implement security measures. He complained repeatedly that Arafat was preventing him from doing his job. Now, however, Arafat is dead, and it is Abbas who is still failing to carry out the commitments to unify security services and direct them to make order and put an end to armed militias. Abbas succumbed to Palestinian political reality. His "negotiating position" is nonexistent, because he has retreated to the politically safe non-starter hard-line mantra of right of return for Palestinians and precise 1967 borders. This is the trade-off he made for insisting on calm among the Palestinian factions, Sharon on the other hand, barely has a political consensus to carry out the disengagement. His trade-off is that he must be tough on every issue besides disengagement. In this situation, neither side has anything to offer the other, at least not in public. What would be the point of Sharon saying he will agree to divide Jerusalem, and Abbas agreeing to give up right of return? In the best case, they would simply be out of office. However, the major media event that would result would most likely be their joint funeral, which could be done with great taste and dignity. Condoleezza Rice could learn to say "Shalom Chaver" in Arabic as well. The Middle East would bury another two peace makers and go back to business as usual.

Abbas and Sharon could and did quietly decide on measures of cooperation away from the limelight, where they would have minimal political impact. Unfortunately, a Sharon-Abbas summit was one of the items on Condoleezza Rice's to-do list. needed to satisfy US political exigencies. Therefore a summit was duly held, and the results were of course worse than nothing.

A small glimmer of hope is visible in developments on both sides. The monstrous behavior of the lobbies of fanatics that have grown up in opposition to the peace process have begun to repel rather than attract followers on both sides. Israelis have been stunned by the lawless behavior of settler advocates, who trashed a Palestinian house, lynched a Palestinian youth, and created dangerous traffic disruptions throughout the country. After a week of such disturbances, support for disengagement returned to somewhat over 60% in Israel. Veteran Israeli newscaster Hayim Yavin produced a shocking documentary about settlements, settlers and occupation that made Israelis see ourselves as others see us. On the Palestinian side, people have grown weary of endless lawlessness and chaos, and demonstrators have begun agitating for imposition of sane government. Sentiment has turned against the worst excesses of the terrorist factions. These small changes are, in their way, much more important than any scrap of paper that might or might not be signed or any FRD or other concession. They herald the beginning of a change in political reality that can only come from within, and that is the essential "preparation" required for success of a real peace process.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000361.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 6 comments

Ami Issaroff's analysis of Dennis Ross's book and actions is well put. His own analysis of what will work in the future to bring peace between Jews and Arabs/Israel and the Palestinians, is weak despite the enormous grasp he has of the past and present nuances of the conflict.

Two issues glare stand out by their low emphasis and minimalist interpretation; the economic base of the ongoing conflict and the requirement that the Arab countries accept fully and meaaningfully Israel's right to exist and its requirements for existence as those requirements mandate Arab cooperation educationally, economically, politically, and diplomatically.

To survive themselves as political entities, the Arab oligarchies must deal in realistic ways with Islamic fundamentalism. Absent a clear understanding of that requirement for their own continued existence, Israel will remain the bete-noir of the Arab world and will remain endangered. With such understanding will come normalization of relations with Israel that will bring enormous economic benefit to the Arab populations of the area.

The struggle for change in the Middle East revolves around those in the Arab world who see their positions endangered by peace with Israel. Jordan is the real example of peace benefits while Egypt unwisely chose to remain boxed in by its semi-feudal establishment. Jordan has built cell-phone towers the length of the country looking to the future. Egyptian leadership sees its economic future only with the assured perpetuation of its political and power leadership. Using those lenses to look at the other Arab countries, one can see that peace with Israel requires the Jordanian model. Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the other anti-peace-with-Israel countries, are caught up in their feudal world-views.

Seen in this larger context, it becomes clear how the Western democracies can influence the peace process - if they so wish. Sadly, the power elites are near-sighted. (Can't we all imagine how grumpy U.S. vice-president **** Cheney must be at his misjudgement of how much his cohorts were going to benefit from the flow of Iraqi oil.) The machinations of working effectively or otherwise to bring peace to the Israel Palestinian conflict do not happen in a power vacuum.

Posted by Nachum Meyers @ 07/04/2005 10:30 PM CST

Hi Nachum,
You wrote:
"Two issues glare stand out by their low emphasis and minimalist interpretation the economic base of the ongoing conflict and the requirement that the Arab countries accept fully and meaaningfully Israel's right to exist and its requirements for existence as those requirements mandate Arab cooperation educationally, economically, politically, and diplomatically."
The task I undertook was to review Ross's book and try to understand why the Peace Process failed, not to analyze the human condition. That task is ambitious enough considering that the book is about 800 pages long and the peace process or whatever it was stretched out over many years.

In the framework of a little article of that size, it was not possible to go into all the problems - only those that directly impinged on Ross's views and his contribution to mucking up the peace process, and to the views of Ross's critics who seem to be more clueless, far less well meaning and much more tendentious than he is (Miller, Swisher, Malley...) .

Your views of peace are like an ultraorthodox Jew's view of Zionism "in principle, ingathering of the exiles is a good idea, but it cannot happen until the messiah comes." We cannot wait to make peace until Syria is like Switzerland and Palestine is like Finland.

You are also somewhat misinformed if you think that the Saudi Arabian government is an obstacle to Palestinian Israeli peace. Reality is complex. All the public evidence as well as private impressions indicate the opposite. Prince Bandar told Arafat he would be crazy not to take the Israeli offer. The Saudis also tabled a moderate Arab peace plan that was converted to a less than moderate plan at the Beirut summit. The Saudis would like to defuse the Palestinian issue, even if they are afraid of a democratic or radical Palestinian state for obvious reasons. Even Mubarak, who was machinating in favor of a hard line initially, more or less fell into line at the end. But Arafat was governed by his political exigencies, as Barak was governed by his.

The truth is that the Western countries can do a lot more to help peace in the Middle East, but they are governed by their own political exigencies. It is an illusion to think however, that they can make peace happen without the cooperation of the parties.

However, all of that is way beyond the scope of this article, which was basically a review of Ross's book. Ross's book didn't deal with any of those issues, and most of them were not relevant to why the process, qua process, went wrong.


Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 07/04/2005 10:54 PM CST

For me Oslo died in Har Homa. Palestinian say that the killing of civilians was an answer to the settlements. So answering these massacres with settlements closed the circle.

Said this, IMO if Barak would have behaved bravely and had offered in Camp David what offered in Taba nobody can be sure what would have happened. At least he would have been remembered as a leader who "tried". Because what he did over his all tenure he must be remembered as "Mr. Cold Feet".

To be a leader means to go forward against all odds to chase a slight posibility even if this can mean your own destruction in case of failure. He behaved as an american lobbyst measuring, calculating and backtraking when the situation got tight. He sacrifices the opportunity to save a coalition which did not survive for long anyway. It is not fair to say that Arafat should have signed in Taba with the clear risk of Barak loosing his referendum, and then say that Barak was reasonable not asuming a much smaller risk in Camp David. I do not like any of these characters because all of them went with the flow for personal reasons when was clear that the flow was going to the catastrophy. The main question with Ross regarding parciality is that he always saw reasonable that Israel leaders obbey their domestic public opinion to the decimate, but saw unreasonable that Arafat do the same.

I reiterate that after the massacres and after Har Homa, people on both sides wanted to "give a lesson" to the other side and the peace process posibilities of succes fall to infinitesimal. Neither Barak nor Arafat wanted to gamble in such conditions. If we call them "cowards" or "reasonable" is a matter of opinion and feeling but both sides must be judged with the same rule.

I personally, for this situation I would have prefered on both sides people with a sense of epic, more aware of the wind of History than of the feeling of short sighted contemporaries.

Posted by Aleph @ 07/05/2005 10:40 PM CST

Dear Ami
May I have your permission to post your review and subsequent comments on our EJournal of World Citizenship and Global Peace? We would of course give full attribution of the source.

Jim Foster, President
World Citizenship Institute for Advanced Studies

Posted by Jim Foster @ 07/06/2005 10:48 PM CST

this is very helpful to me

Posted by mr x @ 07/11/2005 10:55 AM CST

well if any one no any updates on the wall/fence please post smthing up

Posted by mr x @ 07/11/2005 10:59 AM CST

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