Understandably, Middle East circles in the United States these days are increasingly speculating about whether President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will explore opportunities for relaunching peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Less understandable is why a leading American publication – the New York Times in its Sunday Review section – should turn for advice on this issue from former diplomat Dennis Ross, who wrote a full-page article last Sunday offering his 14 points on how Palestinians and Israelis could move ahead toward a successful negotiation. I say this is less understandable because Ross has almost nothing but failure to show for his 11 years of leadership on Arab-Israeli and other Middle Eastern issues in the White House and State Department, between 1993 and 20011. Only in Washington could a serial failure in Arab-Israeli diplomacy such as Ross be consulted on how to move ahead in Arab-Israeli diplomacy.
Never mind that when he left government he returned to a senior position at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is on the intellectual cutting edge of pro-Israel lobby groups in the United States. Never mind also that his many years in pivotal positions in government service, at a decisive historical era when all the stars were aligned for a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli peace-making, resulted in no practical achievement that is visible to the public.
It is enough to read Ross’ New York Times article to be reminded of why the United States government failed miserably and repeatedly in Middle East mediation. He sees the most fundamental problem between most Israelis and Palestinians as disbelief that peace is possible. He recommends that simultaneous trust-building measures by Israelis and Palestinians could prod them to “chip away at the sources of each side’s disbelief about the other’s commitment to a genuine two-state solution.”
This is quite nonsensical and totally unrealistic, as evidenced partly by the fact that this approach has been tried a hundred times in recent decades, always without success. The reasons why Ross and the United States have been such chronic diplomatic under-achievers are evident in the thrust of his 14 proposals.
He seems to regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict solely as a consequence of the June 1967 war, with resolution coming through agreeing on how to apportion the Palestinian lands that Israel now occupies and colonizes. He recommends that Israel declare that it will only build new houses in land within the “security barrier,” meaning “only in about 8 percent of the West Bank.” He assumes that Israel can keep the land within what he and Israelis call the “security barrier” (Palestinians call it the “apartheid wall,” the rest of the world calls it the “separation wall,” so his using the Israeli vocabulary might be telling, or perhaps it’s just the randomness of the English language in the unique world of pro-Israeli Washington think tanks).
Ross’ suggestions for Israelis and Palestinians focus heavily on the Israeli need to live in peace within secure and recognized borders. He asks Palestinians to make several gestures in this respect, yet simultaneously omits any mention of the two central issues for the Palestinians, which are the status of Jerusalem and resolving the Palestinian refugees issue from 1947-48. His recommendations for Israeli gestures are all within the context of Israel’s continued colonial control of the West Bank. He waves Israeli needs like a victory banner, but buries Palestinian needs like an irrelevant rag.
He wants the Palestinians to commit to the reality of two states for Israelis and Palestinians, but ignores that the Palestinian government and all other Arab states have long offered Israel a permanent peace agreement in the Arab peace plan of 2002 – which the United States and Israel have refused to engage with.
Ross himself, of course, is not the problem or the issue; he is merely a very visible symptom of the problem, which is the total inability of the United States to act as a truly impartial mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts.
I can think of three possible reasons why the U.S. and Ross have been such inept diplomatic interlocutors. Perhaps they are ignorant of the real issues, which is not the case. Perhaps they do not really want a comprehensive peace, which is also unlikely. Perhaps they simply do not have the leeway to address the core needs and rights of both sides, given Washington’s powerful tilt toward the Israeli position on almost all issues. Ross’ article clarifies that he and his government are failed mediators because they see the main issues mainly through the Israeli lens, rather than seeking the core rights of both sides.
The U.S. government did mediate successfully when it patiently and resolutely helped to broker the Northern Ireland peace agreement. If you want to understand better why it is unable to do the same thing in the Middle East, read page 12 of the March 3, 2013 New York Times Sunday Review.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.