In This Review

The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace
The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace
By Dennis Ross
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004, 800 pp.

In 1949, the legendary diplomat Ralph Bunche established what would become a gold standard for U.S. mediators in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Acting under the banner of the newly created United Nations, Bunche gathered Arab and Israeli diplomats together in a hotel on the island of Rhodes and managed to extract armistice agreements from them, effectively ending Israel's war of independence. Bunche accomplished this through a technique that came to be known as "proximity talks": he circumvented the Arabs' refusal to meet with Israelis directly by bringing the parties into nearby rooms and then shuttling between them, a tactic that has remained a fixture of negotiations in the Middle East and elsewhere ever since.

The armistice agreements were meant to serve as preludes to the proper peace treaties that, it was assumed, would soon be worked out. Hopes for a formal peace, however, quickly proved illusory. It would be 30 years before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin would join President Jimmy Carter on the White House lawn to sign the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty, and 15 more years before King Hussein of Jordan and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin would meet with President Bill Clinton to follow suit. Since 1994, hopes for similar peace treaties with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians have risen high and fallen hard several times. Today, the prospects for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace seem almost as remote as ever.

This failure should not be blamed on the United States, however. No other major power in history has expended so much diplomatic effort, over so many decades, to try to mediate peace among foreign nations. Since the mid-twentieth century, Bunche's heroic exertions have been followed by those of a long succession of U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, special emissaries, and personal envoys. None has served longer than Dennis Ross, whose record, and his new memoir, deserve the highest praise.

If the mediation seems endless, that should come as no surprise: the contemporary phase of U.S. efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East dates from 1969, when UN envoys failed to achieve implementation of Security Council Resolution 242 in the wake of the 1967 Middle East war. The end of that conflict had left Israeli forces unexpectedly occupying the West Bank and all of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights (plus some Syrian territory beyond them), Gaza, and all of the Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez Canal. The history of the Levant since that time has centered around U.S.-led efforts to achieve Israeli withdrawal from most, if not all, of those conquered areas in exchange for genuine, comprehensive peace with all of Israel's Arab neighbors.

There have been notable diplomatic successes: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's shuttle mediation yielded partial withdrawal agreements with Egypt and Syria in 1974-75, for example. Carter and his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, brokered the Camp David accords and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1978-79. Secretary of State James Baker convened the groundbreaking Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, leading to the first official face-to-face peace negotiations among Israel, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinians. And Clinton helped midwife the Oslo accords in 1993, which achieved formal recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and cleared the way for the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty in 1994.

But U.S. mediation has also often failed: for example, the talks between Egypt and Israel in 1979-81 were meant to achieve autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza as called for by the Camp David accords of 1978, but they went nowhere. Washington's attempt to work out a treaty between Jerusalem and Beirut after the 1982-83 Lebanon war was torpedoed by Syrian opposition. Two major efforts to achieve a peace treaty between Israel and Syria also failed, as did, most recently, the Herculean efforts by Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Ross to close a final deal between Israel and the Palestinians. To date, President George W. Bush has not made a similar effort. Meanwhile, bloody Palestinian-Israeli clashes have destroyed the fragile trust laboriously built up during the Oslo process, and the prospect for serious negotiations anytime soon has dimmed.

All this complex diplomacy has spawned enough memoirs, scholarly tomes, and think-tank projects to fill a small library. Unfortunately, most of the authors are American or Israeli; serious Arab scholarship on these subjects remains meager, and memoirs by Arab participants in the diplomacy are either polemical or extremely wary. Until now, the most comprehensive, well-researched record of the United States' enormous investment in Arab-Israeli peacemaking has been that produced by Professor William Quandt, now at the University of Virginia. A key member of the National Security Council staff under Presidents Gerald Ford and Carter, Quandt's series of volumes, culminating in his revised edition of Peace Process in 2001, summarize, analyze, and critique the whole effort through the end of the Clinton years.

Now Ross's book has added to the literature, covering in exquisite detail the history of Arab-Israeli negotiations from the preparations for the Madrid Conference in 1991 to the final hours of the Clinton presidency and the de facto end of the Oslo process in January 2001. Ross's own involvement in nearly every aspect of these events, his detailed personal notes on conversations, the candor with which he describes both events and personalities, and the fairness he displays in writing about many sensitive and contentious moments all combine to make The Missing Peace a major contribution to the diplomatic history of the twentieth century.

MAN IN THE MIDDLE

Dennis Ross is now dean of a small band of dedicated American professionals who have spent decades seeking peace between Arabs and Israelis. Son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic stepfather, Ross grew up in a secular household and came to government service after graduate work in Soviet studies, arms control, and the Middle East at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he served as a teaching assistant for Malcolm Kerr, a leading scholar on the politics of the Arab world. Visits to Israel and several Arab countries strengthened Ross's identification with the Jewish people and nurtured his conviction that peace could be achieved only on the premise of a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Despite his faith and his deep affection for the Israeli people, Ross as a negotiator managed to convince many different Arab interlocutors of his evenhandedness and trustworthiness. Indeed, Ross managed the impressive feat of simultaneously gaining and retaining the confidence of all sides, including successive Israeli leaders and both his Republican and his Democratic bosses. He achieved this rare accomplishment through an analytical, unemotional style of argument, a workaholic life style, and an extraordinary degree of empathy for the pain and needs of both Israelis and Arabs. Ross also managed to submerge his private liberal convictions while in government, demonstrating professionalism, creativity, and an outward nonpartisanship along with a profound commitment to achieving Arab-Israeli peace. Although he exhibited at times a realistic skepticism about certain parties to the peace process, especially Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, and about the tactics employed by both Prime Ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Ross always retained a stubborn conviction that peace among Israel, Syria, and Palestine is inevitable in the long run and could be achieved if the United States remained fully engaged-albeit to a degree well beyond that of the current Bush administration.

All of these themes are reflected in The Missing Peace. Only rarely can a nonfiction work of 800 pages be called a page-turner, and this book is no exception. Packed with detailed accounts of intricate, long-distance telephone negotiations with a bewildering array of Israeli and Palestinian actors-Uri, Avi, Eli, Saeb, Shlomo, Hassan, Yasir, Oded, Uzi, Dani, and Rajoub-parts of this book will interest only devoted aficionados of Middle Eastern history. But it represents an important, and often colorful, addition to the historical record.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of The Missing Peace is its 14-page prologue, which describes the climactic moments on January 2, 2001, just before Arafat arrived at the White House to reject Clinton's final comprehensive peace proposals (which Barak had already accepted in principle). This opening sets the stage brilliantly for the first chapter that follows: a perceptive, balanced description of why Israelis, Arabs, and Palestinians see the world the way they do. That chapter alone should become required reading for anyone venturing into the Arab-Israeli morass. Its sensitivity reflects Ross's empathy for both sides of the cultural abyss that divides the peoples of the Holy Land.

The rest of the book is, in fact, two books. The first is a comprehensive, detailed account of how the peace negotiations under George H.W. Bush and Clinton unfolded at many levels and locales, on three fronts: Syrian, Palestinian, and Jordanian. The other is a personal memoir of Dennis Ross's role in these momentous events, and a postmortem interpretation. Melding these two strands inevitably produces many sentences written in the first-person singular. Ross frequently refers to the work of his American colleagues, such as Ambassador Martin Indyk (whose own book is due out later this year), but only in passing. There is no reason to doubt the central role Ross assigns himself in the complex negotiations he recounts, nor how often his advice and game plans were followed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher or Clinton. Indeed, Ross also occasionally points out how Clinton and others ignored his advice, something Ross recounts ruefully in some cases, admiringly in others. And he is liberal with his self-criticism when the scenarios he carefully designed did not evolve as he had planned. Still, it is interesting to compare The Missing Peace to the pages of Clinton's just-published My Life that deal with the same events in the Arab-Israeli saga: Clinton mentions Ross's role much less than his own-when, that is, he mentions it at all.

In the prologue to his book, Ross writes that he is telling his story in such complete detail in order "to debunk the myths that prevent all sides from seeing reality and adjusting to it. Indeed, only by telling the story can we hope to learn the lessons from the past and ... shape a different future." Ross identifies the "missing pieces" that "have perpetuated the conflict" as the lack of public conditioning for peace, the reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other side's grievance and needs, the inability to confront comfortable myths, the difficulty of transforming behavior and acknowledging mistakes, the inherent challenge of getting both sides ready to move at the same time, the unwillingness to make choices, and the absence of leadership, especially among Palestinians.

By telling his story as he lived it, Ross hopes to remind the current administration and those that follow of what went wrong the last time Washington tried to make peace in the Middle East, and how to do it better next time.

ALL ABOUT ARAFAT

At two points in Ross's account, peace between Israel and Syria seemed to come tantalizingly close before slipping away: once in early 1996, soon after Shimon Peres succeeded the fallen Rabin as prime minister; and once in early 2000, before Barak, fearing the collapse of his cabinet, backtracked from concessions he had previewed for Clinton regarding the disputed Golan Heights. Although Ross was deeply disappointed by these near misses, his greatest disappointment was Arafat's rejection of Clinton's final proposals in January 2001, made just before both Clinton and Barak left office.

Ross, Christopher, Albright, and Clinton had for eight years tried in myriad ways to accommodate Arafat in order to achieve a lasting two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ever since Clinton had presided over the signing of the Oslo accords at the White House in September 1993, these officials had been rewarded for their efforts with a great deal of nastiness from supporters of Israel in Congress and in right-wing political circles, who opposed any U.S. dealings with Arafat or the PLO.

Nonetheless, the Clinton administration persevered, with encouragement from all successive Israeli prime ministers. Ross himself met or spoke by telephone with Arafat countless times. He recounts many occasions on which Arafat assured him of his intention to take some necessary step, such as cracking down on Hamas or Islamic Jihad to stop suicide bombings. Each time, however, Arafat-out of fear of provoking a civil war or other motives-failed to act.

In private, Arafat repeatedly insisted that he wanted to reach an agreement, and he would stress his friendship with and reliance on Clinton. Persuading Arafat to carry through on his own commitments, however, was often impossible. As a negotiator, Arafat was frequently infuriating, despite persistent U.S. efforts to secure his cooperation-a persistence testified to by the fact that he was Clinton's guest at the White House some 13 times, more than any other foreign leader.

In the end, Arafat proved unable to accept Clinton's proposal for a two-state solution, even though it was the first time a U.S. president had ever assembled a full-blown U.S. plan to settle all aspects of the Palestine problem. Ross does not blame Arafat for the failure of the earlier Camp David meeting in July 2000. Arafat made clear before coming to those talks that they were premature; he was not ready for a deal at that point. The preliminary negotiations leading up to the summit had soured. But Barak insisted on a meeting as soon as possible, hoping to head off impending violence and the collapse of his own shaky coalition by confronting Arafat with a clear "yes" or "no" choice.

By late December 2000, however, further negotiations had brought Barak much closer to Arafat's supposed bottom line. Clinton then put forward his "parameters" for a comprehensive settlement, taking account of what he and Ross believed were both the Israelis' and the Palestinians' essential needs. Violence had already erupted in the wake of Ariel Sharon's inopportune September visit to the Temple Mount and had expanded into guerrilla warfare that Arafat was doing nothing to quell. Clinton was due to leave office in a month. Barak's chances of defeating Sharon in an upcoming election were rapidly evaporating. Clinton and Ross each made it clear to Arafat that the deal on the table was the best he would ever get. Many Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, also weighed in and urged him to accept it.

Yet Arafat could not, or would not, say yes. Instead, as usual, he quibbled and procrastinated. And the outcome was nearly four years of bloody violence that has yet to abate. Little wonder, then, that although Ross identifies numerous errors as having been made over eight years of negotiations by many parties-including himself-he puts the ultimate blame on Arafat, a brilliant revolutionary who never compromised enough to become a statesman.

THE CENTER MUST HOLD

In a 20-page epilogue, Ross fills in the rest of the story from the time he left office up to the summer of 2004: the return of Ariel Sharon, this time as prime minister; the suicide bombings in the heart of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; the retaliatory strikes against Palestinian extremists; Israel's destruction of much of the Palestinian infrastructure, including Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah; Arafat's house arrest in that ruined building; periodic halfhearted U.S. peace initiatives; partial completion of the separation fence between Israel and the West Bank; and the evolution of Sharon's surprise proposal for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which has forced him to reshuffle his cabinet in the wake of angry resignations by several right-wing cabinet ministers.

Ross argues that the only way to renew negotiations now is to build on the Sharon withdrawal plan with vigorous diplomacy by Washington and its European allies. He urges the United States to work closely with Israel in dealing with the Palestinian Authority's leadership (but not with Arafat), as well as with Egypt. Together, all sides should try to make an eventual Israeli withdrawal successful by creating a viable political and security structure in Gaza, which would prevent a takeover by Hamas and set a precedent for further withdrawals from the West Bank. Ever hopeful, Ross sees room ahead for creative diplomacy under energetic U.S. leadership, despite its noticeable absence in recent years.

Critics of Clinton's and Ross's approach-and there are many-argue that Washington should not allow its diplomats to be drawn back into the intricate details of bargaining between Israelis and Palestinians; they should remain at the periphery instead. These critics insist that by assuming responsibility for formulating bridging proposals whenever a minor impasse occurs, the United States relieves the Israelis and Palestinians of pressure to find their own compromises. There is something to this thesis, as even Ross admits at times. But as he persuasively argues, when a fragile mutual trust has been destroyed by suicide bombers and missile strikes, the two sides cannot easily re-engage one another without the help of a sympathetic but objective third party.

Sadly, the long history of this conflict supports Ross's basic argument: peace between Arabs and Israelis will come only with the active and sometimes intrusive support of U.S. diplomats, and especially of the U.S. president. So far, the current president has chosen not to heed this message. Until he (or his successor) does, comprehensive peace in the region will remain a receding horizon.

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  • Samuel W. Lewis spent 34 years in the State Department, serving as Ambassador to Israel in 1977-85, Assistant Secretary for International Organizations in 1975-77, and Director of Policy Planning in 1993-94.
  • More By Samuel W. Lewis