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By Gerry Boyle '78
For more than a decade, Ambassador Dennis Ross was able to see peace on the distant Mideast horizon. The key player in peace negotiations and Mideast policy making under four U.S. presidents, Ross saw his dream of an end to hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis vanish like a mirage last year as then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat stood at the brink of a permanent solution to the Palestinian quandary. The opportunity slipped away.
"All the positives were available," Ross said in the inaugural Goldfarb Lecture May 1 at Colby. "You couldn't go any further. You couldn't do any better, and the alternative was very stark."
Seven months of violence have shown just how stark the alternative would prove to be. Yet Ross, speaking to an overflow Page Commons audience, offered a reminder of how much progress has been made in the Mideast in the past decade and said both sides in the conflict know they have no alternative to negotiation and, ultimately, a peace agreement. "As bad as it becomes,look at the current situation,they keep coming back to trying to find a way out."
Ross and others,then-President Bill Clinton among them,thought they had found a way out last year when Barak and Arafat hovered over a deal that would have given Palestinians an independent state in Gaza and Israeli settlers an undisputed place within their country's borders. The agreement was the product of thousands of hours of discussion and debate and represented the best outcome possible for both sides, Ross said. Arafat turned it down. "Chairman Arafat is not capable of doing a permanent deal with the Israelis," Ross said. "Does it mean he's against peace with the Israelis? No. I think he believes in it. I think he believes in a two-state solution. . . It was too hard for him to redefine himself. It was too hard for him to give up the struggle."
Since then, Ross, now a Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has watched the struggle not only continue but escalate. In hindsight, Ross said, he has learned lessons that apply to any effort to end the hostilities in the future.
For one, he pointed out that the process will continue. But there will be neither imposition of an agreement from outside parties nor a unilateral agreement of any kind. "With all the military power the Israelis have, they cannot use force to extinguish Palestinian aspirations," Ross said. "It will not happen. But the Palestinians also have to learn that violence doesn't work. There are some among the Palestinians who think the Hezbollah model works because Hezbollah forced the Israelis out of Lebanon. Those who think that are dead wrong."
Negotiations must continue, he said, but they will not succeed if the two sides say at the bargaining table that they are committed to peace but are not committed in their actions apart from negotiations. Palestinians cannot incite violence; Israelis cannot 'socialize hostility and grievance' through their policies.
In hindsight, Ross said, Mideast policy makers should have promoted more 'people-to-people' programs, like one ongoing effort that links 250 Israeli and Palestinian teachers. Unable to meet in the current climate of violence, they continue to communicate by phone. "In the end this is going to have to be a peace of publics, not just of leaders, and to do that you have to break stereotypes, you have to end demonology, and you have to break the barriers between people," Ross said.
In fact, America can encourage those developments but cannot dictate them, and that is the paradox of American involvement in the Mideast peace process, he said. "Ironically, when the parties are at the point where they can deal with existential questions, that's when we should be supportive, but we should not be the ones who are running negotiations," Ross said. "These go to the heart of who they are. They both have to be ready to make these decisions. In the past, I used to hear people say we need to give them an excuse to say, I didn't have a choice. The Americans made me do it." It's the easy way out.
"This will not work if it's somebody else's agreement. It has to be theirs. They have to believe in it. They have to invest in it, they have to be prepared to defend it, because it won't be easy."
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