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Process but No Peace

Wednesday, December 1, 2004
Dennis Ross.
The Missing Peace. The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 840 pages. $35.00


For some 13 years under three presidents, Dennis Ross served honorably as a U.S. envoy to the Middle East, and thus knew intimately the disappointments of the Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Wye, and Camp David protocols. Indeed, Ross had the unenviable task of reconciling the various proposed solutions of an exasperated Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, George H.W. Bush, James Baker, Bill Clinton, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright with those of most of the key Israelis — Shamir, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, and Sharon — while dealing, of course, with the perennial specter of Yassir Arafat. Leaders come, leaders go; but the late Arafat always remained — recalcitrant in his 1960s headdress and holster, his former Marxist rhetoric superseded by trendy public allegiance to Islamic fundamentalism, and resplendent in the bemedaled uniform of a general without either an army or a single victory.

Indeed, the billionaire gangster Arafat emerges as the antagonist in Ross’s account of the endless search for a comprehensive Middle East peace. He peeps out on every page predictably obstructing each new initiative that followed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the plo support for Saddam in the Gulf War, failed intifadas, and the election victories of the Israeli left. That the Europeans and many weary Israelis were eager to empower Arafat as a serious leader, despite his military impotence and rampant corruption, is perhaps understandable given his tribal connections on the West Bank and his long terrorist activity. But why the Americans ever recanted and worked with this pathological criminal remains unanswered by Ross’s 800 pages of fascinating, but ultimately depressing, detail. While most of Ross’s efforts appear in retrospect as naïve, if not a colossal waste of time, the reader can only admire his stamina, an uncanny ability to size up interlocutors, a real allegiance to truth and fair play — and plenty of ambition and confidence without an overweening ego.

The political survival skills that allowed the “lifelong Democrat” Ross to serve in both the Reagan and first Bush administrations and then champion Clinton’s new initiatives explain how he could outlast — and so often outlive — almost all the major players with whom he started out in 1988. Henry Kissinger’s rightly praised memoirs are the obvious literary models for The Missing Peace. Yet if Ross’ engaging prose does not quite match Kissinger’s wit and repartee, his excurses about everything from top restaurants around the world to stories about his kids enliven what finally becomes a classical tale of a bellum interruptum, one that cannot be settled other than by absolute separation or the radical democratic reform of the Palestinians.

The world is obsessed with the so-called occupied territories in Palestine, but not from any abstract principle of postbellum equity or worry over civilian deaths. Otherwise un resolutions, European subsidies, and American envoys would have been focused on occupied Tibet or Lebanon, or the killing of tens of thousands of innocents in Rwanda and Darfur. So Palestine is not so much a moral issue as a political lightning rod that involves Arab oil, Arab global terrorism, Arab fundamentalist violence in and beyond the Middle East, and Arab anti-Semitism that finds resonance in Europe. While Ross understands that the Middle East is critical to world peace, he never quite explains why this small strip of land should be — and thus never fully elucidates why diplomats like Jim Baker and Colin Powell essentially renounced the frenetic efforts of their predecessors as vain and counterproductive.
There is a depressing monotony to Ross’s pilgrimages to the Middle East. With his hard work, undeniable diplomatic talents, and canny reading of the role of pride, envy, and honor in the region, he sets up a series of what seem to be reasonable plans of mutual concessions. Thus, in 1993, 1998, and 2000-01 we hear of the accustomed roadmaps, quartets, back, front, and side channels, secret Swiss meetings, working points, the Mitchell Plan, the Saudi Plan, the Zinni missions, un mandates and resolutions, and all the other multifaceted ways of avoiding the terrible truth that Arafat was an unrepentant liar and terrorist. “You should,” “you could,” “you must,” appear in each chapter as Ross’s patient and standard admonitions to Arafat in hopes that he might grasp the “last” or “best” Israeli concession. In the end, of course, he never missed “an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” and so refused to chop off the tentacles of the maternal terror octopus that had engendered, empowered, and enriched him.
Still, as relish to the main narrative, Ross offers some fascinating details along the way. How did the late Sheik Yassin, the blind and crippled spiritual leader of Hamas, ever get back into Gaza from his ostracism in Jordan? After Israeli agents botched a hit on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, Bibi Netanyahu was forced both to hand over the antidote for the slow-working poison and to offer reentry for Yassin in order to placate an incensed King Hussein. When a crisis with Iraq loomed over President Clinton’s insistence on the return of the weapons inspectors, the Palestinian Minister of Health asked that the Israelis offer those on the West Bank gas masks for fear that their patron Saddam’s wmd-laden missiles might take too many Palestinians along with the targeted Israelis. It is one thing to dance on your rooftops in hopes of seeing Jews gassed, quite another if the wind carries the nerve agent back your way. Clinton seemed to have disliked Bibi Netanyahu, and in one sharp exchange, when the Israeli leader suggested that Arafat could keep his commitments by making sure Gaza police chief Ghazi Jabali “disappeared,” our president was heard screaming, “This is just chickenshit. I am not going to put up with this bullshit” before he stormed out — but, in Clintonian fashion, only for the staged moment.

While the israelis on occasion were stubborn and irritating, finally they were willing to give up most of the West Bank for any sort of real guarantee of a secure peace. Nowhere is this desperation for resolution clearer than in the case of Ehud Barak — the tragic figure of Ross’s narrative — who at Camp David was resigned to granting almost all of what the Palestinians had demanded for a quarter century before being humiliated and destroyed politically. And in almost every near miss, at the eleventh hour of discussion, minutes before the final signing, during the penultimate ceremony or the final staged photo-op, the Syrians or the Palestinians would back out, often gratuitously insulting or embarrassing Bill Clinton, who in turn, almost on spec, would “let it rip” or “stalk out” on singularly unimpressed Palestinians.

So his memoir by needs is replete with unintended humor — full of miffs and scowls like “Enough was enough, Asad had to learn that the process would stop.” “This was bullshit.” “I was furious and wanted everyone to know it.” “I refused to take the call.” “I was angry.” “I was ready to have us walk away.” “I was stunned.” “Violent demonstrations were one thing, but these kind of clashes another.” All this angst is punctuated at last on page 756 with “Alas, Arafat was not up to peacemaking.” Should we laugh or cry? Little wonder question marks characterize so many of the book’s subsections — “Breakthroughs in Gaza?” or “Shouldn’t we have known about Arafat?” — the reader always knowing in advance the answer to these dead questions — except for the only one that really mattered but was never asked: “If Arafat did not exist, would he have to be invented?”
Ross was always attuned to Assad’s and Arafat’s perceptions of slights — their passive-aggressive backing off the moment their offers were accepted in fear that Israeli acquiescence meant they could have gotten more; their hissy fits and feigned tantrums; their constant desire to be pursued and courted by a U.S. president; their snubbing or photo-opping him by turns, depending on the particular pulse of the Arab Street. A bomb goes off in Tel Aviv and, presto, Arafat is on his way out of the country, incommunicado as the inevitable American censure looms. An American secretary of state wants badly to produce a breakthrough — and is left to cool his heels on the Damascus tarmac: Thus the old cutthroat Assad makes Warren Christopher sweat for an audience. Throughout Ross’s patient description, we are unable to ignore the Orwellian nature of it all: anti-Western zealots checking in for medical treatment at American or European hospitals, Mrs. Arafat fighting the intifada from Paris fashion shows, or a diplomat busy on shopping sprees in big city malls before assuming the mantle of the pan-Arabist fatwahist for consumption back home on state-controlled television.
The author of The Missing Peace seems to be waking up to relearn the ways of the world each morning, as if for all his intellect and erudition Ross cannot quite accept the asymmetry of it all. On one side is a liberal democratic society, under audit by an independent judiciary and free press. On the other a kleptocracy atop a tribal society that is illegitimate in every sense of the word, nursed on victimization born out of failure and humiliation. The lesson of Sadat lingered with almost every Syrian and Palestinian interlocutor — how, like Egypt, to get back all the land lost after repeated failed attempts to destroy Israel but without making the concessions for normalization that ultimately left Sadat riddled with bullets.
Thus, it is no accident that Ross deals with a Shamir, Netanyahu, Rabin, Barak, but always only an Arafat on the other side, winner of one rigged election one time. And just as Netanyahu or Barak realize that there is a life after electoral defeat, Arafat knows that in a lawless society there are no laws in which to take refuge. For the Palestinians, compromise abroad might well lead to insurrection and a mob’s noose at home. The “Arafat answer” (La-Na’am, “no and yes” in Arabic) is pitted against Rabin’s determination “to fight terror as if there were not a peace process and to pursue peace as if there were no terror.” Ross’s narrative reminds us of the Europeans’ vain attempts through much of the late 1930s to mollify Hitler’s incessant demand for the return of “stolen” territory — liberal elected politicians in vain parleying with a dictator who saw every concession as appeasement and thus an invitation for still more abuse.

Winally, even ross, the perennial optimist, sensed that irony: Though he criticizes a disengaged Bush administration for entering office with a determination to keep Arafat out of the Lincoln bedroom, he used such toughness on the horizon as a warning to Arafat to cut a deal while he still had a lame-duck but compliant Clinton. Ross concludes with all sorts of fair and judicious outlines for a comprehensive settlement based on the premise of land for peace, something akin to the 95 percent or so of the West Bank offered up at Camp David. But the data supplied by his comprehensive narrative often refute his own conclusions and hopes — and de facto argue for an alternative roadmap more attuned to the lessons of history than the social science of conflict resolution theory.

Peace comes, whether in Germany, Japan, Vietnam, or the Falklands, when victory and defeat adjudicate the issues at hand. Thus, there will be no settlement in the Middle East until the Palestinians accept that the effort to destroy Israel leads not to political advantage but to their own destruction, a realization that might just discredit the corrupt tribal apparatus of the Palestinian Authority. The present cold war of sorts, akin to our own struggle with the Soviet Union, will eventually lead to a day of reckoning for the Palestinians after Israel has finished its fence, withdrawn from Gaza, and consolidated remaining settlements in line with its own strategic advantage.
So time is not on the Palestinians’ side. The world elsewhere tires with the creepy global image of the masked jihadist as it continues to move toward open markets and free societies. Meanwhile, Palestine is closing itself off from its only window to the West, its tribal government free instead to trade and exchange ideas with the likes of Mubarak’s Egypt or the Assad dictatorship in Syria.
While George W. Bush gets few high marks from Dennis Ross for his relative distance from the minutiae that comprise this 800-page book, his larger post-9/11 vision of democratizing the Middle East may do what thousands of shuttle missions by the dutiful and honest Ross could not — if the virus of democracy let loose in Afghanistan and Iraq finally infects the West Bank. After all, the real problem in the Middle East has never been just a few thousand acres of disputed land. Instead, as was true during the Cold War, strife arises from the complete absence on one side of a legitimate government — as well as the subsidized mythologies of Palestinians that they could win from the Jews through suicide murder the honor, prosperity, and victory that they could never otherwise obtain through outright war or endemic tribal dictatorship.