Ross to 'Post': Palestinians missed historic opportunity
- Ross to 'Post': Palestinians missed historic opportunity
By Janine ZachariaJanuary, 19 2001
WASHINGTON (January 19) - The Palestinian leadership misled its public about
what would be achievable through negotiations and has missed an historic
opportunity for a peace settlement with Israel, outgoing US Middle East
peace envoy Dennis Ross told The Jerusalem Post in a 40-minute interview
"The Palestinians have to do more to tell the truth to their own public
about what's possible and what isn't possible," Ross said, adding that on
the other hand Israel should refrain from unilateral "steps on the ground."
He referred to Palestinian opponents of US President Bill Clinton's
proposals as descendants of those who rejected past schemes for shared
sovereignty of the Holy Land and later regretted it.
He largely agreed with the Israeli assessment that the Palestinians spawned
a wave of violence in September after deciding their goals could not be
achieved through negotiations.
"It is difficult to see what possible stake Israel has in violence and there
are clearly some on the Palestinian side who seem to think violence serves
their cause," he said.
Ross acknowledged that it was upsetting for him as a Jew when the
Palestinians questioned the Jewish historical connection with the Temple
Mount during negotiations over Jerusalem. He confirmed for the first time
that, in 1995, then-Syrian president Hafez Assad had rebuffed a US request
to issue a statement of condolences after the assassination of Yitzhak
Rabin, saying instead that he was already doing his part by keeping the
Syrian public from celebrating in the streets.
Ross, who wraps up seven years as special Middle East coordinator today,
also spoke of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's intentions, the
story behind Clinton's setting out his bridging proposals in an
unprecedented speech to the Israel Policy Forum, a Palestinian right of
return, troubles he faced as a Jewish negotiator, prospects for a
post-Clinton peace deal, and his biggest regret.
Jerusalem Post: Do you believe that Arafat sincerely wanted a peace deal?
Dennis Ross: It is even more of an historic decision obviously than the
decision to agree to OsloÉThat was an historic threshold that was crossed
and it was a big decision, but it's not as big a decision as ending the
conflict with Israel. To make that decision he has to satisfy in his own
mind that it's something he can accept, the terms are terms he is prepared
to live with, and he also believes he can sell.
JP: So Arafat needs more time to digest it?
DR: At this point, I would say, for whatever reasons he has not been able to
conclude a deal, even though there are obviously very far-reaching ideas
that the president of the United States presented.
JP: Did you ever get the feeling Arafat was schizophrenic? That one day he
seemed a peacemaker and the next the opposite?
DR: My feeling is that he has always had in mind certain bottom lines and
the question is being able to reconcile his bottom lines with Israel's
bottom lines. What the president did was present our best judgment of what
was fair, what responded to the central needs of each side - not to the
desires - and what was feasible. And it was the outer limit. This is
something at this point obviously Chairman Arafat could accept only with
reservations. The president's ideas leave [the White House] with the
JP: This point is distressing a lot of people. They don't believe it. They
say once you lay out those ideas publicly, they become a new starting point
for any future negotiations.
DR: The president also said those who press for more will get less. And he
also said in that speech [to the Israel Policy Forum] not to push for the
impossible...The president's ideas were not a new expression of American
policyÉThe new administration is not obligated in any way, shape, or form by
JP: Did you support the idea of the president going public with all of these
ideas in the IPF speech?
DR: Yes I saw value in the president doing it.
JP: Who wrote the speech?
DR: It was a collective effortÉThe president had a text, but at least half
of what he said was completely the president on the stage.
JP: One point in the speech that caused concern in Israel was when he spoke
of a Palestinian right of return and said refugees would be entitled to go
DR: The fact of the matter is there should be a right of return to the new
state of Palestine. There should be no right of return to Israel. There's a
complete illogic in terms of having your state which can be the ingathering
place for all refugees and yet at the same time wanting the right of return
to your neighbor.
JP: So why did the president say, refugees "who want to find new homes,
whether in their current locations or in third countries, should be able to
do so, consistent with those countries' sovereign decisions. And that
DR: Does that say "right?" Did I hear "right of return" there? "That they
are allowed to find new homes consistent with the sovereign decision of
those countries." So who has the sovereignty? Israel.
JP: But then you have a situation where hundreds of thousands of
Palestinians are applying to go to Israel. And Israel will reject most of
them. That's sustainable?
DR: Israel is treated from that standpoint as a country like any other who
will decide who it admits.
JP: Wasn't there a trade-off - Israel makes more concessions on Jerusalem
and in return the Palestinians forgo the right of return? Now Prime Minister
Ehud Barak went further on Jerusalem and Israel still has to contend with
the right of return. What did Arafat give up?
DR: They have the right of return to their state. They don't have the right
of return any place else. They can apply to go other places. They have the
right to compensation that will be handled through an international
JP: A personal question. As a Jew who spent a lot of time in Israel, you
were criticized a lot in the Arab world. How did you deal with that? And
also, as a Jew, did you have any trouble during the talks negotiating away
parts of Jerusalem, for example?
DR: It's a lot easier to criticize me than to criticize the president or the
secretary of state. No. 2, it's almost inevitable in this role that you are
going to be criticized. I spent an enormous amount of my time explaining one
side to the other. And inevitably that means whomever you are dealing with
at the time feels you are taking "their needs into account, what about
mine?" In terms of my own personal feelings about what I was negotiating,
obviously this was a difficult process for everyone involved.
JP: As a Jew, when the Palestinians said at Camp David there was never a
Temple on the Temple Mount, did that upset you?
DR: Yes. Look, if one side or another tries to deny the other side's history
or its truth it's inappropriate.
JP: What do you think the president's biggest miscalculation was?
DR: I don't know that the president miscalculated.
JP: Never? Did he not believe mistakenly that he could persuade Arafat at
Camp David to accept a deal?
DR: The notion that somehow everything was based on the assumption that you
can simply persuade Arafat is erroneous. We didn't go to Camp David because
we thought the chances were great. We went to Camp David because we saw the
consequences of not going.
JP: What were those consequences?
DR: We were going to have an explosion much sooner. It would be over the
issue of statehood. It would set in motion statehood versus annexation. You
would have a cycle of escalation that would make what we've seen so far seem
tame by comparison and we would never have known if an agreement was
possibleÉThere's a lot of revisionism now.
JP: You said you had to see if a deal was possible. You didn't get one. Is
it impossible now?
DR: This administration stretched to the very limit.
JP: So what does this bode for subsequent attempts?
DR: You cannot wish away the fundamentals. Those who think you don't have to
give anything are simply wrong. On the Palestinian side there are those who
press Arafat to either get more or say no. They're the ideological
descendants [of those] who said no in '48 and those who said no to the Peel
Commission report in '37. And every time they've said no, later on they
regretted saying no, because what's available has become less. And the
opportunity that was there doesn't last. There are probably those in Israel
who think they can hold all the territory and they'll have peace. They are
living just as much of an illusion.
JP: Are you referring to Likud prime ministerial candidate Ariel Sharon?
DR: I'm not typecasting anybody. I'm simply saying those who believe you
don't have to give anything on either side are wrong. The realities will
impose themselvese. My feeling is if you don't achieve something in the very
near future, then it will probably be several years before you can achieve
something again, at least in terms of a complete deal.
JP: Why didn't you go back to the region one last time as planned?
DR: First, because I wanted to see more done on security, and second because
I wanted to see whether their own contacts would materialize. Then it got to
the point when it was too late to go.
JP: Some Syria-related questions. When prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was
assassinated in 1995, did you ask late Syrian president Hafez Assad to issue
a statement expressing regret over his passing?
JP: And did Assad say, 'I am already making my contribution by not letting
the people riot in joy in the streets?'
DR: He did say something to that effect. But he did express his sympathies
to Leah Rabin and he wanted them passed.
JP: The Clinton-Assad summit in March is cited as a real missed opportunity,
DR: We did not expect to close a deal in Geneva. That was never the point.
The idea was whether or not you would be close enough that you would then be
able to move toward closing a deal. Clearly the president felt that what he
brought from Prime Minister Barak put us in a position where we should be
able to move toward closing a deal.
JP: There must have been some prior indication that Assad would accept what
you were bringing.
DR: We came out of Shepherdstown [in January] and we had a series of
impressions of what was possible. And when we got to Geneva what we found is
some of the things we thought were possible suddenly seemed less possible.
JP: Who is responsible in your view for the past four months of violence?
DR: It is difficult to see what possible stake Israel has in violence and
there are clearly some on the Palestinian side who seem to think violence
serves their cause. They are completely wrongheaded. Violence will not serve
their cause. Rather than achieving their aspirations, it will delay the
achievement of their aspirations.
JP: But didn't the Palestinians get more concessions from Israel after the
DR: They don't have anything right now.
JP: Didn't the Israeli offer become sweeter in negotiations after the
clashes broke out?
DR: Frankly, the kind of ideas that the president in the end presented were
[ones] he might well have presented, given where things were headed.
Violence did not produce more for them. In fact the violence created an
environment where it was harder to conclude an agreement. If the
Palestinians want to see an agreement, there are things they have to do with
regard to security. I also think the Palestinians need to do much more to
prepare their public for peace than they have.
JP: There seemed to be a total disconnect between what the Palestinians were
saying to the administration and what they said publicly.
DR: It's not just what is said to us. I see a gap between what happens at
the negotiating table and what happens away from the negotiating table. That
gap has to be reduced. You can't socialize hostility, you can't socialize
grievanceÉAt the same time if you want the Palestinians not to socialize
grievance and [you want to] be effective in that, then there shouldn't be
steps that Israel takes on the ground...But the Palestinians have to do more
to tell the truth to their own public. About what's possible and what isn't
JP: The incoming Bush administration is planning to eliminate your position
of Middle East coordinator. What do you think about this?
DR: This position was created for me. I'm not particularly surprised that a
new administration when it comes in, since I'm leaving, would want to think
about how best to organize things and may do it in a different way.
JP: What is one thing you wish you had done differently?
DR: I think the whole people-to-people approach, the whole need to ensure
that there isn't incitement that there isn't socialization of hostility. If
there is one thing I wish we had done more effectively, that's it.
JP: You have referred to Rabin as "a man of strategic vision" and "courage."
Do you feel the same way about Barak?
DR: Prime Minister Barak has put himself on the line. He certainly has been
prepared to make historic decisions. He sought to do that within the context
of what he has defined as Israel's essential needs and what he feels is also
fundamental to their securityÉIt has not been easy for him. He believed it
was a moment when we might be able to end this conflict. We also believed it
was a moment where you might be able to end this conflict. I believe
Chairman Arafat also believed it.
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