Giving Up Mythologies: The Bridge to Peace

“The one thing that is unmistakable is that we are watching an escalatory cycle that has no endpoint. We’re as close to what it looked like before 1948 than we’ve been since that time.” So warned Amb. Dennis Ross in his opening remarks to a standing-room-only lunch audience in Spangler Auditorium last Monday.

Amb. Ross, speaking as part of the Dean’s Office “Rising to the Challenge” speaker series, outlined his view of the conflict in the Middle East between the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian Liberation Organization led by Yasser Arafat. While Amb. Ross was sharply critical of Arafat as a leader and diplomat, he also said Sharon’s recent actions had bolstered support for Arafat and that Sharon himself is recently viewed by his constituents as not living up to his promises of a year ago.

One year ago, Amb. Ross said Sharon’s policy was to stabilize the region, if not bring peace. He described Sharon’s main tenets as: no reward for violence, no negotiations under violence, and negotiations would be conducted under tighter parameters than they had been under the previous Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“But,” said Amb. Ross, “Sharon attached to [his policies] a message that he would in fact negotiate.” Amb. Ross explained that in Middle Eastern culture, if one wants to send a serious personal message, then one would find an unusual channel to deliver the message. Amb. Ross said Sharon sent his son six times to see Arafat to communicate his willingness to negotiate.

One year ago, Amb. Ross speculates, Arafat probably felt “fortified” by visits from Sharon’s son and a new administration in Washington that “will have to learn the issues and will be preoccupied with other things.” Arafat also thought, said Amb. Ross, that Sharon would probably need three or four months to learn that “his way won’t work.”

Describing the current situation, Amb. Ross said though Arafat has been through some low points, Arafat perceives himself enjoying a “high” in international opinion because of the sympathy created for him by Sharon’s policy of restraining Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah. However, just recently a shipment of arms from Iran was stopped by Israel, and the shipment was traced back to Arafat’s organization. Amb. Ross said that Arafat’s claim of ignorance is incredible, based on his personal experience of dealing with Arafat personally, who always spoke of “‘my money, my money, my money,'” and knew of all financial deals of any importance within his organization.

But most recently, Amb. Ross said Arafat is at 64% support among his constituents, primarily as a result of his containment by Israeli security forces, which was “a humiliation among all of them” and ultimately undermined Sharon’s political standing. Sharon recently lifted the restriction.

Amb. Ross said Sharon is also facing difficulties after recent polls show that “70% of the Israeli public now doesn’t believe that Sharon has an answer or can even produce a result,” and that “nobody feels secure” after the wave of recent suicide bombings in Israel.
he Israelis are now under pressure to use less force in dealing with Arafat’s organization, and the U.S. is under pressure to be “more balanced” in its policy in the region, which is perceived by many Arabs as being tilted toward Israel, said Amb. Ross. In fact, on Wednesday, March 13, as he dispatched U.S. Peace Envoy General Anthony Zinni to the region for the third time, President Bush said of Prime Minister Sharon, “Recent actions aren’t helpful.”

At the time Amb. Ross spoke, “the Saudi proposal” was gaining traction in diplomatic circles. The plan, released by The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as he described a dinner conversation he had with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia but which has yet to be formally introduced by the Saudis, would offer normalized relations with Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from territory it occupied by force in the 1967 Middle East War, territories previously controlled by Palestinians under a 1948 United Nations plan.

Also on March 13, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories, and the UN Security Council passed a resolution (14-0, with Syria abstaining) calling for a Palestinian statehood beside Israel.

Amb. Ross said the Saudi idea, normalization of relations for withdrawal from Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories to the original pre-1967 borders, was not a new idea, “but is new in terms of the psychology of it” because the plan comes from the Saudis, who carry much diplomatic weight in the Arab world. Amb. Ross suggested the prospect for an agreement would prove tempting to many Israelis, who are eager to end the violence in their country at the hands of Palestinian suicide-bombers.

Criticizing the Saudi plan, Amb. Ross said it is “disconnected from reality” because Israelis “are losing people daily to suicide bombings, and that kind of preoccupation is overwhelming. And the same is true of the Palestinians who’ve had more of their own people killed,” because of Israeli military action against the territories, “and a ruined economy.”
Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon is an event that “was one strategic mistake in hindsight,” said Amb. Ross, “because it convinced Arabs in the region that the Hezbollah model works, that violence works.” Amb. Ross said Arafat said to him privately during a negotiation during Barak’s tenure, “Think of how this makes me look. Barak throws me crumbs, and they [Lebanon’s Hezbollah group] use violence and get everything they want.”

However, Amb. Ross noted a trend among Israelis toward support of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip on the Israeli border with Egypt and “significant parts of the West Bank,” which along the middle western Israeli border surrounds the contentious city of Jerusalem, a holy city for both Jews and Muslims that is currently in Israeli territory. A recent poll showed 66% support among Israelis for such unilateral withdrawal, “not as a favor to Palestinians,” he said, “but purely from a security defense position.”

Amb. Ross warned, however, that “if that happens now, it will reaffirm that violence works.” Amb. Ross was very critical of any agreements that would further bolster the appearance that increased violence against Israeli civilians would lead to concessions for peace.

“Peaceful co-existence,” argued Amb. Ross, “is not in mind now and needs to be again.” To accomplish this, he recommended a four-part initiative based on two impulses: 1) doing something to affect reality on the ground, which affects everything else, and 2) creating drama by introducing a new factor so that both sides have a reason to “step back, take pause, and do something a little differently.”

The four elements he suggested were: 1) a U.S. initiative to pressure Israel to stop all attacks for ten days and 2) give Palestinians a chance to do what they’ve said they would do, though he noted that Arafat has often lied in previous negotiations and broken many commitments before. 3) Create a “Committee on Verification and Monitoring” chaired by the U.S., with daily meetings, to ensure compliance by both sides of their respective promises. 4) Meeting in Washington to devise a six-month plan to “cement the stabilization…and create the premise for peacemaking.”

Israelis should get security, said Amb. Ross, “not in word but in deed,” and Palestinians should get freedom from occupation by Israeli security forces. Ultimately, he said the issues of Palestinian statehood, territorial arrangements, and security issues would need to be discussed in further detail.

Speaking of the Clinton administration’s final attempts to reach an agreement in the Middle East, Amb. Ross said, “One thing that bothers me is that there is a lot of incorrect mythology. Arafat couldn’t say yes to Clinton’s ideas because Arafat sees the world in terms of his own ideals,” and went on to give a number of examples from the
Amb. Ross spoke of “mythology tradeoffs,” and that under Clinton’s ideas, Palestinians were asked to give up only one mythology, and Israelis were asked to give up two. Palestinians were asked to give up the idea of unlimited right of return of refugees to Israel, even with a number of other support terms included. Israelis were asked to give up the idea that “all of Jerusalem would remain in Israel” and that “the Jordan Valley was necessary for their security.”

Ultimately, Amb. Ross said he drew the conclusion that Arafat wasn’t able to do the deal because “it was too hard for him to give up his mythologies.” He said that to “make the transition from being a victim to statesman requires changing mythologies, and I don’t think Arafat’s capable of that.”

Amb. Ross concluded his remarks with a criticism of the Bush administration’s role in the Middle East, which Amb. Ross argues is too inactive. “If the U.S. isn’t ready to do what is necessary, then I think the E.U. should do it,” he said. The bottom line for him is that the situation requires “a faith so that a sense of hope and possibility are reestablished. Without that, we’re not going anyplace.”