Commentary Magazine


The Missing Peace by Dennis Ross

The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace
by Dennis Ross
Farrar Straus Giroux. 839 pp. $35.00

It is possible not to see the forest for the trees. It is even possible, by seeing only the trees, to forget that the forest exists. This is true of Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace.

Ross, the special U.S. envoy to the Middle East from 1988 to 2000, was as intensely involved in the Middle East “peace process” as anyone in Washington. He was in on it from the beginning, when, under the first Bush administration (previously he had served under President Reagan at the Middle East desk of the National Security Council), he played a role in convening the 1991 Madrid Conference that brought Israeli, Syrian, and PLO-picked Palestinian representatives together publicly for the first time. This conference was, in its own right, a flop, but following the Israeli elections of 1992, which replaced the hard-line Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir with the more flexible Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin, secret Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian negotiations were commenced. These led to the 1993 Oslo Agreement and its aftermath, and to near-agreements between Rabin and Syrian president Hafez el-Assad, and years later, between Assad and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.

Ross was a high-level go-between in all of these contacts. One would expect, therefore, that he would both know and tell us a great deal about them, as indeed he does. He quite clearly took copious notes in the course of them, and the tome-sized book he has written has a prodigious amount of detail. One can follow in it, if not on a minute-to-minute then sometimes on an hour-to-hour basis, such abortive marathons as the eight-day Shepardstown negotiations between Israel and Syria in 1999, or the fourteen-day Clinton-Barak-Arafat summit at Camp David a year later. Ross’s descriptions of these, even when painting a picture whose broad strokes we are already familiar with, are informative. The material is well-organized and smoothly narrated, and The Missing Peace will be a useful reference work for anyone interested in the tortuous ins and outs of Israeli-Arab-American diplomacy in the last years of the 20th century.

As compendious as Ross is on the details, however, he is vague about the larger scheme of things. This is so even though The Missing Peace has its “plot,” which is a story of good intentions thwarted by weakness: that is, of the genuine desire of Israelis, Syrians, and Palestinians to reach agreements that ran aground in the end on the shoals of hesitancy, pride, stubbornness, suspicion, and mental atavism.

By the early 1990′s, Ross holds, Israel, Syria, and the PLO, all weary of their protracted conflict, had sensibly resolved to negotiate on the basis of the “land for peace” formula that guided Israel and Egypt in their treaty of 1979 and that called on Israel to surrender all or nearly all of the territory acquired in the Six-Day war in exchange for diplomatic recognition, normalization of relations, and appropriate security guarantees. The problem lay in negotiating the nuts and bolts of this arrangement, such as exactly where the borders should run, just what security guarantees Israel should be given, precisely what “normalization” should take place and at what stages, and so forth.

And it was here, to the immense frustration of the negotiations’ American facilitators, chief among them Ross and President Clinton, that seemingly minor controversies proved impossible to bridge. Thus, as Ross describes it, all that stood in the end between Syria and Israel was a strip of territory on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee no more than a few hundred meters wide, on which neither side would budge. Similarly, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while agreeing on the general outlines of a settlement, were unable to round trivial corners. For example, although both sides concurred that practical control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and its mosques should be in Palestinian hands, they were unable to resolve their hairsplitting debates regarding theoretical sovereignty over the site.

Although he tries hard to be fair to everyone, Ross does not shrink from assigning ultimate blame for the failure to make concessions that he thinks should have been made. In the case of Syria and Israel, he believes that this blame falls, first of all, on Hafez el-Assad for his slowness in responding to Yitzhak Rabin’s generous offer to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines along which the Syrian and Israeli armies were positioned on the eve of the Six-Day war, and at a later stage, on Ehud Barak—who, when Assad finally got around to accepting a package that included the Rabin offer, reneged on it at the last moment. As for the Israeli-Palestinian front, it was Yasir Arafat, according to Ross, whose intransigence was responsible for the collapse of the Camp David talks.

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Ross’s faulting of Barak over Syria is an example of how The Missing Peace concentrates almost entirely on the practical side of the peace-process negotiations to the exclusion of the larger issues they were about. This starts with the book’s unquestioning approval, as if it were not only the legitimate but the brave thing to do, of the secret promise made by Rabin to Washington, without consulting his own cabinet or government, to withdraw to the June 4 lines. Indeed, Ross writes, confirming stories that have long circulated to this effect, when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres became prime minister of Israel after Rabin’s death he was startled to discover he had inherited such a commitment.

And yet Ross does not ask once whether it was not in fact wildly irresponsible of Rabin, as a democratically elected leader, to have made this commitment, which ran totally against both official Israeli policy and Israeli public opinion. Nor does he discuss the fundamental unreasonableness of the Syrian demand for an Israeli pullback to the June 4 lines. These lines were not the recognized international border between the two countries, which had been drawn between British Mandate Palestine and French Mandate Syria in 1923. Rather, they reflected the military facts on the ground on the eve of the Six-Day war, when the Syrian army controlled dozens of square kilometers of territory, designated by the 1949 armistice agreement as a demilitarized zone, on the western or Israeli side of the frontier; this had already given Syria the strategic high ground of the Golan Heights and left it ten meters from the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main water source.

To this day it is incomprehensible to me why Yitzhak Rabin, upon being told of the Syrian position, did not say to the Clinton administration: “The Syrians refuse to recognize the 1923 line? That’s fine with us. You can tell them that we refuse to recognize it, too. We’ll be glad to negotiate a new and better border that will give Israel part of the strategic high ground of the Golan and push the Syrians far back from the lakeshore.” One can only assume a Rabin so politically desperate to make a deal that he was willing to do what no winner in war had ever done before him, i.e., cede sovereign territory to the loser.

But in any event, why blame Barak, as Ross does, for his cold feet? Why justify, as he also does, the Syrian position? Even if the American negotiators were likewise eager for a deal, would it not be more logical to blame Assad for insisting to the end on getting what no loser in war had ever gotten before him?

This is not, however, the way Ross looks at it. To his way of thinking, Israel made an offer, America worked long and hard to get Syria to accept it, and Israel then withdrew it—hence, Israel is at fault. This is the attitude not of a historian or strategist, but of a specialist in “conflict resolution” whose job consisted of producing agreements irrespective of their nature or whom they served.

This is no doubt why nowhere in Ross’s treatment of the Israeli-Syrian track is there any real discussion of such questions as what the military significance of the Golan Heights was for both Israel and Syria; whether the agreement nearly reached would have weakened Israel militarily and politically; whether to do so would have been in America’s interest; whether an agreement between a democratic state like Israel and a dictatorial one like Syria is good for democracy or for the world if it favors the dictatorship; and whether the Syrian regime ever really wanted peace or simply took a position that it thought Israel would not accept and was dumbfounded by Rabin’s acceptance of it. (Hence, Assad’s otherwise mysterious procrastination.) In these pages, Ross is like an arbitrator in a labor dispute who is not paid to think about the effects of a pay hike on the national economy.

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All this is even truer of Ross’s treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian track, where the issues were far more complicated and fraught with consequences. Although many pages in The Missing Peace are devoted to the numerous proposals and counterproposals for a border between Israel and Palestine, a solution to the Palestinian refugee question, the disposition of the Jewish settlements, and the final status of Jerusalem, there is not a single sustained analysis of what either side’s real motives or needs were in any of these questions, just as there is no examination of whether a Palestinian state—whose eventual creation the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations tended to take for granted—is a desideratum or is likely to prove a stabilizing or destabilizing factor in the Middle East.

Nor does Ross come to grips anywhere with the question of questions, namely: did Arafat and the Palestinian leadership, in signing the Oslo Agreement in 1993, envision a permanent peace with Israel, or did they—as critics of the peace process have repeatedly charged—simply think they were gaining an invaluable beachhead in Israeli-occupied Palestine, over the whole of which, aided by powerful demographic trends in their favor, they would eventually expand their control? Even though there is a considerable body of evidence pointing to the “beachhead” approach as Arafat’s strategic conception, Ross declines even to consider the possibility.

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The Missing Peace is by no means an anti-Israel book, even if it is harsh on some Israeli politicians, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu. On the contrary, Ross, the child of a mixed marriage who has identified unequivocally with the Jewish side of himself (another subject not discussed in The Missing Peace is the extraordinary phenomenon that such a person was appointed by two American Presidents as their team captain for Israeli-Arab negotiations), obviously cares deeply about Israel and would not wish to do anything to harm it. His belief that, given the properly worded peace treaties, a Syrian presence meters from the Sea of Galilee and a Palestinian state along Israel’s 1967 borders are consistent with Israel’s welfare is sincere.

Yet sincerity is not intellectual exertion, and The Missing Peace could use some. The lack of it results in a mental flabbiness that, one fears, was not Ross’s alone but—at least when it came to the Middle East—the Clinton administration’s as a whole. Hard thinking was the missing piece in the American attitude toward Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; we are fortunate that, with the George W. Bush administration, this deficiency has been largely remedied.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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