Former Ambassador Dennis Ross spoke about peace prospects for Israel and Palestine, the United States’ role in the Middle East and the state of the region to a crowded Salomon Center Thursday. Ross held a variety of positions in the U.S. Department of State and on the National Security Council from the Reagan administration through the Obama administration, notably as a lead negotiator in Israel-Palestine peace processes.
“The problem today in terms of the Israelis and the Palestinians is that there is a complete and total disbelief (in the other side) on the part of both publics,” Ross said. A major difficulty in trying to have productive dialogue is that “many of the people who approach this conflict want to demonize one side or the other. When you demonize one side, it’s not about trying to resolve the conflict, it’s about perpetuating it,” he added.
Ross argued that “there is an important role” for the United States to play in the peace process “as long as the United States understands the things it can succeed at doing and the things it is unlikely to succeed at doing.”
“Negotiations in the Middle East have succeeded when the parties themselves have been the driving force,” Ross told The Herald. The United States has been effective in helping Israel and Palestine begin dialogues and preserve those dialogues when issues arise, he added.
While President Trump currently wants to broker the “ultimate deal” for Israel and Palestine, Ross advocates for a longer view of how to approach the conflict. “The ultimate deal isn’t available right now. Good statecraft, though, doesn’t mean you give up pursuing that.” One has to “work to change the circumstances so what isn’t possible today can become possible down the line,” he said. “If you overreach now, you’ll end up with a failure, and the last thing we need is one more failure,” he added.
Ross said that despite how Trump talks about the Middle East, his approach to the region has not been very different from that of Obama’s. “The rhetoric is completely different, the tone is completely different, but if you look at the actions, they’re not very different,” he told The Herald.
Ross also noted that Israel’s relations with many of its Sunni Arab neighbors have changed in recent years. “There is a collaboration in practical terms that has never existed before between Israel and all the Sunni Arab leaderships,” Ross said. This emerged because Israel and these Arab states find a common enemy in Iran. Obama administration policies, such as the rapprochement with Iran that resulted in the recent nuclear deal with the country, the “pivot to Asia” and a clear reluctance to get further involved in the Middle East have shaken the perception of the United States as a guarantor of security in the region. Because of this, Israel and Sunni Arab states have come to see their partnerships as more vital for ensuring security.
Ross faced multiple questions from students who suggested that he was biased in favor of Israel. In response to a student who questioned Ross’s neutrality, Ross said that the United States never claimed to be a neutral mediator, and he argued that it should not be, as Israel is a close U.S. ally.
Neutrality is “not the measure of a mediator,” he said. “The measure of a mediator is: are you effective? And the only way you’re going to be effective is if you address the needs of both sides.”
Another student asked Ross if the Israeli mistrust of Palestinians stems from “deep down knowing that the majority of them are living on stolen land.”
Ross responded that “it’s fair to say that Israelis don’t think they’re living on stolen land,” adding that Israelis mistrust Palestinians because of their experience of Palestinian violence, such as during the intifadas or from the bombings that persist today.
“The Palestinians have a set of grievances that are not imagined,” he said. “But the Israelis also have a set of uncertainties and grievances that are not imagined.”
Ross also noted that he is perplexed by how the deep passions that Palestine evokes on college campuses are not matched with a similar interest in the many other victims of Middle Eastern conflicts, who suffer a higher degree of immediate violence than Palestinians. When “I go on college campuses there is a deep concern for the Palestinians — which I think is fair,” he said. But, “I’m always sort of struck: We have half a million dead in Syria, 11.5 million displaced, a generation of kids that are now suffering from post-traumatic stress (disorder) … and that doesn’t seem to resonate” with students, he added.
Ross also addressed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “One of the things I object to about B.D.S. in general is that it in so many ways tries to import a conflict from the region here,” he said.
“As someone who’s tried to solve the conflict for the past 30 years, I don’t find that particularly productive. I would rather find ways to build bridges and promote that than (promote) boycotts.”