No one’s been closer than Ambassador Dennis Ross to pulling off what President Trump described as the “ultimate deal” — a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. During the fateful days of the Camp David Summit in July 2000, it was Ross — then U.S. envoy to the Middle East — who nearly brought Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat all the way to ending one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. Ross wheedled the opposing leaders and hammered out contentious particulars, learning more about the contours of the conflict and its players than perhaps anyone else on earth. His work to bring about Israeli–Palestinian peace spanned the tenures of former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and his fingerprints are on every diplomatic development that has transpired in Israel in the past 25 years.
So it was with considerable excitement that 150 students and community members filed into Salomon 001 last Thursday for the event with Ross, titled “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Then and Now,” hosted by Brown Students for Israel in partnership with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Ross began by casting the Israeli–Palestinian situation as a fundamentally territorial struggle between two national movements, both of which were legitimate and worthy of fulfillment. “There are two rights, not a right and wrong,” he emphasized as the guiding principal of his peacemaking efforts. In recognizing this, Ross exposed the illogic of trying to boycott or “punish” Israel out of frustration that the conflict hasn’t yet ended. Lasting peace in the region won’t come from punitive measures against Israel, but from diplomatic compromises that the Palestinian Authority has thus far not been amenable to.
As an audience member at the event, I asked Ross if peace talks in 2000 met the Palestinians’ needs, and he replied unequivocally that they did. He explained that the Clinton Parameters — guidelines he authored that specified the concessions the two parties would make — provided for the Palestinians to receive 95 percent of the West Bank, the entire Gaza Strip and control over the Arab parts of Jerusalem over the course of six years, as well as financial help establishing state institutions.
But the Palestinian leadership summarily rejected the proposal. I pressed him further about the nature of the rejection, noting that many Palestinians claim that Israel’s offer was not really generous at all and would have left them with a disjointed state that lacked physical autonomy and economic independence. Ross, who was intimately involved in drafting what would become the Israeli offer, answered that these allegations were “nonsense” — myths created after the fact to justify the Palestinian position. As the Clinton Parameters outlined, the West Bank would have been connected to Gaza via an elevated highway and railroad, and a $30 billion fund would have been created to support Palestinian refugees.
I continued: If Israel’s spurned offer was generous, is there any reason — other than wishful thinking — to believe that an agreement can be reached in the future? Indeed, Ross conceded, Israel would likely be less able and willing to offer the Palestinians as much as it did in the Clinton Parameters due to the threats to Israeli security posed by the growing instability of Israel’s neighbors.
In my view, there are only three logical explanations as to why the Palestinians rejected the Clinton Parameters in 2000. First, maybe the deal met the needs of the Palestinian people, but the leadership was short-sighted or mistaken and turned it down anyway. Second, the deal may have been flat-out unfair or inadequate, making the Palestinians right to reject it. Or third, perhaps the Palestinians had not yet come to terms with Israel’s permanence, and therefore they believed that they could simply outlast Israel and get all the land.
Ross emphatically refuted the second option, explaining that Israel made wide-ranging concessions on a number of critical issues. Seeing as he was there in 2000, I’m inclined to defer to his assessment. Ross also dismissed the third option, citing polls that show popular support on both sides for the two-state solution. Indeed, he believes that both Israelis and Palestinians truly desire a two-state solution, but are skeptical that it can actually happen, decreasing the likelihood that politicians make risky compromises.
So that leaves the first option as the correct explanation. Of course, if it is Palestinian diplomacy that is responsible for the peace logjam, then coercion aimed at Israel makes no sense. This is so, no matter how much one detests Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza or sympathizes with the Palestinians. Israel acquired the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 during a war, and can cede them only through a diplomatic settlement. Whenever a country exercises military control over a civilian population, it is sometimes compelled to engage in practices that are repressive and damaging to civilians. Israel is no exception, though its respect for civilian life compares quite favorably when stacked against other countries. The obvious solution is Palestinian self-government, but that cannot happen without a diplomatic agreement. And in 2000, the Palestinian Authority was unwilling to even negotiate over Israel’s offer more than 95 percent of the West Bank within six years (everything minus the most built-up settlements and non-negotiable security zones), Gaza and compensatory land-swaps from its sovereign territory. It is difficult to imagine what more Israel could have conceded.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with boycotting a country whose behavior you find objectionable. But if a boycott or punishment is to be productive, the boycotters have to state clearly how they’d like the country to reform itself, and such expectations have to be reasonable and practicable. Otherwise, the punishment has no just goal and serves only to impoverish a civilian population. “End the occupation” is a stirring and emotionally-appealing talking point, and may sound eminently reasonable. But without a negotiated plan for what is to succeed Israeli rule in the West Bank — something that can happen only with the participation of a recalcitrant Palestinian leadership — it’s just that: a talking point. It is inconceivable for a country to yield territory without assurances that it won’t regret doing so. Punishing Israel for the torpor of the Palestinian Authority would be like rewarding intentional handballs with penalty kicks.
Jared Samilow ’19 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.