Ambassador Ross has written an amazing book. The Missing Peace (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York, 2004) tells in 815 pages of excruciating “blow-by-blow” detail the story of how over almost two decades, three American presidents, three Secretaries of State, one long-term advisor, and five Israeli Prime Ministers were all manipulated, intimidated, tricked, lied to, played for fools, humiliated, and exploited by one short, fat, stubble-faced, grubby looking Arab terrorist.
There is much of value in this book. Ambassador Ross’ inside scoop on who betrayed whom and who said “no” to what at Camp David 2 will, hopefully, put to rest forever the argument about what Arafat rejected and what he could have had if he had been willing to say “yes” to co-existence with Israel. Similarly, Syrian perfidy and obduracy are described in great detail; as is Rabin’s statesmanlike behavior, Netanyuhu’s carping and vacillating, and Barak’s desperate need for a deal. We see the characters in one of history’s most complex and frustrating scenarios with the clarity of Ross’ up-front-and-personal reportage, day by day, sentence by sentence, line by line.
The book can be divided into three not-necessarily-sequential parts: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Rabin is revealed as a world-class statesman who put his country first, maintained his integrity even in the most trying of situations, never went back on his word, and earned the trust and admiration of all with whom he worked.
Barak is portrayed honestly with his flaws and weaknesses, but also as the Israeli leader who found the courage to make the very best offer imaginable (even though he knew that it might end his political career), and then made it even better when Arafat turned it down the first time. The simpering, whining Palestinian spin-meisters who carped for 4 years about what was or was not offered are now silenced. Even Bandar bin Sultan (Saudi prince and Arabian ambassador to Washington) said it was the best deal ever, and Arafat’s refusal was a “crime against the Palestinian people”.
Netanyahu is portrayed harshly, but accurately, as a politician steadily loosing the trust of his constituency, and trying to maintain his political seat of power even at the expense of his nation’s best interests. On the other hand, it is odd that Ross critiques Netanyahu for not being more forthcoming about a peace agreement with Syria. Syria aids, abets, supports, and harbors Hezbollah (described by the US Department of State as the “A-Team” of terrorism), and is home to dozens of terrorist training camps where tens of thousands of wanabee terrorists are trained daily by PLO operatives for action against the “Zionist enemy”. And Ross wonders why Netanyahu did not trust Hafez el-Assad!
The Israeli body politic is portrayed accurately as desperately wanting peace, willing to vote out of office those who did not move fast enough in that direction (Shamir’s government in 1992, Netanyahu’s in 1996), and willing to trade land and dismantle settlements in honest negotiations with a partner committed to peace. But, this same body politic was equally willing to vote in a hawkish leader (Sharon) when it became clear that Arafat retained his decades-old commitment to Israel’s destruction, used the faux mantle of “peace process” to advance his terrorist designs, and exploited his political and territorial gains as a springboard for his long-dreamed-of jihad.
Arafat, the most complex figure of all, is portrayed in gory detail: with all of his histrionics, street theatre, temper tantrums, serial lies, smarmy toadying to the President and to Ross, endless wailing about Palestinian victimhood, and endless vitriol against Israel and Zionism.
Some of his most effective ploys are revealed:
- springing irrational demands upon his negotiating counterparts at the very last minute after everything had been agreed upon, in order to frustrate the other side, postpone decisions, and gain leverage in pressuring for further concessions
- appearing to agree to some concession, getting a concession in return from Israel, “pocketing” the Israeli concession, then reneging on his original concession and making more demands before he would be willing to re-consent to the original agreement
- agreeing to symbolic concessions on his part while demanding substantive ones from Israel
- good-cop-bad-cop machinations with his aides and spokespersons, where he agrees to something but then an aide refuses to go along with the agreement. Then when the aide is convinced to agree, Arafat refuses.
And with all that, Ross also portrays three generations of American statespersons continuously playing along, tolerating, accepting Arafat’s ploys with hardly a complaint. Yet, they all (Cyrus Vance, Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, President Clinton, and even Ross himself) found plenty to complain about when Itzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak tried to take a hard line with Arafat.
Tragic and comic at once, we see America’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright careening down the hall of a Paris office building in her high heels, chasing desperately after an insulted Arafat who has stormed out of a conference in high dudgeon due to some imagined slight to his honor. Tugging on his coat sleeve, she begs him to return, never realizing that that was exactly what he wanted her to do. She thinks she has pulled off a great victory when he condescends to return.
Writing as an “embedded reporter”, Ross lets us see the seamiest and the greatest in the players of this tragedy.
There are two dynamics, critical to the understanding of why Oslo and Camp David failed, that Ross leaves unmentioned.
- The dog and the doorbell. Anyone who ever had a dog should be familiar with the following phenomenon: the doorbell rings, the dog goes racing through the house sliding along the linoleum and skidding to the front door barking furiously. When you answer the door, the dog wags his tail and trots off to tend to his own affairs. Next time the doorbell rings…same thing. Is it ever for him? Doesn’t matter. So it is with Ross. He writes without hindsight. He transmits to his reader the original naïf sense of events and wonderment at Arafat’s manipulations as though he were writing without a decade of experience and first-hand education into Arafat’s nature and goals. No matter how many times Arafat pulls the same tricks, Ross and his entourage still hope and expect that this time Arafat will follow through. No matter how extreme the histrionics, how ugly the theatrics, how flamboyant and transparent the lies, the American side pressures Israel for flexibility, for concessions, for one more gesture of good will, one more olive branch….only to see it torched again and again. And then they turn around and do the same thing at the next bargaining session. Like the dog and the doorbell, they are unable to come to grips with the obvious: that Arafat was never willing to move in the direction they wanted, never interested in the goals they held. It is as though they chose to ignore the palpably clear and grating reality that Arafat wanted TO deal, but he did not want A deal. Dealing bought him time, gave him prestige, got him news coverage, power, and leverage. A deal would have brought him peace…and peace was not on his agenda.
To be fair to Ross, it is important to note that he did, on a number of occasions, warn his President or Secretary of State that Arafat could not be trusted and might pull some last-minute reversal. But these warnings never got translated into actions, never influenced the behavior of America’s key players (1).
- Selective terrorism: The single most important dynamic of Arafat’s entire reign as “ra’is” from 1994 until his death was his selective use of strategic terrorism to gain very specific ends. This dynamic is critical to understanding the failure of the “peace process”, the failure of Oslo, the failure of Camp David 2, and the failure of Ross’ diplomatic policy. Yet Ross ignores it completely.
There are three aspects to this dynamic:
a.) Selective terror diffuses internal pressures. Professor Nathan J. Brown, in his thoroughly researched and copiously footnoted “Palestinian Politics after the Oslo Accords” (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 2003) (2), explores Palestinian politics in excruciating detail during the years from Oslo to the 2nd Intifada. Brown gives an almost day-by-day account of the political interaction between Arafat and a variety of Palestinian political and legal entities during the previous decade. The single most important process that he discovers is Arafat’s stoking the “street” and inciting terrorism when pressed for reforms or for democratic procedures, and then turning to his troublesome constituency and saying: “How can you expect me to….when our people are dying in the streets?”. And the constituency always backed off.
The two most obvious examples of this adroitly handled technique are the “Tunnel Intifada” of 9/1996 and the 2nd Intifada of 9/2000. Shortly after Arafat was elected president in January, 1996, he set about demonstrating to the world that he would behave as a dictator. He brooked no rivals and allowed no autonomy to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) or to the Palestinian National Council (PNC) or to a number of other socio-political groups that had geared up for the creation of a state and the implementation of democratic processes. When pressure for reform and democratic procedure mounted from these groups, he used Netanyahu’s opening of an Herodian tunnel near the Temple Mount as the excuse for massive demonstrations and terror attacks that forced Israeli military intervention. Faced with this chaos and unrest, the pressure groups backed off and Arafat got his way. These facts do not excuse Netanyahu’s galactic stupidity in forcing the opening of the tunnel, but they do make clear Arafat’s technique that exploited the tunnel incident to his internal political advantage by using it as an excuse for a new wave of terror.
Similarly, January of 2001 was the end of his 5-year term of office. By early to mid- 2000 Arafat was faced with internal pressures for elections, and with a growing clamor among Palestinian leaders about the overt corruption and Mafia-like excesses of his regime. The 2nd Intifada was his answer, and it worked. Having thumbed his nose at President Clinton and told Prime Minister Barak to “..go to hell”, Arafat’s stature with the Palestinian “street” was at its apogee. So he used Sharon’s ill-fated visit to the Temple Mount (9/28/00) as the excuse for starting his “day of rage” (9/29/00) that he escalated quickly into the 2nd Intifada. Now at war with Israel, a war led by the immensely popular “ra’is”, the Palestinian Authority was hardly in a position to demand a financial audit or force elections.
b.) Selective terror supports Saddam Hussein. In the months leading up to the 2nd Gulf war, both Hezbollah and the terror groups under Arafat’s umbrella purposely initiated a series of terror attacks against Israel. These attacks were intended to achieve three aims: sympathy and support for Saddam, posturing to place Arafat on a par with Saddam in the fight against the “great black Satan”, and goading Israel into a retaliation that would upset the delicate coalition cobbled together by President Bush. Yossef Bodansky, in “The Secret History of the Iraq War” (Regan Books, New York, 2004) documents these attacks and their correlation with events leading to the second invasion of Iraq (3). The fact that these attacks undermined, or perhaps even eliminated, whatever possibilities there may have been for an end to the Intifada was of far less importance to Arafat than the need to show solidarity with Saddam.
c.) Selective terror torpedoes advances in peace negotiations: Until May of 2002, one could argue that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, the DFLP, the PFLP-GC, Sayyif Allah, and Jayyish el-Jihad were terror groups not under Arafat’s control. So when spokespersons for these groups openly declared that they had perpetrated attacks precisely because they did not want peace talks to move forward, one could argue that they were acting independently and that Arafat was not responsible for these attempts to de-rail progress. But once the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) raided Arafat’s Muqata’ and captured tons of documentation from his archive and computers, it became clear that he had been heavily involved in the planning, funding, and execution of these attacks. They were part of his strategy; as were the attacks by the el-Aqsa martyrs’ brigade, Tanzim, Force 17, and Fatah, all of which were acknowledged to be under Arafat’s direct control.
Ross documents time after time how negotiating teams seemed near agreement and then, most inconveniently, another terror attack, another bus bombing, another drive-by shooting which created mounting pressure in the Israeli public for distrust of the American diplomatic effort and a demand for a retreat from negotiations.
It may be that Ross was then not aware of the control that Arafat had over his terror groups. But Ross is writing in 2004, and now has the information that the IDF raids made public.
Moreover, Arafat continued to use terrorism this same way for several years after Camp David 2; most notably during the visits of Mitchell and Tenet, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad greeted them with multiple suicide bombings on the very days of their arrival. During both the Tenet and Powell visits there were multiple attempts as terror bombings but these were intercepted by the IDF.
So how can Ross write without hindsight? How can he ignore the dynamics that have become obvious over the past few years?
Happily, Ambassador Ross has answered these questions for us. During his recent nation-wide book tour, he spoke at a synagogue in northern California. One of the audience asked him why he did not address in his book the dynamic of selective terrorism. His reply was swift, forthright, and disarming: “I am not as sure as you that this dynamic did indeed exist. After all, Arafat did crack down on Hamas and tried to stop terror attacks”. With equal swiftness, Ross then moved on to the next question. A bit later during his presentation, Ross answered another question by saying that Arafat cracked down on terrorism only when very heavily pressured to do so by the USA. This statement contradicts his earlier answer. If Arafat was willing to put a lid on Hamas only because American pressure forced him to do so, then his actions against Hamas did not reflect a commitment to the goals of the “peace process” nor were they witness to his attempts to honor his responsibilities per the Oslo Accords. Therefore, the fact that only under duress did he crack down on Hamas in no way demonstrates that he could not have been using terrorism selectively for strategic purposes.
Ambassador Ross cannot rationally argue that Arafat sincerely tried to stop terrorism, and therefore could not have been using terrorism strategically, when in the next breath he notes that Arafat never tried to stop terrorism until forced to do so by American pressure..
Based on his contradictory replies, there is only one conclusion that can be drawn regarding the absence of any analysis of these two dynamics in his book. Ross knows perfectly well that Arafat used terrorism both tactically and strategically to strengthen his political and military position, to solidify his base of support, to raise his stature as a fighter for Arab causes, and to undermine any progress toward a move from dealing to making a deal. But Ross also knows that Arafat never intended to make a deal. He knows that Arafat used every trick in his arsenal to manipulate the Elder Bush and Clinton and their entourages, and they all, including Ross, fell for it….or better, put up with it, tolerated it. They never called him on it. But worse, they know that if they would have called him on it, the course of negotiations might have gone differently.
And perhaps worst of all, it is clear in hindsight (that hindsight which Ross omits) that by turning a blind eye to Arafat’s machinations, by pretending that it was Israel that had to be cajoled into more flexibility, more concessions, more risk-taking, by acting like the dog every time that Arafat rang the doorbell, they were empowering Arafat, enhancing his stature, supporting him before his constituency, weakening the already meager forces of democracy within the Palestinian Authority, and making it easier and easier for Arafat to avoid compromise, to forestall a deal.
The willful blindness of the American team, led by Dennis Ross, actually undermined the very process that they were supposed to be advancing. Ross et al are very much to blame for Arafat’s ability to keep the Intifada going, and thus to blame as well for the death of hundreds of Israelis.
So Ross omits these dynamics, because he does not want to admit the abysmal failure of his policies and does not want to acknowledge the horrendous harm for which he and his team are responsible.
In his epilogue (pp. 781 ff) Ambassador Ross stoops to a most distasteful tactic. He admits a few minor errors on his part, but then launches into a critique of the current President Bush’s handling of the Arab-Israel conflict. He has a litany of complaints about what President Bush did not do, but fails to note all that he did. He laments the missteps of Bush’s envoys, while avoiding the obvious conclusion that Bush had the wisdom or the guidance to recognize precisely what Ross et al refused to countenance: that Arafat was a deeply evil murderer, committed to the destruction of Israel and the genocide of its Jews; and as such, he could never be a serious partner to peace negotiations.
Ross seems to be attempting to place upon Bush the blame that he should be taking upon himself.
One cannot but conclude that he was maneuvering for a place in Kerry’s cabinet. Perhaps now he is maneuvering for a position in Hillary’s in 2008.
(1) There was one example of a minor success in curbing Arafat’s excesses. At one point in the Camp David 2 talks, Arafat began to assert that the Jews had no claim to the Temple Mount because the Jewish Temple was never there. No one knew exactly where it was, he opined, maybe in Nablus, maybe in Yemen. Ross told him to stop the nonsense because everyone knew where the Temple was. Faced with Ross’ blunt rebuttal, Arafat ceased bringing up that lie at Camp David, but he continued to use it elsewhere in his speeches. One cannot help but wonder what progress could have been made had he been faced with such blunt rebuttals for other of his lies and machinations.
(2) It is important to keep in mind that Professor Brown is no friend of Israel. In this book and elsewhere he claims sincere 3rd-party disinterest, staunchly defends Arafat, and depicts the Palestinian Authority as a well-intended political body struggling to slough off Israel’s occupation so that its people could be free to resume their almost idyllic pre-Zionist life. While one may doubt his objectivity, it seems clear that he is not slanting his work to favor Israel.
(3) esp. pp. 90 ff, 251 ff, 314 ff.