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Why Israel’s Withdrawals Are A Mistake By: Dave Gordon
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, May 01, 2008

Pundits and scholars may argue about what Israel and the Palestinians should do in order to continue the elusive peace process, but there is one person who has been to the negotiating table with all sides, time and again, who has the insight from the inside -- Dennis Ross.

Ross, a former American ambassador, served under President George H.W. Bush and was special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton. For twelve years Ross helped shape various Middle East peace accords between Israel and her neighbors.

In his 2004 memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, he concedes that after several hundred meetings with Yasir Arafat, over the course of many years, it was only until after the Camp David Accords that Ross was finally convinced the dictator had never been negotiating in good faith.

Ross spoke last week at Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim synagogue, on the topic of: “Israel at 60: the players, the promise and the process.”

It was a well-timed speech to discuss peace. Ten years earlier to the day, The Northern Ireland peace talks had ended with an historic agreement called the Good Friday Agreement. Five years ago to the day, the famous Saddam Hussein statue toppled in Baghdad.

In this interview, Ross talks about where the Israeli/Arab peace process has failed, and what Israel needs to do to secure its future.


Dave Gordon: You had mentioned in your talk that Arab states point to UN Resolutions and, at least on paper, say they recognize Israel, and its existence. Do you think the Arab world recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, or only recognizes Israel as a state?


Dennis Ross: I don’t think that anybody in the Arab world explicitly recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. And what I was saying was that this is what they would say. The only ones who officially recognize Israel are Egypt and Jordan, because they have peace treaties with Israel. But even they, if you ask them, ‘do you recognize Israel as a Jewish state,’ would say that they recognize Israel. But the rest of the Arab world, they would simply point and say, that by accepting these resolutions, … that doesn’t mean that they have in fact accepted Israel as a Jewish state. In the Arab world that’s simply not been done.


DG: What do you think Israel and the U.S. should have done to stop the growth in support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and could they have foreseen this?


DR: In terms of the growth of Hezbollah and Hamas – I think one thing, the unilateral withdrawals have been a mistake. Because the unilateral withdrawals strengthened Hezbollah and Hamas; strengthened them within Gaza. One thing you’ve got to learn from the past is that unilateral withdrawals end up strengthening terrorists. Hezbollah was able to say, ‘look we succeeded through violence not through negotiation,’ and Hamas was able to say the same thing. Rather than Israel taking a step that was seen as a goodwill gesture that others should then reciprocate, it was seen as a sign of weakness, and those who emphasize violence were able to say they succeeded where those who talked failed.


So I think one thing would have been to frame the issue in a way where Israel says, ‘look we’re ready to get out, and the only thing we require is that someone assumes responsibility for security, and that can’t be done rhetorically.’ That has to be done practically. In other words, the issue is not about our occupation; the issue is solely about security, and if Israel’s going to withdraw, someone has to accept that responsibility. We’ve now seen what happened in Lebanon; we’ve seen what happened in Gaza. We also see how Egypt has not fulfilled what it needed to do, when it came to its side of the responsibilities as it related to the broken border corridor, and to the smuggling there. So I think one way to have made it more difficult for these groups to emerge in a stronger position was also to realize that they shouldn’t be the beneficiaries of Israeli withdrawal. And they have been, and they use that to build their appeal.  


DG:  How do you rate all the Israeli-Palestinian accords and meetings of the past, both the official and unofficial meetings?


DR: I think the key, if one wants to look at the whole exercise, is to see if there’s a success there. Because look where we are today. On the other hand, I would say it’s not easy for Israelis to want to live without hope, and I think you want to have political processes. The key is, can we learn the lessons from the past political processes that did not succeed, and see if we can draw from their failures?


What are the sources of failures … so in the future if you’re going to pursue a political process you have a better chance of success? I think one of the things we should learn from the past is there has to be mutual obligations, and the obligations of each side have to be fulfilled. And that the process goes forward so long as each side is fulfilling their obligations, and it does not go forward if they’re not. And I think that has to be part of the DNA of the process from here on out. There has to be a sense of mutuality and responsibility; it can’t always be one side. I would say that we’ve got to focus, certainly on the Palestinian side, with what is it that Palestinians can do, so we can also demonstrate that those who do believe in coexistence are able to show that their pathway works.  


DG: Why do you think the U.S. has yet to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, despite the fact that several American administrations and Congress have agreed to the move?


DR: I think that almost every presidential candidate promises that they will move the embassy, and then when they’re in office they suddenly worry about what the backlash may be, and will it complicate the negotiations. And so there’s been legislation that’s been adopted, but always with the presidential waver. If there was a security concern, that it will simply roil the atmosphere in a way that just makes things far harder than it needs to be. So I think the presumption is someday the embassy will be moved. But not until such time as, either you have resolved questions related to Jerusalem, or it becomes clear that you’re in such a period where nothing has been changed for a long time, so you decide to go ahead and act accordingly. But at this point, no administration has ever felt that we’re at that point, either in terms of resolving the issue, or deciding that it’s not going to be resolved any time soon. 


DG: The Western world has been very worried about Iran developing nuclear weapons – is there reason to be worried about other groups and countries also developing or buying these weapons?


DR: I think there needs to be a concern worldwide about any illicit trade in nuclear materials that you could have non-state actors get a hold of. That’s the nightmare scenario, the worst weapons in the worst hands.

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