|SERIES: SUMMING UP|
January 16 , 2000
Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with Dennis Ross, special Middle East coordinator at
the State Department, about his role in the peace process. |
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thanks for being with us.
DENNIS ROSS: Pleasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've been working at this a long time at great personal sacrifice. You've had to be away from your family for months at a time. Why? People tell us it's not just a professional commitment but a personal mission with you. Is that right?
|High and low points|
DENNIS ROSS: I think that's a good way to put it. I worked in a lot of different issues before I focused exclusively on this one. On other issues whether I was negotiating START or issues of that sort, they never had the kind of personal character to it that this does. For me, this is a conflict that has a human face and because of that, I became more and more focused on what could be done to end this conflict. Obviously it served America's national interest, and clearly I was working for a president and Secretary of State who were deeply committed to trying to resolve it. But for me, there was an increasing sense that there has to be a way to resolve this because it was clear to me that both sides wanted to find a way to resolve it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Take us back to August '93 when then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and one of the chief Israeli negotiators, Joel Singer, wanted to involve the United States in the Oslo process. Tell us what happened and where you were.
DENNIS ROSS: What happened in August of 1993 both Secretary Christopher and I were vacationing in California not too far from each other. He called me and said he just received a call from Prime Minister Rabin and that the two of us needed to go to Point Magoo which is a naval base not far from Santa Barbara the next day where we were going to have a secret meeting with Foreign Minister Peres and with Foreign Minister Hoest of Norway and that there was some kind of an agreement that had been between Israel and the PLO but Rabin really wanted our judgment -- and he asked very explicitly -- he wanted our judgment before he knew that this was something he was prepared to embrace. That's the way he put it. So we went to Point Magoo and Shimon Peres laid out what it is that they had done and he turned to Secretary Christopher and he said, "What do you think?" And Secretary Christopher turned to me and said, "What do you think?" And I said, "It's a historic agreement. It crosses an extraordinary threshold. Psychologically we have just gone...we have made unbelievable progress." And there's a lot of work to be done. No question. But in terms of crossing a major divide, a psychological divide, that's what this agreement represents because it represents mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians. Once you cross that threshold there's no going back.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In all these years what's the highest point for you?
DENNIS ROSS: I think the highest point was probably the initial ceremony at the White House because it had much more of a sense of history than any other moment. There were other moments where there were agreements that were significant, but they were all derivative from that initial one. I mean from a personal standpoint when we concluded the Hebron Agreement, which I basically shuttled over two different 23-day periods to work on and finally conclude, from a personal standpoint just given the level of effort, the around-the-clock effort that was involved with that, that was a personal high point. But I think September 13, 1993 at the White House was truly a historic moment.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you say that right now is a lowest moment?
DENNIS ROSS: It certainly is one of the lowest moments. I think Prime Minister Rabin's assassination was for me personally the lowest moment. I spent an enormous amount of time with him -- an awful lot of it in private one-on-one meetings. I admired him. He was a man who had a strategic vision. He was a man who had the courage to act on those visions. And I think from a personal standpoint, he had taken on for me a kind of larger-than-life quality. To see him struck down and everything that represented I think that was truly devastating. The current period is very difficult as well because we have come so far and gotten so close, to then see us in this kind of a period which raises questions about, again, the underpinnings of the process, it's obviously not an easy way to be concluding my tenure.
|Foreseeing a final agreement|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Talk about that. The questions that are raised about the underpinnings -- as you know General Sharon who may be the next Prime Minister -- the polls show that he's ahead -- said, "I want to put this as clearly as I can: The Oslo agreements do not exist anymore, period." Are they over? Is the process you've spent all these years working on basically over?
DENNIS ROSS: Well, I don't think the process can be over when you have Israelis and Palestinians who are destined to be neighbors. They're going to be neighbors. You cannot change that fact. History and geography have destined them to live next to each other. You can't wish it away. So a process is not going to disappear because they have to find a way to peacefully co-exist.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the agreement up spent so much time developing? Will they stand?
DENNIS ROSS: The agreements created a reality on the ground. There is a Palestinian authority today. You can't wish that away. That shapes the choices for Palestinians and Israelis as well. We are at a point where you're going to have to negotiate a new set of agreements, either a permanent status agreement or something that creates a basis on which both sides can live together. All the agreements that came up to now-- there have been five, after the declaration of principles -- five agreements, they were all limited or partial agreements. They were all designed to set the stage to move towards a conclusion. Now clearly at this point, something has to replace that. There's no question about that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Does your leaving mean that you do not foresee any kind of a final agreement soon?
DENNIS ROSS: I made the decision to leave. My reasons for leaving are much more related to the personal toll that this kind of a job takes. I've done it for, truly I've done it for twelve years not just the eight years of this administration. So I was ready to leave in any circumstance. Now I'm not walking away from something I believe in. I will continue to write and speak about these issues and try to affect the climate within which decisions get made. And I will try to affect also both parties in terms of what are the choices that are available to them and how best to act on those.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You were very close at the end of September to an agreement. You've said you were meeting here in Washington with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Tell us a little about that and do you wake up at night and think, "Oh, we were so close?"
DENNIS ROSS: I believe that at the end of September we were clearly narrowing the gaps.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is just before the violence broke out.
DENNIS ROSS: Just before the violence broke out. And we were reaching a point where it looked like an agreement might be possible. In fact when I met with the negotiators I was actually the most skeptical of where we were and they were... they thought there was more potential than I did. At the end of three days of discussions what I felt was that, in fact, yes, an agreement is possible. Now, the violence has had a devastating effect on both sides. And yet, you know, you have President Clinton coming forth with ideas that were very far reaching, I think very significant from the standpoint of trying to settle this conflict. He said at the time when he presented it that if the ideas in the end weren't accepted that they would be withdrawn and they would leave with him and he repeated that last week.
|Working with Arafat and Barak|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But they're meeting today. Is there a possibility that there could be a sort of outline, basic principles that are adopted in the next week before the inauguration of the new president?
DENNIS ROSS: Well that's really up to them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think happened? What caused the violence and the breakdown in the process?
DENNIS ROSS: I think it was a combination of things. Clearly on the Palestinian side there was frustration that has built up over the years. On the Israeli side there is a sense that we have come so far, we have a government that is stretched so far. How could we stretch that far, not have it accepted and have violence as well? What you see is a deep sense of grievance that has emerged on each side. I think there's one basic lesson I would draw, and that is that throughout this process, whatever the reality was at the table it wasn't matched by the reality on the ground. And the gap between the negotiations themselves or the leaders and the realities on the street have got to be reduced if you're going to reach an agreement of this kind of nature.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some people have called it an agreement of elites and that the preparing people on the ground for it just didn't happen at all.
DENNIS ROSS: I think that's right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why? Why didn't it happen?
DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think here I would say the Palestinians did not do a lot to prepare their public -- partly because they see themselves as the weaker player in this equation, partly because the sense of grievance becomes an ongoing pressure to try to resolve things, partly because they don't want to give cards away that they consider to be important to the negotiations. But I think they do have to do a better job of preparing their public. On the Israeli side, I think they also have to recognize that they may contribute to sources of grievance. Demolition of homes, confiscation of lands, expansion of settlements, these are things that create a sense of powerlessness on the Palestinian side and add to the sense of grievance. The Palestinian authority, I think, has got to do much more to socialize peaceful attitudes on the one hand, not socialize hostility on the other.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How was your relationship with Arafat? In the Camp David meetings last summer, he at one point accused you of acting like Barak's lawyer. I mean, you know that the Palestinians have criticized you for being too close to the Israelis, for being their advocate. How was your relationship with Arafat?
DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think actually I spent so many hours with him I think I've come to know him rather well. I think I had a professional relationship with him. I mean we had good moments, we had tough moments, but that's the nature of any negotiation. I have to tell you that each side at one time or the other has accused me of being the other side's lawyer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've taken a lot of hits from both sides, I know this.
DENNIS ROSS: Yes. And I think that goes with the territory. I've spent a lot of time trying to explain each side to the other. Now, inevitably, when you're explaining one side to the other, they think, well, gee, you're understanding one, well, what about me, so there was a lot of that, but it's the essence of being a mediator.
|Past progress unraveling?|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When you look back now - I want to ask you this once again - do you feel like all of this work is unraveling?
DENNIS ROSS: You're going to have to go through a process in resolving this kind of a conflict that is characterized by different stages. You can try to resolve everything at once, and we do for a variety of reasons, given the alternatives, but I think you have to recognize that psychologically to take on issues that are existential to each side, like tourism, like refugees, like settlements, like borders. There needs to be a period of conditioning where each side comes to understand what's possible and what isn't possible. If you don't take that on, you're never going to settle the conflict. But the process of taking it on is something that requires some time. We have broken the taboos on these issues. The Camp David... Camp David was itself I think successful because it allowed the dissection of these issues in a way they had never been dealt with before. Oslo allotted three years to deal with permanent status issues. We didn't have the three years during the Netanyahu period because permanent status was never addressed then. We had less than a year to try to deal with these. So when you finally got to Camp David, which was the first time issues like Jerusalem were seriously dealt with at all, each side had to begin to understand what was possible and what wasn't possible. Having broken the taboo, having demystified these issues, it means that they can be dealt with over time. Maybe it will take some time to resolve them. But the groundwork, the essential foundations I think have been laid.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much worse could it get?
DENNIS ROSS: There's a potential for it to become much worse. Even when I say that we've laid the foundations for an eventual agreement, if you don't get an agreement now, it may take several years before you can get back to that point. In the meantime, the only difference will be not the outcome. It will be the number of victims.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you, Mr. Ambassador, very much. Good luck.
DENNIS ROSS: Thank you.