Dennis Ross doesn’t need much of an introduction.
He’s the former State Department official who worked with Secretary of State James Baker on the Madrid peace conference during the Bush administration, who played a lead role in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians during the Clinton administration, and who President Obama called back for another round of peace efforts. He now is a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
And next week, he’s speaking in Paramus. (See box.)
At the core of his talk is his next book, due out in September: “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.”
The book profiles Israeli leaders David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon.
“It points out how they evolved, how and why they made what were tough decisions,” Mr. Ross said.
This is not meant as abstract history.
“My book says what lessons can we draw from the past to see if it can be applied to the future,” Mr. Ross said. And the book looks at “the role the U.S. played in making some of the decisions easier, by making commitments and assurances that could be offered to Israel to make more tailwind for the Israeli prime minister to make more difficult choices.”
In other words, while the book looks back, its key message is addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is about Israel’s future, and the “tough decision” Mr. Ross wants Mr. Netanyahu to make.
“If Israel stays on the path it is on, by default it will become one state for two peoples,” he said. Avoiding that undesirable outcome “requires a hard decision.”
The decision he has is mind is not to accede to the Palestinian demand for statehood immediately. “That’s not possible because the Palestinians aren’t ready for it,” he said.
Instead, the decision he would approve would be “to adopt a position that would preserve the possibility of separation. It takes a courageous decision on the part of the prime minister to say that we’re going to build within the settlement blocs but not outside them. We’ll build to the west of the separation barrier but not to the east. This will preserve the option of separation, even if the IDF stays where it is.
“It’s not a simple decision. It takes a courageous decision on the part of the prime minister. But if you don’t make a conscious decision, you’re headed to one state for two people. With 105,000 Israelis living to the east of the separation barrier already, you may soon reach a tipping point.”
So how does this plan fit with the increasing talk within Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party of annexing parts of the West Bank? And with the Trump administration’s promised plan for Middle East peace?
Mr. Ross said that depends on how it is couched.
He would advise the Trump administration to tell Prime Minister Netanyahu: “Don’t do any unilateral annexation before we release our peace plan. If the Palestinians reject the plan in advance, we could be in a position where we tell the Arabs that if they reject the plan, and there’s no diplomacy, we would support the principle of Israeli annexation, with the understanding that the final border still has to be negotiated.
“The truth is, in any peace agreement Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion are going to be part of Israel. They were part of it in the Clinton parameters I was working on.” (Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion both are suburbs of Jerusalem, home to many Israeli Jews, and for a long time the understanding has been that they will stay with Israel, no matter what else happens.)
“It shouldn’t just be done unilaterally,” he continued. “Where the context is created because the Palestinians have said no once again, if in exchange the administration gets a commitment that areas east of the barrier will not have Israeli sovereignty — and I would say stop building there as well — that would be giving the Israelis something and also getting something in return. The U.S. could use it with Arab leaders, to get Arab leaders to say they’ll stay engaged with some kind of peace diplomacy. It’s a way to take advantage of the plan at a time where prospects are at best uncertain.”
And public support from Arab leaders for any peace plan is key to its success, Mr. Ross said. That’s what the “Clinton parameters” that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected in 2000 lacked.
“We did get Arab support. The problem was that it was private support. Private support means nothing. You have to create a new reality” — and that takes public support.
“You’re not going to get Arab leaders to stand up and say a plan that doesn’t provide for a Palestinian state or a capital in some part of Arab Jerusalem is serious,” Mr. Ross said.
But the time is ripe for the right plan, he believes.
“The level of fatigue with the Palestinians by Arab leaders is growing. The recognition of their common security interest with Israelis is growing. But they wouldn’t come out and say the Palestinians should accept something. The most you’ll get is for them to say that a plan is serious and the basis for serious negotiations.” For that to happen, though, the plan “must cross a certain threshold. If not, they won’t expose themselves to charges that they betrayed the Palestinian cause. They just won’t do that.”
What does he think of the Trump administration taking a tough line with the Palestinians?
“There’s a certain logic to it,” Mr. Ross said. “The problem is that what should have been done at the same time was some effort to show that there was some recognition of and concern for Palestinian needs as well.
“The administration’s approach has two elements that make sense,” he continued. “One is that the Palestinians should understand that every time you say no to what’s on offer, the next time there is less. That’s absolutely the right approach.
“Number two, the fact that there needs to be an adjustment to reality. That too was right, both conceptually and logically. The problem is that you haven’t given the Arab leaders or Palestinians anything for them to know that this is an administration that will take their concerns into account.
“I didn’t have a problem with the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. But it wasn’t prepared the way it should have been,” he said.
Mr. Ross thinks that Mr. Trump could have told the Palestinians that he was committed to keeping his promise, and that it should matter that the president fulfills his promise. And he could have asked them, “what would make it more manageable for you?”
And when Mr. Trump announced his decision, “when he said we’re not recognizing the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty, all he had to do was add a clause: because we understand the Palestinians have claims and it has to be solved in negotiations.”
Similarly, “I’m quite sympathetic with the decision that was made to stop funding UNWRA,” the United Nations organization that oversees Palestinian refugees. “Why not on the same day say, here are the specific programs we’ll provide through a different mechanism?
“The way it’s been done creates a bar. It makes it harder for the Arabs to do the things you want them to do. There isn’t an Arab leader other than Assad who thinks Israel shouldn’t be in control of the Golan Heights with Iran in Syria, but they condemned the move. The balance you should be striking is to send a message that’s adjusting to reality, but creates a climate where you give them something they can point to.”
Having offered suggestions for Mr. Netanyahu and for the Trump administration, does Mr. Ross have advice for American Jews?
“The one thing for American Jews, as it relates to Israel, is to keep in mind that you have your counterparts there. One shouldn’t lose sight of that. For the more progressive Jews, you have your counterparts in Israel you can completely identify with and it helps you. Build bridges to them.
“Understand and recognize what Israel is. It’s a country with a vibrant free press. It’s a country ruled by law. There’s no other country in the Middle East where the attorney general, appointed by the leader, intends to indict him.” (He’s talking about Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, whose department has indicted Mr. Netanyu on three charges of corruption.)
“There’s a lot of polarization here, a lot of alienation from the administration,” Mr. Ross said. “That affects views of Israel as a result. Don’t forget that Israeli is a genuine democracy. You may not like the results of elections, but the potential for accountability is always there.
Who: Ambassador Dennis Ross
When: Sunday, May 12, 6:15 p.m.
Where: JCC of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah,
E 304 Midland Ave., Paramus
How: (201) 262-7691 or jccparamus.org