Reflections From Obama’s Middle East Negotiator: Dennis Ross

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“Too many tears have been shed. Too much blood has been shed.” With these words, President Obama addressed a crowded hall at Cairo University in June 2009 and made settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a cornerstone of his Middle East foreign policy. Nine months of tireless talks brokered by John Kerry built the foundations for progress, but last spring discussions were called off after the agreed deadline for reaching a preliminary agreement passed (see here for an account of why negotiations collapsed).

With the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington this week, the White House has admitted that, despite the president’s efforts, even minor progress on upstarting negotiations is unlikely during the remainder of Obama’s term in office.

Yale Journal of International Affairs (YJIA) caught up with the president’s former Middle East expert, Dennis Ross, to understand why Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy reached an impasse. We also discussed foreign policy disagreements between Hillary Clinton and Obama, how the former secretary of state would change track on Israel if elected president and why, for Ambassador Ross, a negotiated settlement in the region remains the only option.   

We have a perpetual conflict right now, so those who say one state are ignoring the fact that there’s two national identities, and inevitably one is going to try to dominate the other,” he tells YJIA.

In an edited version of the interview, Ross reflects on this question and on his broader work as Middle East negotiator, a job he started under President Bill Clinton in 1993:

Comparing Obama and Hillary Clinton on Middle East

Yale Journal of International Affairs: How different would Middle East foreign policy be under Hillary Clinton’s leadership, if she is elected next November?

Ambassador Dennis Ross: Her worldview is different from the president’s in some important respects. She has a tendency to see power as having real continuing relevance in a way that the president tends to look at power as a kind of throwback, as inevitably bound to fail. He wants to see much more emphasis put on global norms.

YJIA: And how would their differences play out on Israel-Palestine?

Ross: Hillary’s instinct in approaching the Israelis is a little bit different from the president’s, or maybe more than a little bit. Obama came in with a very strong feeling that the Bush administration had been too close to Israel for eight years and that that actually had added to our problems in the region.

Hillary’s view, I think, is that when you create gaps with Israel it makes it less likely that the Israelis will feel they have the level of confidence and security to move, but it also may send a signal to the other side that they don’t have to do anything.

To be fair to the president, he sees himself as a friend of Israel and this is genuine. He sees himself as someone who sees Israel heading toward a cliff and it was his responsibility to tell them: “you gotta change course!” His mistake was never to create a connection with the Israeli public, which would have meant his concerns would have been taken more seriously.

The Future of Peace Negotiations

YJIA: At the government level, you seem to think disagreements between Israel and the United States should not be voiced in public?

Ross: I don’t have a problem with being critical of Israel in public if we are also critical of the Palestinians. I have a real problem when we’re critical only of the Israelis and give the Palestinians a pass, and that was done in this administration. The president had a tendency to look at the Palestinians as too weak to criticize.

YJIA: Do you still deep down believe that negotiating borders as part of a settlement for two states is viable?

Ross: Yes, because I don’t see an alternative. Anyone who says a one state outcome works, from either perspective, is ignoring the Middle East. In the Middle East, wherever we have more than one identity we don’t have a state at peace. We have a perpetual conflict right now, so those who say one state are ignoring the fact that there’s two national identities and inevitably one is going to try to dominate the other.

YJIA: Can the conflict be resolved in our lifetimes?

Ross: The short answer is: I still believe it can be resolved; I just don’t know how soon. I think right now we are in a low point where the level of distrust is deeply embedded and when you have this level of disbelief it is very hard to create any kind of serious negotiation that can lead anywhere.

Israeli and Palestinian Leadership

YJIA: Does the Palestinian president have a mandate to make concessions?

Ross: No, not right now he does not. I think that is one of the reasons there is a hesitancy. I can’t say there was always a hesitancy because of that but that’s where it is. It is also not just a lack of a mandate; there is a gulf that has opened up between where, especially younger, Palestinians are and where the Palestinian leadership is.

YJIA: Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel is often criticized for lacking a strategic long-term vision for his country. How true is this?

Ross: I do think that he is focused on the threats more than the opportunities. That may be understandable, but it tends to inhibit what is possible. He doesn’t believe that Palestinian President Abu Mazen is going to do anything, and he thinks Abu Mazen will run away whenever he puts anything on the table. If he really believes that that’s the case, he could test him and then he could expose him, and he doesn’t tend to test him.

YJIA : Given that Netanyahu is not willing to test the Palestinian leadership, what was he hoping to gain by calling for a return to negotiations  (in his September UN General Assembly speech)?

Ross: Part of the reason for offering to negotiate was to say: “We are prepared to do something.” The problem is, both in the region and internationally the prime minister is not believed as being prepared to do a lot. I actually believe he’s prepared to do more than most people think, but there is a consensus out there that that’s not the case. He would need to underpin it by being prepared to do something that is tangible, which is very hard to do in the current setting.

I think there is profound public disbelief of the Palestinians, just as there is profound Palestinian disbelief of the Israelis.”

YJIA: On the ground in Israel is there currently an appetite for serious negotiations on this issue?

Ross:  I think there is profound public disbelief of the Palestinians, just as there is profound Palestinian disbelief of the Israelis. So we may need to do coordinated unilateralism, where you have a third party—and I can’t see any other except the United States—that works with each side to get them to make concessions to us, not to each other.

YJIA: Moving away from Israel, is there any one international issue that keeps you up at night? 

Ross: Three things: I see Iranian escalation with Russian escalation in Syria that could easily trigger something else. I see a nuclear concern with Pakistan over time and I see North Korea at some point miscalculating—it believes in provocative behavior and thinks it can get away with it, and at some point it’s going to be wrong.

YJIA: On a more optimistic note, where do you see the greatest hope for unexpected resolution in American foreign policy?

Ross: Over time, I remain hopeful that the continuing alternative to peace will be seen as being simply too difficult to continue to bear, and that that will drive us back to being able to do something on the peace issue. But we have to be realistic; today we are in the conflict management mode and you have to do that before you can get back to the peacemaking mode.

About the Interviewee

Dennis Ross is a former director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State, chief Middle East negotiator under President Bill Clinton, and former Middle East adviser & senior director to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. His new book on U.S.-Israeli relations, Doomed To Succeed, was released this month.

Interviewed by Josh Jacobs, Editor for Articles and Interviews.

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