Dennis Ross

Richard B. Straus is the editor of the Middle East Policy Review

With the appointment of Madeleine K. Albright, the last decade has seen four men and one woman as secretary of state. But through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, only one person has acted as point man for arguably the most demanding and politically treacherous foreign-policy issue--the Arab-Israeli peace process. And Dennis B. Ross, 48, has not only survived, he has thrived on the job. Indeed, his influence has never been higher than it is today.

Since the November 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on through the series of terrorist attacks that left hundreds of Israeli civilians dead and wounded, Ross has worked with Israeli and Arab leaders to make peace. But Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu's victory in Israel's May 1996 elections presented new problems. Because of the new prime minister's inexperience with and reputed skepticism toward the peace process, Ross has redoubled his efforts. This took on great urgency in September, when Netanyahu's decision to open an underground passage in the Arab section of Jerusalem sparked an orgy of violence on the West Bank and in Gaza.

While tantalizingly close to achieving agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the last remaining occupied Palestinian city, Hebron, Ross has yet to succeed. Still, he is breaking new ground as the first American to preside over Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The following conversation took place just before Ross' last trip to the Middle East, in his State Department office, unremarkable except for the array of his three children's art work. But in bureaucratic politics, location is everything: His office is on the coveted 7th floor of the State Department, down the hall from the secretary of State.

Ross prides himself on being a student of bureaucratic politics. and his career is a testament to his skill. He left teaching at UC Berkeley, in spring 1986, to serve as chief Middle East policy staffer on the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan. Because he was new, Ross was exempted from responsibility when the Iran-Contra scandal broke six months later.

While at the White House, Ross developed close ties to Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and Vice President George Bush. In the summer of 1988, Ross joined Bush's presidential campaign and, after Bush won, Ross opted to head Secretary of State Baker's policy planning staff, with responsibility for Arab-Israeli affairs. The 1991 Gulf War gave Ross an opportunity. With Baker, he plotted, negotiated, cajoled and sometimes coerced Arabs and Israelis to a historic peace conference in Madrid.

When the Clinton team arrived in late 1992, they found Ross at State, still focusing on the peace process. This, despite his having worked on Bush's reelection campaign. Ross now says he had misgivings; and there is no doubt his wife, Deborah, a former Federal Trade Commission lawyer and lifelong Democrat, was unhappy with this arrangement.

The new Clinton team was taken with Ross' knowledge of and passion for Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Within a few months, Ross was offered the job he coveted: special Middle East coordinator, with the rank of ambassador.

As Ross has become the indispensable man in the Middle East peace process, initial coolness from key Arab leaders like Syrian President Hafez Assad and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has given way to a strong embrace--even dependence. And that evolution is clearly reflected in Washington, where Albright, even before her nomination was formally submitted to the Senate, asked that Ross stay on the job.

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Question: How have you seen your role evolving since you became special Middle East coordinator?

Answer: Over the past four years, the task has been an extremely demanding one, because we expanded our efforts beyond just talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Every negotiation ended up creating multiple committees, and overseeing that became something that was exceedingly demanding. And when you add the various crises and problems we had to cope with, it was something that has been unrelenting.

Q: Has your role changed dramatically since the new government took over in Israel?

A: I guess I would say the following: There were clearly periods, even during the previous government's time, when I was as intensively involved, but not always out there, and certainly never for an extended period of time. This is new. Now that happened, first, because you had an unprecedented crisis because of the explosion of September. It was qualitatively different from anything we had ever seen.

And, secondly, because it is a different government that hadn't really yet established a working relationship with the Palestinians. We needed to play more of a role in helping bring them together . . . . But, remember, there were times before the Israeli and Palestinians had developed a working relationship . . . in 1994, for example, when there weren't direct negotiations and I actually flew to Tunis on successive Mondays and brought the Israelis with us.

Q: In October, you were on your way to the airport to leave for Washington when Prime Minister Netanyahu asked you to return.

A: Actually, it was a phone call I had initiated. We spoke about what had happened [in the talks], and we suddenly made progress. So it was within that context that we essentially decided that I wouldn't go. But also because, at the same time, I got a call from the Palestinians asking me not to go. There were two conversations en route to the airport where we essentially made a collective decision: All right, I won't go.

Now, in a sense, what was different was you never had us playing the role of my shuttling back and forth between the leaders. That had not happened before . . . .

But many times from 1992 on, I would be on the phone every day to both sides; and I can't tell you how often I was asked to call the chairman [Yasser Arafat] by the Israeli side. During a certain period, Shimon Peres would give me a call about 5 in the morning, his time, and every day he would ask me if I could call the chairman.

So there was an intervention. But when it's done over the telephone, it's not as visible as when I'm out there.

Q: How would you describe the state of your relationship with the Netanyahu government, considering the widespread perception that the administration preferred the election of Shimon Peres?

A: No. 1, the most important thing from our standpoint is to have a good working relationship with the Israeli government, not only because our countries' relationship is so deeply rooted in history and shared values, but also because if we're going to make headway on peace, having that kind of relationship is essential.

That we had a close relationship with the previous government should come as no surprise. I think it's because there was a great deal of progress we made during those years, and it was made by working closely together.

From the very beginning of this government, we made it clear that we wanted to work closely with them, because we realized a partnership is the key to being able to move ahead.

Q: Do you believe you have been moving ahead with this government?

A: We obviously haven't been making the kind of headway we would like to see. But I would ascribe it more to the fact that this has been a period of time when the two sides have had to get to know each other.

I think it's important to remember that even with the last Israeli government, when they developed a relationship of trust and confidence with their Palestinian counterparts, it wasn't instant. It took time and the two of them working through difficult problems before they got to the point where they developed a kind of mutual confidence.

Q: But don't you agree that a lot of Arabs and others, not just Palestinians, are no longer prepared to believe that the Netanyahu government will live up to its pledge to carry on with the peace process?

A: I would say there's no question that those in the region are not yet convinced that this government is prepared to live up to the commitment.

But I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu is serious about pursuing peace. We take him seriously. He has engaged in serious negotiations. But I'll also be the first to admit that what matters is not what he says, but what he does.

Q: And you think Prime Minister Netanyahu will do the right thing?

A: Let me put it this way. We know this is a prime minister determined to be successful. And I believe he will make every effort to be successful.

Q: If that's the case, why is it so difficult to finish the deal on Hebron?

A: I think any negotiating process always becomes more complicated as you come to the end of it. Issues that, on their own, wouldn't be seen as being significant or particularly profound take on greater weight because that's what separates you from concluding a deal.

And I think each side recognizes that it will be the first agreement between this government and the Palestinian Authority, and therefore it gets invested with greater urgency.

Second, each side is dealing not only with Hebron but also looking at how you create a road map for the future between the two. Inevitably that means that even issues that don't seem particularly profound become part of a greater goal.

But once the deal is made, it will represent an important threshold, and it will have a psychological impact, because it will be the first real deal that the two have worked out themselves.

Q: Do you think it will require presidential involvement to make this happen?

A: Throughout the process, we have had presidential involvement when we collectively felt it was necessary. Certainly, we had [Warren Christopher's] involvement throughout the process.

Often times, that involvement wasn't particularly seen, because the president did lots of phone calls at strategic moments. In the Middle East, that kind of diplomacy, using the phone, can be quite effective . . . .

And this president knows the issues well, and more importantly, he knows the people with whom he deals. And I think that's the key. It's true, generally, in international diplomacy, but I think it has a special meaning in the Middle East--where personal relationships take on special character and weight.

Q: Obviously, you remain upbeat. How do you account for this?

A: Look, we have dealt with a process that, since 1993, has endured a series of shocks, traumas and challenges. It has endured because it responds to something fundamental. The peoples on both sides do not see an acceptable alternative. Did you know that Bibi's [Netanyahu's] first impulse after the explosion in September was to call Arafat?

We will continue to have ups and downs. Because this is a difficult conflict to resolve. Nonetheless, the fundamentals are there and it's what makes it possible to endure in the face of great challenges, but it also makes it possible to succeed and overcome the challenges.

Q: What about the other part of the peace process, between Israel and Syria: Is it dead or just dormant? I assume it's more difficult, given the harder line coming from this Israeli government.

A: Well, the only thing I can say in response to that is that both sides have made it clear to us that they would like to resume the negotiations . . . .

Q: Do you find it more difficult dealing with Syria, given new evidence of its involvement in terrorism? Even the Saudis seem to be pointing at them for some responsibility in the attack on the U.S. base in Saudi Arabia last June.

A: The Syrians have been on our terrorist list, and this is an issue on which there have been continuing discussions with them, and it's obviously an issue where there's a real difference with them.

At the same time, what separates them from others has been a willingness to negotiate a peace agreement directly with the Israelis. So long as the Israelis want to have such talks, so long as the Syrians remain committed to such talks, then we will try to work with the Syrians . . . .

Achieving results between Syria and Israel would have a profound effect on the whole area, and would further isolate those in the region who believe that terrorism can be an instrument of policy.

Q: What about America's other friends in the area? Are you concerned that countries like Jordan are out on a limb, having been encouraged to make peace with Israel?

A: There is no doubt that the environment out there can be characterized by a decline in trust. Between Israel and all its neighbors. And while we know that negotiations have a substantive content, there is also a psychological content or dimension.

So when you see a decline in trust, a souring environment, it has an impact. Therefore, you must find ways to restore trust. And we're trying.*

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