Editor’s Notes: Misreading Abbas

By David Horovitz September 19, 2008

Dennis Ross, the Clinton envoy who watched Camp David fail, explains why Olmert and Rice, however sincere, are wrong to believe that a deal can be done in the near future

As Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator, Dennis Ross was centrally placed to observe the failure of that president to culminate years of concerted commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal with an accord at Camp David in 2000. Indeed, Ross exhaustively documented the failure of those talks, day by frustrating day, in his 2004 doorstop volume The Missing Peace.

Ross’s US government involvement predated the Clinton administration – he had served as director of Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan era and as head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Office under George H.W. Bush. And his involvement might postdate the Clinton years, too, since he now acts as an unpaid foreign policy and Middle East adviser to the Obama campaign; when the Democratic nominee visited Israel in July, for instance, Ross was with him.

In the meantime, though, Ross has also been serving as the first chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a cumbersomely titled but earnest attempt to examine the challenges facing our future and formulate policies to best meet them. The combination of heavyweight US government experience, demonstrable commitment to Jewish well-being and ongoing ties to the key regional political players makes Ross’s assessment of where the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations sit today particularly credible. And particularly relevant – as the Bush administration’s tenure draws to a close, Mahmoud Abbas’s term as Palestinian Authority president may have only months to run and Tzipi Livni (just) takes the helm of Kadima, an imminent Olmertian resignation away from trying to form her own government.

Ross, who is six months younger than the State of Israel, has just returned to the US from a visit to the region, where he met with various Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He promptly wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post urging the Bush administration and others to pay heed to the fact that Abbas could vacate his post and be replaced by a Hamas figure as soon as January. Ross urged Secretary Rice to use next week’s gathering of world leaders for the UN General Assembly to take steps to avert that crisis.

‘This is one problem the Bush administration can and should preempt before it is too late,’ he wrote in the article’s concluding sentence, prompting this reader, at least, to wonder whether he was simultaneously implying that other crises, perhaps including Iran’s relentless nuclear drive, would be better left to the handling of the post-Bush White House.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, however, Ross stressed that he intended no such implication. ‘No, I don’t want Iran put off for the next administration,’ he said. ‘The next administration will have fewer options and less time.’

What role, if any, Ross himself might play in any such administration is a matter of conjecture. Right now, Ross stressed, he was speaking to The Jerusalem Post strictly in a personal capacity.

Ehud Olmert and Condoleezza Rice are still telling us that a ‘shelf agreement’ with the Palestinians is possible before the end of the year. In your Washington Post piece, you quote one senior Israeli official telling you, ‘There are only two people in the world today who think that a deal is possible now: Ehud Olmert and Condoleezza Rice.’ Well, what, if anything, do those two know that the rest of us don’t?

There’s a genuine desire – it’s not insincere – to achieve a deal. What they feel is that Abu Mazen [Abbas], in his heart of hearts, is basically not that far from [the positions] Olmert [is taking], so why not turn this into something.

But Abu Mazen looks at the whole political universe, and any deal exposes him to huge criticism for any compromise. And there’s the concern that such a deal would be a dead letter that can’t be translated [into implementation, because of the instability and change, respectively, in the Israeli and American governments]. That makes him more cautious; less able to conclude.

But surely Olmert and Rice know that?

Olmert, in the circumstances [of his imminent departure and sullied reputation] wants to achieve something. Maybe Rice feels the same desire for an achievement. She’s made this a signature issue.

The gaps may be small, but nonetheless represent deep differences. On territory, for instance, the difference between the sides may be only a few percent, but there is still a conceptual gap.

Abbas, on the size of the settlement blocs, [envisages them as] substantially smaller than Olmert would have in mind. For the Palestinians, when you get above a certain percentage, it becomes too much of a division of the West Bank. And as for the terms [of a land swap arrangement under which Israel would expand sovereignty to encompass settlement blocs in return for territory inside today’s sovereign Israel], a one-for-one swap is not where Olmert is.

So the gap may be very small, but the blocs’ size and the equality of territory are still conceptual gaps.
On Jerusalem, I’m not entirely clear where Olmert is on this and I don’t want to project where I’m not clear.

On refugees, again, the gap may not seem wide, but if you drill down there’s a conceptual gap. That doesn’t mean it can’t be bridged, but it must be recognized. The Palestinians want Israeli acknowledgement of responsibility for the problem. They want a certain set of numbers [of refugees being allowed into Israel] per year for a period of years – numbers that are dramatically higher than the Israeli ones [of a reported 1,000 refugees per year for five years]. And [financial] compensation. That’s pretty far from the Israeli position, [which requires the Palestinians] giving up the right of return.

Can you clarify some of that? On the issue of territory, we’ve had reports that Olmert is prepared to relinquish as much as 98 percent of the territory, and he’s spoken of land swaps on a meter-for-meter basis. (At the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting this week, Olmert said: ‘If we want a territorial compromise, the price would be closer to the equation of one-for-one. This equation can be reached in many ways by swapping and merging territories… I personally believe this price is lower than the price we would pay in the future.’)

There’s no contradiction [in 98%]. That still accords with [the talk of] Israel seeking to annex 7%, with 5% of that to be offset by a swap. That’s not the Palestinian position. If Olmert is saying ‘meter-for-meter,’ then that’s not the way things were when I was there a week ago.

It’s not unreasonable to say, to be fair to Olmert and Rice, that in the historical sweep it looks like the gap is not so great. But agreements are born in psychology and there is [always] the need to make the case to the public.

If Israel under Ehud Barak had taken Olmert’s positions at Camp David, would an accord have resulted?

Arafat at Camp David had the capability and not the intention. He could not live with an end of conflict [accord], giving up claims and grievances, because the cause defined him.

The Clinton parameters are not dramatically different from what is being discussed now. In a different context, with different leaders, these or other ideas would be more likely to succeed.

These are not favorable times for concluding an accord. The Palestinians have their problems. Your problems, I don’t need to tell you: Is the Israeli government prepared to embrace Olmert’s ideas? And the US government doesn’t have particular credibility. To envelop any understanding with the necessary huge international and regional embrace, you need a capable American administration.

Do you believe Abu Mazen will quit in January?

I believe he would like to stay on. He has a personal sense of responsibility. But not infrequently he has said he will leave. He may sometimes have said this to affect folks on the inside and sometimes on the outside. But he’s said it and you can’t discount it.

Is time on Israel’s side, the Palestinians’ side?

When we look at the Palestinians who believe in coexistence, this isn’t getting better. Olmert and Livni see this. You must look for ways to empower those Palestinians. The greatest situation for Hamas is a situation that seems to have no prospects and no credibility.

Israel is not going away. No deal is a prescription for further suffering for the Palestinians, an absence of statehood…

Maybe Israel is more vulnerable than you think, with Islamic extremists on our northern and southern borders championed by an Iran seeking nuclear weapons?

Of course Israel is concerned about extremism. But Israel will sustain itself. What Israel has accomplished in 60 years, I don’t need to tell you. The US is going to stand by Israel. Israel faces real threats. Iran doesn’t disguise its agenda. But Israel will meet the threats as it always does, and it will have the US with it. For those who think Israel is going away, they’re just wrong.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza was a wake-up call in the West Bank and I’m seeing lots of young Palestinians – young Fatah members and independents – trying to put together grassroots organizations to compete with Hamas because they see their own fate at stake. It should be a strong interest to find ways to work with those who don’t want an Islamist future. The long-term strategy must be to see radical Islamists discredited.

Has there been any action on your call to use the gathering of leaders at the UN General Assembly to work toward preventing a PA leadership vacuum?

Well, I hope it serves as a wake-up call. As I wrote, it can’t wait.

Did your phrasing suggest that, by contrast, maybe Iran can wait?

No, I don’t want Iran put off for the next administration. The next administration will have fewer options and less time.

This week’s IAEA report shows that they have overcome most of their technical difficulties and their centrifuges are operating 80% of the time. They’re still not answering IAEA questions they were supposed to have answered by the start of 2008. There are the detonators that can create an implosion that are only relevant if you’re fixed on nuclear weapons.

We led our paper earlier this week with former top Cheney adviser David Wurmser saying Bush will not order a strike at Iran in his final months. Do you share that assessment?

If you listen to what Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates has said publicly, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Adm. Michael] Mullen, even the president, it certainly looks like that is where the Bush administration is coming from.

And rightly so?

Yes, it is sensible. Iran has an array of very profound economic vulnerabilities and we haven’t been playing upon them. The US Treasury has probably been the most effective. But you need a more collective approach. The Iranians’ oil output is declining and their consumption is growing. The export of oil is the key revenue the regime uses to buy off the Iranian public. Pressure that and you pressure the leadership.

We don’t have a lot of time. The sooner you begin to effect real economic sanctions, the sooner they’ll have to make hard choices.

In Israel I was struck by the assessment that the entire Iranian leadership wants the nuclear weapon, but the pace is affected by the cost. They don’t all want it at any price.

(In a previous interview, with Nathan Gardels, Ross said that ‘for Israel, the ‘red line’ is not so much when Iran has enough enrichment capacity for weapons-grade material. Their deadline is 18 months from now, when Iran’s air defense system, which is being upgraded by the Russians, will be completed. That will make it much more difficult to successfully strike Iran’s nuclear capacity from the air. The closer we get to that window without resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem, the more Israel will feel compelled to strike. Clearly, at the moment, we are headed down the path of use of force. The slow-motion diplomacy of the West simply does not match the rapid development of Iran’s nuclear capacity and the closing window when Iran’s upgraded air defenses will be in place.’

(That interview was published in July 2007 – 14 months ago.)

Which specific steps would you urge right now?

First, Nicolas Sarkozy is now the EU president. So try to work with the EU to cut off the oil and industrial gas, and cut back the provision of refined products. Second, work with the Saudis. China’s stake in Saudi Arabia dwarfs its stake in Iran. The Saudis don’t want Iran to go nuclear. And if you line up the EU and China, that might build a Russian incentive to be more responsible.

And finally, what do you make of the indirect Israeli-Syrian talks – a year after Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear facility?

Syria is looking at its own economic situation. Bashar Assad would like to achieve a greater degree of acceptability internationally. The goal of the talks from the Syrian point of view is to show the next US president that there is potential. Even if Olmert were going to be around, nothing [concrete will emerge] unless the US is part of it. I remember back in the 1990s, during the Israeli-Syrian contacts, [Israeli ambassador to the US and point man on Syria] Itamar Rabinovich said to me, ‘The Syrians are more interested in making peace with you than with us.’

I think that still applies. If [an accord] is possible, it could profoundly affect the landscape. And you’re not going to know it, unless you test it. *

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