Interview with Dennis Ross: Living the Peace Process
by Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly: Does Syria's President Hafiz al-Asad intend to close down his conflict with Israel? Or is he merely using the negotiations as a way to placate Americans, without any real intention of seeing the negotiations through?
Dennis Ross: President Asad has told President Clinton, Secretary Christopher, and me at any number of meetings that he has made the strategic choice for peace, that he wants to see an end to the conflict, and that he wants to see a new era in the region. He talks about the importance of a comprehensive peace as a way to change the area's character. He talks about the importance of bringing prosperity to the region. He's made it clear he understands that none of this will take place without peace with the Israelis. That's what he has said to us.
In the negotiations, we have seen a serious Syrian effort to explore ways to overcome differences with the Israelis, especially during the set of talks at Wye Plantation. We look at the process as a serious process; but we cannot yet say whether or not that process will achieve the desired results or objectives that we have, that the Israelis have, and that President Asad has stated he has.
MEQ: So, you have no reason to disbelieve him?
Ross: We don't at this point. When he says he has made a strategic choice for peace, we take that as a serious statement of his intentions.
MEQ: Is there a danger of Americans' seeming more eager for an Israeli-Syrian peace than are the two parties?
Ross: Were that the case, we would have no chance of ever producing an agreement. The interest and intention for peace must reflect something fundamental to both sides. Not only can we not want an agreement more than them but we cannot impose an agreement. Any agreement that emerges must reflect the fact that it is their decision, for, ultimately, they have to explain and defend an agreement. If it doesn't reflect what they value, it will not endure. We see ourselves prepared to help them reach an agreement, but we can't want it more than they do.
MEQ: What does this mean operationally?
Ross: The burden of negotiating must be theirs. There are always those who say, "Why can't there be an American blueprint to solve this?" We don't accept that because we are not party to the conflict. The agreement must reflect what they are prepared to accept -- not what we're prepared to accept. We will support them. From time to time we offer ideas, but always in the context of their discussions. They have to show that they are making a serious effort to overcome their differences.
MEQ: And are they doing that?
Ross: In the last rounds, we saw for the first time, on a more sustained basis, a genuine dialogue. There was not only give and take but a sustained effort for the first time not simply to lay out a position and to hear the other side, but to deal with the gaps between the two. Each side did this, then presented ideas to overcome differences. The gaps are still wide and I can't say at this stage that they are on the brink of being bridged. Nevertheless, the kind of dialogue that we recently saw suggests that if it continues, we would begin to see bridges between the differing positions. There is, in our judgment, a serious possibility of reaching an agreement, but there is still an awful lot of work before we get to that point.
MEQ: What kind of economic effects do you see resulting from a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty?
Ross: Interestingly, the discussions have shown that both sides feel there needs to be an economic dimension to peace, an economic underpinning. They began to talk about the importance of regional economic development that would include their countries; about the importance of assuring an economic payoff to peace -- meaning prosperity. They also began to talk about the importance of internationally based economic initiatives that would involve the private sectors. This is a new dimension in the discussions. We had previously seen interest in economic issues only from the Israelis, and now both sides show interest in these. Economics really had not been a part of the Syrians' perspective before, at least in discussions with us.
MEQ: Do you see the possibility of a Syrian-Israeli peace that's warmer than the one between Israel and Egypt?
Ross: Uri Savir likes to say that you don't use a thermometer to measure peace; I don't really want to characterize whether it is hot, cold, or in between. Still, I understand the question. I see the possibility of the substance that leads to normal relations, and not just very formal and limited ones. These relations can be built over time in a way that creates connections that underpin the peace and creates a mutual sense that both sides have something to gain from the peace beyond its formalities.
MEQ: The late prime minister Rabin talked about "an Egged [i.e., Israeli] bus traveling to Aleppo, Israeli tourists in Homs."1 Such developments symbolized for him true normalization. Are these in fact possible?
Ross: Tourism should be a part of an agreement, a natural part of what emerges from the agreement.
MEQ: When they were making peace, Israel and Egypt both gained financial assistance from the United States. Do you foresee Syria's benefiting in a similar way?
Ross: We're obviously in a different era; take a look at our budgetary situation and you'll see the stress that foreign assistance is under. If a Syrian-Israeli agreement is reached, it will occur in a very different context from that of Egypt and Israel. Further, the U.S.-Syrian relationship would have to undergo a transformation. We would like to see relations between the United States and Syria improve, and we envision that happening in the context of peace.
MEQ: What has Secretary Christopher achieved in his frequent trips to Damascus?
Ross: They reflect our commitment to do what we can to support the parties to see if they can reach an agreement, something we've not yet reached.
Actually, he hasn't specifically made trips to Damascus, but to the Middle East. You should ask, what has the effect of his trips to the region been? I would say, look at the region and you'll see a dramatic change in the landscape. We've seen a lot of changes in the region, in no small part because of his trips.
MEQ: Turkey has recently become part of the peace process, thanks to the water issue, the increased tensions with Syria, and the growing ties with Israel. It's been reported2 that you have been or are going to Turkey to discuss water issues.
Ross: Obviously we have many issues to discuss with the Turks, who do have an interest in Middle East peace. Turkey plays an active role in the multilateral process and will probably have an active role in regional economic initiatives. We are talking to Turkey about different dimensions of the peace process, and about the potential of the Middle East's being transformed. There are many different dimensions to this: economic, water, security; we'll talk about all those with Turkey. We will not single out any particular issue.
MEQ: What about the rumors that the Turks will be asked to give more water to Syria so the Syrians will be more forthcoming with water to the Israelis?
Ross: We will be talking with Turkey across a spectrum of different issues. A peaceful, stable, and prosperous Middle East is something very much in Turkey's interest. Turkey can play an active role in achieving that, then benefit from it.
MEQ: It looks like there's a blossoming relationship between Israel and Turkey. And it appears in part directed against Syria.
Ross: Israel and Turkey have long had a relationship. In some respects it is developing more than in the past, but if you look at history you see that the undercurrents of cooperation were laid in a variety of areas. They have a lot of common interests in the region, and as the landscape of the region changes, you see things you never would have seen before. Events like the Sharm el-Sheikh conference last month increase the potential for new forms of cooperation. That's part of what they're exploring.
MEQ: The Turks will likely raise the issue of Syrian support for the PKK [the Worker's Party of Kurdistan]. Please say a few words about Syria's support for the PKK and its effect on U.S.-Syrian relations.
Ross: Well, obviously, there's a real difference between us. Syria is on the terrorism list due to its support for particular groups. In the context of peace, we expect very different behavior. Clearly, Turkey is concerned about the PKK, and the two states deal with their differences bilaterally. We seek to promote a very different Middle East, and so we'll focus on the many dimensions that make up a different Middle East -- economics, security, diplomacy. We will talk about all these issues in the dialogue we have with the Turks and everybody else who plays an active role to promote peace.
MEQ: So far as we know, the Executive Branch has never condemned the Syrian occupation in Lebanon. Does this signify a lack of concern about the 35-40,000 Syrian troops in that country?
Ross: We want to see a Lebanon that is independent, that controls its territory, that can extend its authority throughout the country. We think that will likely be achieved in the context of achieving a comprehensive peace in the area. We are working to promote peace, and that we think will lead to the kind of Lebanon that we would like to see reemerge and really flourish.
MEQ: Could you tell us specifically how peace in the Middle East will get Syrian troops out of Lebanon?
Ross: The existence of peace will change the circumstances, and so change the role of groups like Hizbullah as well as the pressures currently existing within Lebanon.
MEQ: You've probably spent more time with Hafiz al-Asad than any other American since Henry Kissinger. Please give us your impressions of him.
Ross: He is a leader who pays great attention to detail. He listens very carefully. He is immersed in history and often speaks about history as it relates to our discussions. He prides himself on the weight of his word and he emphasizes that when he gives his word he sticks to it. He is very sensitive to Syria's place in the region. And he's determined to promote Syrian interests as he defines those interests. I find him a formidable person to deal with.
MEQ: There are so many reports about Asad's having an "engaging smile and a nice sense of humor,"3 about his "light banter and jokes."4 Would you also describe him as being nice, funny?
Ross: I would say that he is not a difficult person to talk to. He does exhibit a sense of humor in discussion. He has a curiosity; one of his most striking characteristics is the way he listens.
MEQ: You've also spent a lot of time with Yasir Arafat. Do you sense that he's had a change of heart, that he truly and permanently accepts Israel's existence?
Ross: I have indeed spent a lot of time with him and I believe that to be the case. Arafat made a decision previous Palestinian leaders have not been willing to make. He was the first to say "yes" to peace with Israel; as a consequence, he's exposed himself to a lot of pressure and a lot of threats. In one exchange I had with him when he was still in Tunis, he basically said, "We've made our choice, and our choice is peace. We will go forward, not backward." I believe that reflects his coming to a decision and his making a choice. He crossed a threshold with Israel and I think he's serious about it.
MEQ: There's no going back?
Ross: I don't think he'll be going back.
MEQ: How about governance? Now that Arafat is not longer a revolutionary leader but a man with responsibilities, is he in tune with this? Or is he still more inclined to seek the symbols of sovereignty rather than deal with the practical matters?
Ross: Many predictions about Arafat prior to his arrival in Gaza held that he would continue traveling around the world. To the contrary, there he is, in Gaza. He does pay a great deal of attention to the small details of running the Palestinian Authority. Were he to delegate authority and create decision-making structures, the Palestinian Authority would certainly operate more efficiently.
The Palestinian Authority has experienced a number of growing pains. It started largely from scratch, and had to deal with basic issues. Now we're in an important period: in the aftermath of elections in January 1996, with the creation of the council, it is very important to the well-being of the Palestinian Authority that it build institutions that take hold and take root, creating transparency and predictability in the decision-making process. That's the area where the chairman will have to work very closely with the Palestinians; it's something with both political and economic consequences.
MEQ: Are we heading toward a Palestinian state?
Ross: That's an issue to be dealt with in the permanent-status discussions, slated to begin in May 1996. Over the course of the next several years, we'll see what the outcome will be.
MEQ: Is a Palestinian state acceptable to the U.S. government?
Ross: Our posture has really not changed. We see this as not the most viable outcome. But we've also said that it's not up to us to determine outcomes; this is an issue to be negotiated by the parties. It's something best left to them to decide.
U.S. -ISRAEL RELATIONS
MEQ: Does Israel have a strategic role for the United States in the post-cold war era?
Ross: Yes, because Israel is a trusted and very reliable friend. We are bound by common values and by our common democracy. Our interests and perspectives converge. Israel will always be a country that we can count on to stand with the United States. Israel will continue to be important as a strategic partner because of its nature and because of our strong relationship.
MEQ: Is there any specific way in which Israel is useful to us?
Ross: Take a look at the nature of challenges we face; many can be foreseen, many cannot. Israel is a reliable partner and ally. It obviously is a country that makes its own decisions. It is very hard to identify particular contingencies; unless you have discussed each one with Israel, you don't know what its role will be. The broad principle is actually one that supports Israel. It is important to us to know that it is a country we can depend on, a country that has capabilities. We will continue the close coordination that has previously characterized our relationship, for that enhances our capacity to deal with circumstances we may not be able to foresee, or that may not even seem possible at this point.
MEQ: What would be the international implications of a cut in or even the ending of U.S. aid to Israel?
Ross: The U.S.-Israeli relationship is not only enduring but one in which the United States has given its word. Our word is important because our credibility depends on it. Cuts in assistance to Israel made without consideration for the ties we have with the Israelis, for the commitments we have made to Israel, would be wrong. Obviously, we operate today in a different environment for foreign assistance; still, we have to make a very strong case for foreign assistance as an important instrument of foreign policy, and as an investment in our own security. Certainly, foreign assistance to Israel is important to our interests in the Middle East, to the promotion of peace.
MEQ: Do you see the assistance's going on and on, or do you see an end to it?
Ross: I see it going on at this stage.
MEQ: Is it desirable eventually to bring it to an end?
Ross: That depends on circumstances. When Israel is taking risks for peace, exposing itself to calculated risks, the last thing we should do is think about cutting economic assistance. Of course, we have to take budgetary considerations into account, but it does not make sense to consider cutting assistance to Israel.
MEQ: What about Egypt? What would happen if the aid there was cut?
Ross: Egypt is one of the Camp David countries. As a pillar of peace in the area, it is up to us to provide the assistance as long as the economic need persists, something we should continue to do.
MEQ: You are much involved in the committee looking into the possibility of a U.S.-Israeli defense treaty; please give us some preliminary thoughts on this issue.
Ross: Yes. We have a study group and have only just begun discussing this. I would rather put the question in a somewhat different context. The U.S. relationship with Israel is obviously very close -- in some ways a unique one -- not only because of our commitments to Israel, but because our dialogue and cooperation contain so many aspects. It includes a security dimension, an economic dimension, a diplomatic dimension, a scientific dimension. We have increasingly developed an across-the-board framework for cooperation. We're now taking a look at the full scope of that cooperation and looking at ways to make it more effective in a way that responds to the needs and interests of both sides. We are yet at a fairly preliminary stage of this discussion, but we look forward to pursuing it.
MEQ: Are there disadvantages to such a formal arrangement compared to the present situation?
Ross: Each side weighs this in considering formalization. We see our own commitments to the Israelis as sacred; even if they are not embodied in formal treaties, we treat them just the same. Why then, you might ask, do we need formalization? Formalization could have advantages and disadvantages; we need carefully to consider what makes sense in terms of our mutual interests. I can't speak for the Israelis, but we are approaching the matter in an open-minded way, without a fixed set of assumptions.
DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS
MEQ: You've been in a Republican administration and a Democratic one. Do you see philosophical differences in their approach to the Middle East, or does it all boil down to personalities and happenstance?
Ross: I think it's more personalities and happenstance. If there's one thing that's characterizes American policy toward the Middle East it's a certain nonpartisan character. Different administrations may have different emphases, but I haven't seen that as a function of ideology. It has more to do with which individuals are in the administration.
When it comes to the relationship with Israel in particular, there's an extraordinary demonstration of bipartisanship.
MEQ: Would you say this bipartisanship is unique to the Middle East? That other parts show a Democratic-Republican division but not this one?
Ross: It's easier to see this spirit in the Middle East than elsewhere.
PEACE PROCESS IN GENERAL
MEQ: The Middle East peace process is now over two decades old; has it become a model for similar activities elsewhere around the world, such as in former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland? Is this a form of diplomacy that the United States developed in the Middle East and is now being exported; or is each case sui generis?
Ross: To a very large extent, each one is sui generis. We have to make basic judgments about the kind of role the United States can and should play. We have to look in each circumstance at the kind of relationship we have with those who are party to the conflict. We want good relations with the Arab world and with the Israelis, but we also have a special relationship with Israel; I don't think you'll find this circumstance in other conflict situations. The dynamics of negotiation may be comparable in other circumstances but the American role is not likely to be replicated elsewhere. While there may well be certain dynamics in the negotiating process comparable from one conflict situation to another, I'm not sure you can create an equivalent to America's role in the Middle East in other places. Also, every American president since Truman, Republican and Democrat alike, has seen the Middle East as an area of vital interest to the United States, every one has seen promoting peace there as vital to our interests. It's hard to find other areas of the world or other conflicts that have such a legacy or such a priority.
MEQ: Have you and other American negotiators gained skills in the course of your work in Middle East diplomacy that would be applicable elsewhere? Is the U.S. government gaining a distinctly new kind of expertise?
Ross: It's difficult to go through these experiences and not develop the wherewithal that can be applied elsewhere. There's little doubt that we've gone through a learning process that can be beneficial in other circumstances. Still, you have to evaluate the context, and that will determine the instruments at your disposal and what you can do with them.
MEQ: On a more personal level, you've traveled very widely over the last ten years. Do any of your trips stand out? Any vignettes or anecdotes you can tell us?
Ross: That's a very interesting question, because there are so many things that had a drama to them. Most recently, two events stand out, and they're connected. Sharm el-Sheikh was a profound experience. The fact of actually seeing two-thirds of the members of the Arab League condemning acts of terror in Israel -- with the Israeli prime minister sitting right there -- was really striking. This sent a message that peace and security in the Middle East are increasingly indivisible, and this amounts to a profound change. Many of Israel's neighbors understood that threats in Israel were something that would harm them as well.
The second vignette was watching President Clinton at the opera house in Tel Aviv with students, and seeing the emotional connection between them. This unmistakably demonstrated that the United States would at all times stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel. It's easy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in good times, but the real measure of commitment comes in bad times. This emotional connection was also clearly demonstrated at the funeral of Prime Minister Rabin, when congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle joined to make a really a extraordinary delegation to go to Israel. That had an extraordinary psychological impact.1 Qol Yisra'el, Oct. 3, 1994. #17
2 The Jerusalem Report, Apr. 8, 1996. #13
3 Robert K. Lifton, "Talking with Assad: A Visit to the Middle East in Transition," Middle East Insight, Sept.-Oct. 1994, p. 10.
4 Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, quoted in The Jerusalem Report, July 27, 1995. #5
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