Dennis Ross has finally left the building. Since the Carter administration, Ross has played a crucial role in crafting Middle East policies that have prolonged and exacerbated the more than six-decade conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. His efforts contributed significantly to the growth in the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories from well under 200,000 in the 1980s to nearly 600,000 today. It is in no small measure due to him that the two-state solution is all but dead.
Ross’s tenure during the administrations of five presidents over parts of five decades was marked by a litany of failures. And yet he went from success to bureaucratic success in Washington. His ability to flourish despite these failures reflects the degree to which obsequious support for Israel has become the norm in American politics, even when it contradicts U.S. national interests.
My most telling memory of Ross came in 1993 when, during an impasse between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, he offered an American “bridging proposal.” When we read it, members of the Palestinian delegation (to which I was an advisor) were shocked: in important respects, it represented a harder line than the Israeli position.
Ross’s obvious lack of impartiality revealed that this was not an honest broker, but a man who was more Israeli than the Israelis themselves. Throughout, Ross imperiously claimed that his own (highly flawed) estimate of what was acceptable to Israel was the absolute ceiling of U.S. policy, rather than standards based in established U.S. policy, or international law, or Palestinian legal and human rights.
This is just one example of why his former colleague, Aaron David Miller, wrote that American negotiators often act like “Israel’s lawyer.” Ross’s actions should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. Prior to joining the first George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations, Ross was co-founder, along with Martin Indyk, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank established by the Israeli lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). He is now reportedly returning to WINEP, where at least he does not have to maintain any pretence to impartiality.
Ross’s approach to making peace – appeasing Israel while pressuring the Palestinians, the weaker party, to acquiesce to Israeli demands – was doomed to failure from the start. The notion that Israel’s leaders will be willing to make the painful “concessions” necessary for peace if given enough money, weapons, and diplomatic cover has repeatedly proven itself bankrupt.
Today, almost 20 years after the beginning of negotiations at Madrid, thanks in large measure to this approach, the realization of a truly independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories is more distant than ever, and the reality of the apartheid regime Israel has created there is ever clearer.
An egregious example of the failure of Ross’s tactics was the Obama administration’s attempt to get Israel to agree to a partial freeze on settlement growth in November 2010. In exchange for a commitment to limit some settlement construction (which is illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Convention) for a mere 90 days, the administration reportedly offered the Israelis 20 F-35 fighter jets worth $3 billion, a promise that the U.S. would veto any UN Security Council resolution critical of Israeli policies, and – remarkably – a promise not to ask for another freeze after the three months expired. Taken at face value, this last clause would mean that the United States would no longer ask Israel to abide by international law and what has been official American policy since 1967.
Even many of Israel’s American supporters were shocked. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer slammed the offer as a “reward for Israel’s bad behavior” and “a very bad idea.” In the end, it was all for naught, as members of Netanyahu’s extremist coalition government turned down the offer.
Over 20-plus years of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations Ross’s presence in some capacity or another, inside or outside of government, was a near constant, as was the continuous frustration of Palestinian aspirations for self-determination and an end to over 44 years of military occupation and colonization. Now that Ross is no longer at the center of power, those aspirations may stand a better chance of someday being fulfilled.
*Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University and the author of six books on Middle Eastern history, including Palestinian Identity, Resurrecting Empire, and Sowing Crisis. Khalidi is a former advisor to Palestinian negotiators at the Madrid and Washington peace talks and is the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.