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Former US Envoy Dennis Ross believes ego of PLO leader scuttled peace with Israel

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Dennis Ross was the U.S. envoy to the Middle East from 1988 to 2000, and the chief peace negotiator for President Bill Clinton at the Camp David Summit in July 2000 | Photo: Dave Gordon

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It’s been 20 years since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat for a summit at Camp David, in July 2000.

There, Barak offered far-reaching concessions: proposing carving out a new state of Palestine – roughly everything east of the Green Line – and other generous giveaways. 

Arafat rejected every Israeli offer, and he never made a single counterproposal. The summit ended in failure. Arafat returned to Gaza to receive a hero’s reception for his defiance in standing up to the Americans and Israelis.

Dennis Ross was the U.S. envoy to the Middle East from 1988 to 2000, and the chief peace negotiator for President Bill Clinton at Camp David. His 2004 book, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, is indispensable for understanding what happened 20 years ago.

Ross has worked for Democrats and Republicans, and besides his many op-eds in leading newspapers in North America, he authored his most recent book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny, which examines the legacies of Israeli prime ministers Ben-Gurion, Begin, Rabin and Sharon.

Ambassador Ross’s major Camp David takeaway, in retrospect, was that in any summit, “you have to prepare the groundwork,” and that the leaders have to be ready to “make hard decisions.” Ross said that it is important to “create a test, to demonstrate and prove that the leaders can compromise.”

Ross admitted he had “deep doubts that Arafat could make concessions.” And Ross’s concerns materialized when, after Camp David, Arafat returned to Gaza to his “defiance rally,” which even featured marching bands.

Arafat then sent a letter to Clinton, saying that he wanted to have another summit. Ross told Clinton not to answer, saying, “we spent fifteen days at Camp David, and he didn’t do a thing.” He told Arafat to demonstrate something, and suggested meeting with the Israelis without the Americans, and work out practical arrangements on security and on Jerusalem. Over 30 meetings were held, and at the time, progress was believed to be made.

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Ross came back to the Middle East, but found that Arafat had not changed, making him dubious about progress. He tried to bridge the issues, and found some enthusiasm on both sides.

Unfortunately, Arafat ratcheted up the violence. Ross then set up a back channel between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the violence subsided. With five weeks remaining in the Clinton administration, Ross outlined a deal, and asked Arafat if he could do it, and he said yes.

Ross still had doubts. He then came up with the Clinton parameters – guidelines for a permanent status agreement. The night before he presented the parameters, he met with Mohammed Dahlan, a prominent Palestinian politician, who asked Ross, “what are you going to make us swallow?” Ross outlined the deal, and Dahlan didn’t say a word for five minutes, and then he said, “go ahead.”

They were presented on December 23, 2000, and the Israeli government accepted on December 28. 

But Arafat couldn’t bring himself to accept. And Ross concludes, “the main problem was the end of the conflict. Arafat couldn’t do it. It would end his identity.”

Ross shared an anecdote to illustrate his point. At one point he told Arafat he was taking a vacation. “Arafat said he wanted to take one, too.” Ross told him he should, and Arafat replied that his last vacation was in 1962. “Then go,” Ross told him. “How can I take a vacation from my people?” Arafat replied.

If a deal is not possible, and it probably isn’t, then what should be done? Camp David taught Ross to think smaller: what steps can be taken to “make the situation better?”

White House Photo at the Camp David Accord on July 24, 2000 L-R: Abu Ala, Nabil Sha'ath, US President Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross, Elyakim Rubenstein, Oded Eran | Photo: Ralph Alswang

Today, the 71-year-old believes a “triangular approach” would move the ball forward. This means that the Israelis should stop building outside of the settlement blocs, with no new Israeli sovereignty east of the security barrier. The Palestinians, for their end, need to end the ‘pay for slay’ (paying the families of terrorists), and they need to recognize the historic Jewish connection to the land. The Americans need to prepare the ground with the Europeans, and the Sunni Arab states need to do things “on top of the table.”

In light of the recent peace deal between the UAE and Israel, Ross believes that steps like that “help to legitimize security cooperation,” and help convince the Israeli public that things can move forward.

He believes it is fortunate that annexation has been put off the table (for now). Ross thinks that annexation would lead to the end of the two-state solution. He warns that any state with “more than one identity” has trouble with perpetual conflict.

In terms of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s role as a partner for peace, Ross said Netanyahu, in the past, was such a partner. Now he is not so sure. But that is not the problem. The real problem is that no one believes the Palestinians would make a deal.

At one point, Ross believed that current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was ready for a deal, “but he switched, when he decided he didn’t want to be a betrayer.”

Fred Litwin is a writer based in Ottawa. His third book, On the Trail of Delusion, recounts the story of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who, in 1967, prosecuted an innocent gay man for conspiring to kill JFK, and will be available October 2020. Fred has written articles for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Sun, C2C Journal, iPolitics, and is often a panelist on the CTV News Channel.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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