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The Middle East and the Prospects for Peace

Octavian Report: Are the US and Israel now at a low point in their relationship?

Dennis Ross: I would divide that relationship into two parts. One is a kind of institutional relationship which has developed over time and has taken on, in many respects, a momentum of its own. By that I mean the military to military relationship, the intelligence to intelligence relationship, the structural parts of the relationship that encompass a range of military intelligence, and economic cooperation. That, I think, continues unabated. It can be affected at the margins by what’s going on between the President and the Prime Minister, but I think fundamentally the trajectory of it continues to be very favorable.

The other side of the relationship is the personal relationship between the President and the Prime Minister. I do think we’re at a lower point in this particular relationship; I think the character of the dialogue between the White House and the Prime Minister’s office has also diminished.

Will that fundamentally affect what happens in the future between the United States and Israel? I don’t think so. Can it affect what the White House does in relationship to efforts of delegitimization of Israel? I think so — not that there won’t still be a readiness on our part to adopt certain positions in public and international forums. But will the administration make the political investment needed to mobilize others in a serious way? My answer would be that you probably won’t see the same level of efforts.

OR: If there’s such close security cooperation, why is it not more well known?

Ross: In a sense because the players don’t broadcast it. A lot of the security, by definition, is something that you do as a part of normal business. You engage, you make consultations between the Defense Ministry and the Pentagon and between the US armed services and their Israeli counterparts in the IDF. Those consultations have taken on a combination of intimacy and routine. They are done on such a regular basis that you have a kind of professionalism built into those discussions, and you have personal relationships that have been built over time.

There’s a level of trust about the challenges faced at a security level and the competency with which both sides approach it. There’s a respect between the military establishments that is deep-seated and is also a function of, I think, how highly the leaders of the Israeli military and the American military have come to regard each other.

You don’t do work like that in front of cameras, you don’t do it with press releases, you don’t do it through slogans. It’s real work — and the measure of its reality is that you’re not interested in winning plaudits for it. You’re interested in getting things done. I think it’s done in the right spirit. And precisely because it’s not done just to win points, it’s appreciated by each side.

OR: Do you see Netanyahu’s speech having lasting effects on Israel’s bipartisan support in Congress?

Ross: I think fundamentally no. I also think there’s something deeper that goes beyond the tenure of any individual Prime Minister. There is a strong degree of support among the American public for Israel. Yes, there are differences when you break down the public between Republicans and Democrats. And there’s a pendulum here, to a certain degree: there have been periods in the past when the Democrats were seen as being closer to Israel than the Republicans. Today it seems to be more the Republican instinct to be closer to Israel. But what overrides both of those is an understanding that Israel, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, shares American values in the Middle East — and nobody else in the region does. There are no other countries in the region that you can say are governed by a rule of law, where there’s a certainty of freedom of expression, where there are regular elections, where the loser in elections routinely accepts the outcome of the election, where there is respect for women’s rights, where there is respect for gay rights.

There’s one other factor: the same forces that threaten the United States also threaten Israel. That’s also basically understood within the American body politic. Whatever the current tensions, there’s an underlying strength that binds the United States with Israel — one that is nonpartisan.

OR: What can we expect from the victory of Likud on March 17 and its formation of a new government?

Ross: I don’t think anybody should assume they know exactly what the government is going to look like. First, while there is no doubt that Bibi is in the driver’s seat, that he’s going to be the Prime Minister, he still has to think about what he wants to do as Prime Minister. Moshe Kahlon determines whether or not he can put together a government without the Zionist Union. Even though he’s had personal differences with Bibi, he wants to unify the country. He has a very strong bargaining position. Bibi does not have a right-wing government without him, but there’s going to be tensions there because the religious are going to want money for their yeshivas – and Kahlon is focused very heavily on how you’re going to drive down the cost of living for the secular middle class.

I think the question that Bibi is going to face is how to put together a government that also allows him to be effective internationally. That’s why I don’t entirely rule out a national unity government. The key to that government is that Bougie Herzog and the Zionist Union won’t come in without a freeze in building beyond the blocs. That will become, I think, a critical test for what the new government and Prime Minister Netanyahu are prepared to do.

I think he has an interest in trying to blunt the delegitimization movement, and to do that Israel needs to take an initiative. And I think he has an interest in trying to affect the US and the P5+1 in their approach to the Iranians. If perceptions about his government seem likely to make it harder for him to do that, that will be part of his calculus.

Everybody assumes that with him as PM you’re going to automatically have a narrow-based government. And yes, the Zionist Union may decide it would rather be in opposition. But if we’ve learned anything from the past, it’s that those in the opposition don’t really affect policy at all. So for all those who say it’s a done deal, that we know exactly where it’s going to be, I see that as conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. But I would say, before we leap to all sorts of conclusions about where this is headed, that we should realize Bibi is going to remain the Prime Minister — and that he has an enormous amount of leverage. He’s also, though, not the complete master in this situation either. He can’t formally put together a government until he is asked to do so by the Israeli president. The Israeli president has already said he feels it’s necessary to have a unity government. That doesn’t mean that’s what the result will be, but it’s one of the factors in the equation. Bibi could establish a narrow government first, but still leave open the possibility of bringing the Zionist Union in. The tell-tale indicator is if he leaves some of the cabinet ministerial portfolios open, as Yitzhak Rabin did when he put together his government in 1992.

OR: How long will this take to sort out? And what do you think the chances are of a unity government?

Ross: I still am not convinced that you’re going to see a government put together until after Passover. Bibi has to decide what he wants to get done as Prime Minister and what his legacy will be. It’s hard to believe he will serve as PM many more terms, so he’s facing what are likely to be some big decisions down the road. It’s not totally in his control, remember: the Zionist Union could decide to make demands far outstripping what he’s prepared to give them. What will really become the issue is the question of whether you build beyond the blocs or not. So I would put it at fifty-fifty.

OR: If there is a national unity government, does that mean he would give Herzog the foreign ministry?

Ross: I think that would be the case.

OR: Netanyahu appeared to move right in the final days of the campaign, even moving away from the idea of a Palestinian state. How much of this was political rhetoric and how much foreshadowed a real change?

Ross: He’s softened that language already. It’s one thing to campaign to be elected. It’s something else when you actually have to put together a government. If you look at his statement, if you parse it out, what he was saying is that technically you can’t implement a two state solution right now. If you did, you could end up with ISIS next to you. There’s a difference between saying “you can’t implement it now” and walking back from the principle as a whole. You can indeed say with some justice that you couldn’t implement a two state outcome now. It is a fact of life. No one could implement it in Gaza.

Keep in mind also that when you govern, you’re going to have to deal with international reality. Israel is facing a delegitimization campaign and it’s going to have to find ways to contend with this. This campaign is not something that can be wished away. It’s something that’s going to have to be countered, and it won’t be countered unless Israel can position itself internationally to do so. That’s why I don’t think it’s a given that we’re going to end up with a narrow-based government. I’m just back from the region. And what I was struck by, in Jordan, in the West Bank, and in Israel, was the level of concern about the Iranians — not so much about the nuclear issue but rather about Iran’s more general behavior throughout the region. And that reality doesn’t go away. Social and economic issues are important, but I think in the end the election revealed that there’s a sense of how difficult a neighborhood Israel lives in — along with the perception that the outside world does not appreciate that difficulty. No one other than Bibi was perceived as strong enough, as prepared, to stand up for that.

I think a lot now depends upon how Bibi reads the international landscape, how he feels he needs to position himself to cope with it. And if he takes the delegitimization movement very seriously, if he feels that when it comes to Iran he needs to be able to present a somewhat different face, he could try to form a national unity government sooner rather than later – but he always has that as a potential option if he’s going to take a big decision.

The Palestinians probably feel stronger because there will be no pressure on them to do anything whatsoever. All the pressure will be on Bibi internationally.

OR: What is your view of the delegitimization campaign in terms of its likelihood of effectiveness?

Ross: I’m actually focused more on what I see as a BDS movement in Europe. The ICC element of the Palestinian effort of delegitimization I see as taking a long time to play out. I think Israel could face moves in the UN on the peace issue that could be problematic if the new government looks like it’s not going to do anything. But I think it will face more efforts at delegitimization from within Europe itself.

The world today thinks of this conflict as if the Palestinians have been prepared to make peace and the Israelis have not been. That’s not the reality. The Palestinians have been able to present themselves as if they are ready to take steps. But recall that in 2000, within the framework of the Clinton parameters (of which I was a major drafter), it was Yasser Arafat who said no. When Kerry presented principles last March — principles designed to resolve the issues of borders, refugees, and security in Jerusalem — he got no response from the Palestinians.

That somehow isn’t perceived because the resentment of Israeli settlement activity has taken on a massive weight: it is seen as the sole reason there is no peace. In part it’s because the Israeli settlement policy doesn’t seem consistent with its declared policy of having two states. If you could make settlement policy consistent with a two- state policy, you could suddenly shift the focus of the discussion in a way that I think would take the steam out of efforts to isolate Israel.

OR: Do you think that there needs to be a change in leadership on the Palestinian side in order for there to be peace?

Ross: I think it’s very difficult for Palestinians to make concessions or compromise because their political culture has developed in a way where the Palestinian sense of grievance is so great that any compromises are seen as illegitimate. I think the only way that that’s going to change is if the international community stops giving the Palestinians a pass. If the international community never requires the Palestinians to compromise, then they will continue to take the path of least resistance. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Palestinian leadership. But I do know that the Palestinian desire for international support could be a significant lever to affect their behavior. That would, however, require a realignment of international opinion.

OR: Why have Palestinian refugees not been resettled for decades?

Ross: In 2003, a group of former Israeli negotiators and senior officials met with a number of quasi-official Palestinians and reached the so-called the Geneva Agreement. In effect, it gave the Palestinians a right of return to their state but not a right of return to Israel. Under that rubric there would be compensation for Palestinians who chose to stay where they were or to go elsewhere. For those who wanted to return to Israel, it was basically Israel’s sovereign choice as to whom they would admit.

That was something that a group of quasi-official Palestinians accepted; many of them at the time went to explain themselves in the refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. Obviously they weren’t going outside of them — but they agreed at that time to make that case. I’m not suggesting it’s a simple issue. What I am suggesting is that if there is a serious design on the part of the Palestinians to have a state and end the conflict, a reckoning like that will be required. Neither side will be spared the need to make difficult choices that require confronting history and mythology head on.

I think, also, that the desire was to keep it as alive as an issue. The PLO made the refugee issue their sine qua non — it was the animating myth of the Palestinian national movement. The whole idea of reconciling yourself to a two state outcome means that you were saying: all right, we’re going to have some hard choices we have to make. But if we’re going to have a state of our own, we’re also going to have to accept that refugees will either come back to our state or they will be compensated if they don’t.

OR: What went wrong that led to the Gaza explosion of last summer?

Ross: Hamas, put bluntly, is more interested in fighting Israel than it is in developing Gaza. There was no shortage of materials below ground: concrete, electric wiring, steel, cement. You couldn’t get anything like that above ground. A great deal was smuggled into building tunnels as life in Gaza got worse and worse. Unfortunately, I think all the factors that produced a conflict last summer are there to reproduce it again.

There has been very little rebuilding. More than 60,000 buildings were destroyed or partially destroyed. People are living in terrible conditions. The agreement that was worked out between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the UN to allow materials to come in has largely been moribund: the PA and Hamas can’t agree. The worse life gets, the greater the pressure becomes within Gaza. It’s only a matter of time until we see things erupt again. You can’t have people living in absolutely horrible conditions — and increasingly with a sense that they have little to lose — and not at some point have a boil-over again.

We know now that Hamas is digging tunnels again. We know now that they are test-firing rockets into the Mediterranean. I have said for some time I would like to see the US adopt what would be an international effort — an equivalent of the Marshall Plan — for Gaza conditioned on one thing: that there would be a disarming of Hamas. This would put Hamas in a position where they have to explain publicly why they prefer having rockets to the development of Gaza.

OR: How do other crises in the region play into the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic?

Ross: A few points here. One, you have a preoccupation internationally and in the region itself with ISIS, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood. If you look at the Gulf states, if you look at Egypt, their preoccupation is largely related to what threatens them — and the Palestinians are way down on their list of concerns.

Internationally there still is a kind of concern for the Palestinians. But it too seems to take a backseat to more immediate problems. In Europe the preoccupation is with those who will go to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and then come back and be a threat within their society. That’s a huge preoccupation. Wherever you look there seems to be a different preoccupation — but it doesn’t tend to focus on the Palestinians.

I think the circumstances today for peacemaking are worse than they’ve been almost the whole time I’ve worked on this issue.

OR: Why is that?

Ross: I think there is just a very deep disbelief. The mainstream of Israel doesn’t believe that the Palestinians will accept a real two state outcome. Mainstream Palestinians don’t believe Israel will accept a two state outcome either. This is what a real peacemaking effort ought to be geared towards: focusing on each side, taking steps that would signal to the other that what they say about two states they mean. Israel could adopt a position in which their settlement policy is consistent with a two state solution because Palestinians say if they believe in two states why do they build in ours? Palestinians could acknowledge there are two national movements and you need two states – not a Palestinian state and a binational one. If you can restore belief, then you change the context.

OR: Do you think the Palestinians will continue to push the ICC issue?

Ross: I do. Again, it comes back to what I was saying earlier. The Palestinian public feels itself under pressure from Israel, so their leadership says: look, we’re doing something to put a reciprocal pressure on Israel. But of course it doesn’t make it any more likely that you’ll have a Palestinian state — the ICC campaign is more symbolic than real. All that does is feed the disbelief (and frankly the frustration) of Palestinians. It’s a short-term fix that creates longer-term problems.

It will also calcify the Israeli public’s view that the Palestinians are fundamentally hostile. So it doesn’t do anything to advance the Palestinian cause from that side, either.

That’s why I’d like to see the Europeans stop giving the Palestinians a pass.

OR: Why do so many in Europe, in the midst of rising domestic anti-Semitism, turn their focus to attacking Israel?

Ross: The Europeans have for a long time focused on Israel as the cause of the problems with Palestinians. They see Israel as an occupier, they see the settlements as an emblem that Israel is a kind of colonial power — and they’ve made that the sine qua non of the conflict. I think it grows in part out of their own sense that they were colonial powers once — it’s another way to deflect guilt from the past. It’s not that much of a leap from that position to challenge those who support Israel and delegitimize them as well. I think that’s the new anti-Semitism. There’s a history of anti-Semitism in Europe but there’s a new anti-Semitism connected to the delegitimization of Israel.

The BDS movement is guided much more by that. They say it’s just about trying to deal with the settlements, but in fact it’s actually their fundamental premise that there shouldn’t be an Israel. Why is it that it’s so easy to mobilize support and international institutions against Israel far more than against any other country? When Israel is held to a standard no one else is held to, then you have to ask yourself: what drives it? It’s hard not to see a degree of anti-Semitism there.

OR: Yet there’s clearly been movement by Egypt, Jordan, and the Saudis towards the Israelis. Is that purely an alliance of the pragmatic? Do you think that it could generate some positive momentum against the delegitimization of Israel?

Ross: There’s a convergence of interests because there is a common sense of threat. An interesting article by Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, the former general manager of Al-Arabiya, appeared recently. It was called “How did we end up cheering for Israel?” This was in reference to Israel hitting the convoy that killed an IRGC general and several of his operatives.

Al-Rashed’s piece surveyed social media throughout the Arab world after the Israeli attack on that convoy, and saw there a great animus towards the Iranians. The Israelis had hit Iran and there was real pleasure taken in the fact that the Israelis had hit Iran. But he said, in the same article, that this does not mean the region is ready to embrace Israel — at least not until it actually deals with the Palestinians.

I think that captured the reality that there can be all sorts of passive cooperation in the face of common threats, but there’s unlikely to be any overt cooperation until what is seen as a historical grievance on the Arab side is addressed. Now, if the Israelis were to say, for example, we’re prepared to do something on peace with the Palestinians, but we realize it’s hard for the Palestinians to do anything without an Arab umbrella. We’re prepared to treat an Arab peace initiative as an umbrella. That could be a move forward, to put out feelers to see if the broader Arab world is interested in such a move. Now the question becomes, is it, given its other preoccupations: Iran, ISIS, and the Muslim Brotherhood?

OR: Do you see any leaders emerging in the near term who might have a transformative effect on the peace process?

Ross: No. Abbas, whatever his problems, remains a determined opponent of violence. That’s not trivial. I don’t see that there’s any alternative to him at this point. There isn’t really an approach geared towards a succession within Fatah.

I think the answer, as I’ve said, lies in affecting the Palestinian calculus by showing that they will have to expect less international support if they continue down their current path and don’t do anything vis-à-vis a two state outcome. Hoping for a new different Palestinian leadership is largely illusory.