Ambassador Dennis Ross is a scholar and diplomat with deep experience in Israel, Middle East negotiations, and US foreign policy. His visit to Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation on February 7 is part of the Federation’s initiative to offer substantive and immersive opportunities for community members to expand their knowledge about Israel and foster strong connections with our Jewish homeland.
Ambassador Ross held senior diplomatic positions in four administrations, including service as the point person for Middle East peace negotiations during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He is currently the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In an interview with the Federation, Ross commented extensively on prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the complexities of the US-Israel relationship. Ross takes a cautious stance on prospects for a Middle East peace plan the Trump administration may propose.
“The plan would be a basis for negotiations, not a final plan, not a resolution,” he says. “If it all works out in the most optimum way possible, you could say it could launch a process that could lead to a deal,” Ross says.
Ross notes also that prospects for serious negotiations would depend in part on how leaders of Arab countries react to an administration proposal.
“The administration has to understand what the Arab response would be. If key Arabs said the plan is a serious basis for negotiation, that would create a context that would be very hard for [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas to say no to,” Ross comments. If, however, Arab leaders perceive that the plan “falls short,” then, he adds, chances of it leading to productive negotiations would be low.
Ross notes also that Arab leaders have pushed back against the Trump administration’s “outside-
in” strategy, that a “convergence of interests” between Sunni Arab countries and Israel over confronting Iran and ISIS could set the diplomatic table for Israeli-
Palestinian talks. Ross says that “as (the administration) spoke with Arab leaders, they were told that was never in the cards. The Arabs won’t pressure the Palestinians in public.”
For the long-term peace outlook, Ross raises concerns about Israel’s building of settlements outside of “blocs” adjacent to Israeli urban areas. A potential basis for a final two-state deal would be land swaps in which settlement blocs taking up about eight percent of the West Bank would be incorporated into Israel. Construction of more settlements outside the blocs could make it harder to “disentangle” Israelis and Palestinians, a prerequisite for a “two-state outcome,” he says.
“You have to preserve the option of separation,” Ross says. He warns that Israel becoming a “binational” state of Israelis and Palestinians “would be much more problematic for Israeli values and for Jewish values.”
In the meantime, Ross says, “there will be no two-state outcome any time soon because of divisions between the parties and divisions among the Palestinians. Even if you get West Bank Palestinians and Israelis to agree, what do you do with Hamas in Gaza?”
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Ross observes, would depend on building better relationships on the ground as well as successfully negotiating a settlement of political issues.
“We need peacebuilding as opposed to peacemaking. I’m working with people in the Arava Institute in the Negev on joint projects with Israelis and Palestinians on the environment — sewage, water conservation, electricity. I’d like to be able to show examples of cooperation and show that they pay off,” Ross comments.
Better relationships are built on better understanding, which holds true for the US-Israel relationship as well, Ross says. In his 2015 book, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, Ross points to “disturbing trends” that could weaken the “strong, instinctive support” for Israel that has characterized domestic attitudes towards the Jewish state.
“I’d say we’re seeing an increase among progressive Democrats who are more challenging of Israel than we’ve seen before,” Ross cites as an example. It would be in Israel’s interest to reach out to US progressives, Ross believes. “In many areas, like climate change, Israel is very progressive. Israel should emphasize that.”
Ross says it is critical for Americans to understand the existential importance that security holds for Israel in a hostile region, where, among other potential threats to the Middle East’s only functioning democracy, “Hezbollah has 130,000 rockets in Lebanon.”
“If Israel wasn’t strong, it would be dead,” he says. “It’s important for the Jewish community to understand the character of the Middle East, the character of the neighborhood, even as it legitimately raises questions” about Israeli government policies, he says.
Better awareness of Israel’s cultural character and diversity also would benefit US-Israeli relations, Ross says. “Walk down the promenade in Tel Aviv on a summer afternoon. Everyone is out barbecuing, Arabs and Jews, as the most natural thing in the world,” he says. “It’s a picture of Israel that’s never broadcast, but it’s reality. That’s an image that many in the Jewish community are completely unaware of. There’s a story to be told.”