Peace envoy admits errors, sees progress

Palestinian public view needed more attention at '99 summit, Ross says

January 17, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Outgoing Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross said yesterday that negotiators erred last year by not paying more attention to Palestinian public opinion, but he thinks the Clinton administration's efforts nevertheless have paved the way for eventual peace in the region.

Ross, interviewed by The Sun as he announced his long-expected resignation, was pessimistic on the chances of reaching a peace in the last few days of the administration.

"It is clear that there are still gaps that remain, and I wouldn't make a judgment about whether they can close the gaps in the coming days," said Ross. "I think it will still be rather difficult."

He disagreed with critics who have claimed that the peace process itself is flawed.

"I look at Camp David and I tell you, I believe Camp David will be seen as a historic milestone in this process and will have contributed mightily to an eventual outcome," he said. "I don't think there was an alternative to it."

He added: "I have a sense of regret over where we are" in the negotiations. "I don't have a sense of regret over the effort. The effort was the right thing to do. ... You can never know if you're going to achieve an opportunity if you don't act on it."

In a discussion that covered his dozen years as a key Middle East diplomat, he disputed critics who claim Clinton should have gained approval from moderate Arab leaders on a prospective Israeli-Palestinian deal before the critical Camp David summit last July.

He acknowledged that, for all the seeming progress on sensitive issues such as refugees, borders and security, whether the sides genuinely want to sign a peace accord is still an open question. And he said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may be far less likely than his father to pursue a peace with Israel that is separate from a Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

"One major lesson" of the Israeli-Palestinian talks is the difficulties presented by "the gap between what was being negotiated at the table and what was happening on the street," Ross said. "The gap between the leaders and their publics was quite profound. To think you can do it and have it succeed when the gap is as wide as it was, that, I think, is problematic."

Israeli-Palestinian talks were derailed last fall by Palestinian rioting and attacks and by Israel's response. The violence has led to more than 300 deaths, the majority of them Palestinian.

Middle East specialists had faulted both Washington and Arafat for failing to do more to prepare ordinary Palestinians for the possibility of having to give up refugees' right of return to Israel and other painful compromises.

"Frankly, we had to find a way to narrow that gap" between what Arafat was saying at the negotiating table and what the Palestinian street was saying, Ross said.

"We had to put an emphasis on the Palestinian side on doing much more to prepare their public. You can't succeed in building peace if you're socializing hostility at the same time, and socializing grievance," he said.

Many Israelis have criticized Arafat for at least turning a blind eye to inflammatory, anti-Israeli rhetoric by his people and for not doing more to restrain the recent violence.

But Israel bears at least some of the blame for fostering Palestinian resentment, Ross said.

"While the Palestinians have an obligation to do much more to stop incitement and to stop socializing grievance, the Israelis also have to be careful not to be doing those things on the ground that build the grievance - whether it's [Palestinian] housing demoltions or expansion of [Jewish] settlements."

Numerous analysts fault the Clinton administration for failing to "pre-sell" an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to moderate Arabs in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a move the specialists contend would have significantly boosted chances for success at Camp David.

Ross said such a tactic would have been impossible because Washington had pledged secrecy to both sides on the subject of what they would be willing to give up in the talks.

"To the extent to which we knew more from each side than what they were telling each other - certainly in the Israeli case - everything was based on complete confidentiality," he said.

"So for us to begin to go out and reveal to others what might be the positions would have undercut anything that the Israelis were in fact prepared to tell us."

More recently, Ross said, moderate Arab states have been very supportive of compromise proposals Clinton presented to both sides last month.

Even though both Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak repeatedly have said they want to sign a peace accord and their differences have narrowed, "there's a subjective reality, which is, was there a readiness to actually conclude a deal? I think the objective gap [on the issues] was small. I'm still evaluating what the subjective gap was."

He said he believes that the hurdles blocking an Israeli-Syrian accord also are surmountable.

Ross has devoted much of his career, starting in the previous Bush administration, to seeking Middle East peace. But a desire for more time with his family led to his decision to resign from government, he said, although many had speculated that the George W. Bush administration would replace him at his Mideast post.

He will take a position at the Washington Instutute for Near East Policy March 1.

"About four months ago my wife said to me, at the end of one weekend where I had literally spent all day both days on the phone, `Won't it be great when we have a life?' And I said, `Yeah.'"

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