Dennis Ross has emerged from the Obama administration with some observations and suggestions regarding the Middle East. He notes that, while direct negotiations have resumed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, “there should also be no illusions about the prospects of a breakthrough any time soon. The psychological gaps between the parties make it hard to resolve their differences and have bedeviled all the work for peace talks over the past few years.” So was it foolish, arrogant perhaps, for his former boss to have promised peace in a year? I mean, given that the parties are miles apart, it was kind of rash to stake so much of the president’s credibility on a peace deal. Just saying.
So Ross has an alternative idea: Make life for the Palestinians a little better. He recommends:
While there may be no early breakthrough on holding negotiations, it is possible to overcome the stalemate. One way to do so — and to validate those Palestinian leaders, such as [Mahmoud] Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who believe in nonviolence and coexistence — is for the Israelis to change the realities on the ground. After all, these Palestinian leaders need to be able to show that their approach is producing a process that will, in time, end the occupation.
He essentially urges that, in the areas of the West Bank designated as Areas A, B and C, wherever possible the Israelis should limit their presence and encourage Palestinians to run their own affairs. For example, he says, “In Area B, about 22 percent of the West Bank, Palestinian police maintain law and order but are not permitted to deal with terrorist threats. Israel could allow their presence to grow.” In Area C, he suggests, “Palestinians’ security and police forces have no access, their economic activity is extremely limited, and Israel retains civil and security responsibilities. There is no practical reason that the Palestinians cannot be permitted dramatically more economic access and activity in this area.”
Wow, it’s just like the Bush administration’s efforts in conjunction with Fayyad. (Ross cautions, “I’m not suggesting to forgo negotiations and their focus on a two-state solution. Talks need to be pursued, and the Obama administration is rightly doing so. The administration is also continuing to assist with institution-building by providing material support for the security, judicial and other sectors of Palestinian society — steps that fit neatly with the kind of actions I am proposing to validate leaders such as Fayyad.”)
This is rich, I have to say. President Obama regarded his predecessors as diplomatic dolts. They just didn’t have his personal presence needed to forge a deal. They weren’t focused enough. Forget all these half measures; it’s time to bully Israel on settlements! So, umm, when did Ross discover this was foolish and counterproductive?
An experienced Middle East hand finds Ross’s newfound pragmatism somewhat amusing He e-mails me, “It is sensible, but not at all new: It is what Fayyad suggested in his recent Yediot interview, and elsewhere.” But he notes that “some things are missing” from Ross’s piece. “If these are good ideas, why has the Obama administration been obsessing about settlements and about ‘getting to the damn table’ instead of pushing these things?” He continues, “And if [Ehud] Barak thinks these are good ideas, why hasn’t he done anything? As under Bush, he is all talk, all promises.”
But Ross would have more useful and honest if he fessed up. As the Middle East guru concludes, Ross’s piece would “be more credible if he admitted they have wasted three years when such practical things might have been tried. It is harder now.” Indeed it is. Relations between the United States and Israel have soured. Hamas has been emboldened. Obama’s credibility with the Palestinian Authority is practically nil.
I eagerly await Ross’s memoirs of the Obama years. What about a title? “It Wasn’t My Fault” sounds about right.