The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace

By Dennis Ross. Farrar Straus Giroux. 840 pp. $35

No one will be celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Palestinian uprising next month. The past four years have wreaked enormous damage on people, places and politics. Palestinians have lost 3,000 lives and thousands more livelihoods. Their social and political institutions have been demolished, their leadership bankrupted morally as well as financially, their children sacrificed for a hopeless, pitiless cause.

The Israeli death toll is around 1,000 people, many of them victims of suicide bombers who have targeted civilian buses, cafes and shops. Israel's army has stormed through Palestinian cities to root out militants, weapons and bomb factories; launched a campaign of targeted assassinations against leaders; and sealed off the Gaza Strip and West Bank with barriers that gouge their way through Palestinian land, strangling the uprising but killing many innocents as well and sowing the seeds of hatred and vengeance in a new generation. The two peoples remain locked in a fatal embrace.

It's hard to recall that just days before the uprising began, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat clasped hands with then-prime minister Ehud Barak of Israel during a warm and glowing meeting at Barak's official residence in Jerusalem. The two leaders dedicated themselves that evening to completing a final settlement of the conflict. History's rear-view mirror is cruel: Peace, which once seemed close enough to touch, now looks thousands of miles and deaths away.

For a dozen years, Dennis Ross was the American diplomat in charge of making peace happen. He served as midwife, babysitter, taskmaster and father confessor to a generation of Israeli and Palestinian leaders and negotiators. Ross -- and they -- struggled, exhaustively and sometimes nobly, and ultimately they failed. Now he has written an equally noble, exhaustive and, at times, exhausting 800-page account of the people and the process.

The Missing Peace tells an epic and tragic tale. Ross recounts how, in the aftermath of the Cold War and the first Gulf War triumph over Iraq, his first boss, then-Secretary of State James A. Baker, cajoled, teased and bludgeoned Arab and Israeli leaders into attending a Middle East peace conference in Madrid in the fall of 1991. The book goes on to record Yitzhak Shamir's political demise; the return to power of Yitzhak Rabin; the extraordinary backroom maneuverings that resulted in the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians; Rabin's assassination by a Jewish extremist; and the brief promise of a breakthrough under his even more dovish successor, Shimon Peres. Ross chronicles the years of halting progress and stalemate under Peres's right-wing successor, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the near-breakthrough and ultimate failure of Ehud Barak's meteoric premiership. Ross also provides a painstaking account of the failed attempts of Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak to reach agreement with Syrian strongman Hafez Asad.

Along the way, Ross offers revealing and, occasionally, surprising portraits of various Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He depicts Netanyahu, a relative novice in the treacherous world of Israeli politics, as weak, hesitant and mistrustful, always looking over his shoulder to see what his right-wing critics back home were thinking and plotting. Yet at times Netanyahu showed a surprising willingness to go the extra mile, make a small but meaningful concession and pull an all-nighter to try to make progress. Barak, by contrast, comes across as childish, petulant and arrogant, a leader in love with his own immaculate conceptions and unwilling to listen to others. His penchant for grandiose, dramatic gestures, coupled with an almost crippling hesitation at critical moments, in Ross's view, probably cost Israel a chance to get a peace deal with Syria's Asad, who concluded that Barak wasn't serious or reliable.

Then there is Yasser Arafat, the wily, stubborn, recalcitrant, supremely self-serving leader of the Palestinians, who eagerly pocketed every Israeli concession while consistently failing to offer any of his own. As with many tribal chieftains, Arafat's main concerns were maintaining unity among the various Palestinian factions and preserving his own power. Still, Ross points out, no other Palestinian wielded the moral authority to compromise on issues such as the fate of Jerusalem and of Palestinian refugees. Arafat may have been crude and dishonest, Ross concludes, but he was the only game in town.

Ross himself comes across as dedicated, tenacious and single-minded. He's constantly breaking off early from family holidays to take a phone call, hold some anxious official's hand or throw a calculated temper tantrum. It's a polished performance, and The Missing Peace sometimes reads like a working manual for diplomats. "Every negotiation is about manipulation," he explains. He might have added: Be prepared to seize even the most dreadful of opportunities. When Ross heard of Rabin's assassination, he first broke down and cried. But minutes later he was calculating how best to exploit this terrible moment to further the peace process by making sure the maximum number of Arab leaders would attend Rabin's funeral in Jerusalem.

Ross's narrative climaxes with the diplomatic showdown at Camp David, where both sides' willingness to reach a solution ran up against the imperatives of their bloodstained history and the limits of their imagination. Each side now sees Camp David as the final exam that the other side failed. In the Israeli version, Arafat brazenly turned his back on a deal that would have given Palestinians sovereignty over all of the Gaza Strip and 95 percent of the West Bank, as well as control over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. In the Palestinian view, Israel's final proposals were suspiciously vague and presented in a belligerent take-it-or-leave-it manner that made them impossible to swallow.

While Ross is withering in recounting the miscalculations and tantrums on both sides, he holds Arafat most responsible for the failure: "Only one leader was unable or unwilling to confront history and mythology: Yasser Arafat."

Still, when Ross steps back and reviews the trail of tears that the peace process became, he argues that both sides failed to live up to their commitments. Palestinian leaders failed to stop, and even gave support to, the suicide bombers, while Israelis never really eased the grip of their military occupation or stopped building and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Ross saves some of his toughest criticism for the second Bush administration's failure to engage in the peace process. From the beginning, Ross argues, President Bush and his advisers mistakenly believed that because nothing could be done to improve the situation, it was better to do nothing. But Ross says Bush denied to Israelis and Palestinians America's most important gifts: its energy and its sense of optimism. When things are going badly, American involvement becomes even more crucial, he argues, because it can help prevent a bad situation from becoming worse. And he coolly picks apart the fallacies and lackluster execution of Bush's subsequent diplomatic initiative, the so-called Roadmap for Peace, that have made this effort a source of derision in Washington, Jerusalem and capitals throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Still, The Missing Peace leavens its despair with a dash of hope. For all the failures, Israelis met, talked and came achingly close to agreement for the first time with their Palestinian and Syrian counterparts. Everything was put on the table, and the outlines of the final deal became clear to all. "I am afraid it may take another 50 years to settle this now," Palestinian negotiator (and now prime minister) Ahmed Qurei told Ross after the Camp David collapse. Peace is either 50 years away, or it is just on the other side of a locked door to which both sides hold the key. *

Glenn Frankel, who currently reports from London, is a former Jerusalem bureau chief of The Washington Post.