The peace that got away

Dennis Ross predicts that the eventual Israeli-Palestinian agreement will look like the final Clinton-era plan

If retail success were related to a book's historical importance, Dennis Ross's "Missing Peace" would outsell Bill Clinton's memoir by at least two to one.

That's not a slam at Clinton's "My Life," which I haven't read; it's a reflection of the detail, authority, and purpose of Ross's mammoth tome.

For 12 years, from 1988 through 2000, Ross was the top US diplomat charged with managing the Middle East peace process. He had unique access to virtually every leader in the region, not to mention two US presidents. He probably knows more about the attempts to resolve one of the seminal geopolitical conflicts of our time than anybody else on earth.

And here he tells us about all of it: the hopes, the dreams, the meetings - lots of meetings - and the heartache when, in the last hours of the Clinton administration, with the goal of an Israeli-Palestinian resolution so near, it all came undone.

He's out of the government now, but he's still trying. His purpose in writing this book is perhaps only partly to add to the historical record. He wants to show all parties how close they came, what the other sides thought, and how the whole thing might yet be solved, given enough effort and time.

"Only by telling this story can we debunk the myths that prevent all sides from seeing reality and adjusting to it," he writes. "Indeed, only by telling the story can we hope to learn the lessons from the past and make it possible to shape a different future."

But first, a caveat: This is a book for readers who already have at least a passing knowledge of the historical forces that have swirled through the Middle East since the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Breezy, it's not.

Oh, sure, it has its moments. There's the time Ross calls Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a liar, and then knocks over a pitcher of grapefruit juice. At one point, Ross admits that he and President Clinton mangled an important phone call (to Arafat, incidentally) because they were paying too much attention to a University of Arkansas basketball game on TV. During the Camp David summit of 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak choked on a peanut. It took a quick Heimlich maneuver to save him - and the meetings.

But the personalities in this book are only briefly sketched. We don't learn here, for instance, as we do from Secretary of State James Baker's own memoir of the period, that Syrian president Hafez al-Assad had an astounding capacity to carry on a monologue for hours without having to resort to a bathroom. In Ross's telling, the subsidiary Arab and Israeli negotiators eventually tend to blur together, however crucial their role in the proceedings.

Instead, the process - the back and forth swapping of positions - is the real subject of this work, and for that record, it's nothing if not monumental. Ross is the embodiment of the American belief that process is essential - that if the opposing sides in the Israeli-Arab disputes can be kept talking long enough, under the right conditions, good things will happen. He discusses virtually every position paper proferred on the Middle East over 12 years - papers offered by the parties themselves, as well as by the US.

Unfortunately, not that many good things happened during the period described in this book. It is, instead, a record of near misses: Israel and Syria nearly concluded a historic peace treaty, only to see it undone by disagreement over a sliver of land off the Sea of Galilee. Israel and the Palestinians struggled forward, for their part, occasionally striking important deals on such items as the transfer of villages in the West Bank. But in the end, they failed to strike a comprehensive treaty before Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Barak left office.

Ross makes a powerful case that an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace will inevitably look very much like the final Clinton-era proposals:

• The Palestinians will get most, but not all, of the West Bank for their own, with a swap of land elsewhere to partly compensate for the pieces left out.

• Palestinians will have only a symbolic right to return to land now occupied by Israel proper.

• In Jerusalem, Arab neighborhoods will be under the authority of the new Palestinian state, and Jewish neighborhoods will remain Israeli, with special sovereignty arrangements for holy sites claimed by both sides.

So why hasn't this deal been struck? Ross blames Arafat. In the final process, at Camp David, the man who seized world attention for Palestinians appeared unable to adjust to anything but living in struggle. "Only one leader," Ross writes, "was unable or unwilling to confront history and mythology: Yasser Arafat."

Others have argued that Arafat looked at both Clinton and Barak, saw two leaders on the way out, and declined to take a risk. Barak, after all, might have had a difficult time selling a Camp David deal to the Israeli public.

Ross notes that after an initial period of disengagement, the Bush administration has increased its involvement in the Middle East peace process - in part to placate Arab allies following the US invasion of Iraq. Such engagement is essential, he argues, if this strife-torn corner of the world is ever to change.

"The United States cannot impose peace," he concludes, "but the United States can and must fashion diplomacy that meets the requirements and possibilities of the time."

Peter Grier is a Monitor reporter based in Washington, D.C.

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