"No such thing as the status quo"
Since the signing of the Oslo agreements in 1993, Dennis Ross, former US envoy to the Middle East, has been heavily involved in the region, presenting key initiatives and proposals for the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks. Since leaving office following the defeat of former Vice-President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential elections, Ross has been the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think-tank known for its close ties with Israel and the hard-line camp within President George W Bush's administration. He spoke to Khaled Dawoud about his views on Iraq, the collapse of the peace process, and Saudi-US relations.
At the institute's recent panel discussion that you chaired about Iraq after Saddam Hussein, the main speakers said that after the predicted United States' victory in its war against Iraq, the US would need to occupy the country for between three and 10 years. They also said key divisions of the Republican Guard [Hussein's elite troops] must be dissolved and the leaders of the Iraqi army put on trial for alleged war crimes. Considering your knowledge of the region and deep involvement in its politics during the Clinton years, do you agree with such grandiose plans, especially in light of their potential consequences on the region?
"There is no doubt that, in the mind of the president and the vice-president, and especially after 9/11 and the shock and trauma it caused, that what they did not want is to be surprised by a war with WMDs. They looked out at the horizon and said 'who is the potential threat, who we know is trying to acquire new weapons, who we know sees us as an enemy', and their conclusion was Iraq"
I think it is always good to have grandiose plans, but I think it is also important to be realistic. Personally, I have a hard time envisioning the kind of American presence that was being talked about there. In the aftermath of a war in which Saddam Hussein's regime has been removed, I think it will be very important to first stabilise the country and then transform it.
It will be as important, when we do this, that we look at it from a multilateral standpoint -- that there is an internationlisation of the stabilisation and transformation problem. If it is American-centred, I think it becomes a potential problem. I think we'll begin to look more like occupiers than liberators. I believe we should even think about the division of labour within Iraq's reality. [We should look at] where the American presence should go; it should be in those places where there is a certain familiarity, maybe in the Kurdish areas. And you could have Europeans who would be in other places. We should also consider whether there should be an Arab presence and, if so, of what sort. Again, the idea here is to show that this is a transition period; it's a period designed to help Iraq get on its feet, one in which Iraqi institutions can be built. The purpose is to try to ensure that [the institutions] are broad-based [and] representative [of] Iraq. I would worry about an approach that was American-centred. I would also worry about an approach that was American only and with only people from the Iraqi opposition coming in. I don't think the Iraqi opposition should be excluded, but I think they should be making a better case about why they should be replacing Saddam.
But considering the lengthy debates that preceded UN Security Council resolution 1441, and the division on Iraq between the United States and almost all other countries, do you see any possibility for forming a coalition as broad as the one you are talking about that would include Europeans and Arabs?
I think there is a possibility [of forming such a coalition]. It all depends on the American mindset and whether it will be inclusive and willing to recognise that we don't have answers to all the questions. What we don't want is to overthrow Saddam and then preside over a war in settling blood feuds and competition between various ethnic groups. If we are going to end up with war, then there ought to be a consequence. The consequence should not be just that Saddam is gone and that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are gone, but what can be done to make sure that Iraq is actually a stable, contributing member of the Middle East community.
It seems pretty evident at this stage that most countries are not even convinced that there should be a war against Iraq. So why do you think it would be possible to agree on the post-Saddam arrangements?
First, let us see what the present process [UN resolution 1441] produces. This is what President Bush is saying: if he [Hussein] complies, then there is not going to be war. The problem is that for 11 years he [Hussein] hasn't complied and he filed false reports. He was required to reveal, according to UN resolution 687, everything in 15 days. He never did, and it was always a cat and mouse game.
But what do you think the situation would be if the UN inspectors come out with a report, say in one year, that says Iraq is clean and is not developing WMDs or trying to develop nuclear weapons? Would the US Administration be satisfied with such a finding?
It seems to me that the administration has, on one hand, raised expectations that there is going to be a war. I would say that even in the region, there is an expectation that we are going to do this. In some way, there has been an adjustment to the reality of post-Saddam, which is not to say that this is what people want to see, but they expect it now. On the other hand, President Bush has been saying, if he [Hussein] complies, then there is not going to be a war.
Even so, there seems to be a clear tendency among key members of the administration to push for that war, as though they were looking for any trigger.
There is a division within the administration, and there is no doubt about that. Some will believe that even if Saddam complies, he won't really be complying, and that somehow it will always be part of a game. And as part of the game, sooner or later, he is going to confront us with his nuclear capacity, and we don't want to confront that.
Do you believe Saddam has a nuclear capacity?
I don't believe he has it, but I believe he is trying to get it. I also do believe that he wants to have nuclear weapons, not because he wants to use them, but because he is going to use them coercively. He is going to use them as a shield to prevent us from stopping him from doing what he wants to do.
One question that everybody seems to be asking is, 'why now'? Why does the United States have to launch this war now if, as they say, the Iraqi president has been developing weapons for years? Is there any new information about Iraq developing new weapons, or is a war part of the so- called wider US war against terror?
I don't know if there is any new information. The 'why now' is the administration's. But there is no doubt that, in the mind of the president and the vice-president, and especially after 9/11 and the shock and trauma it caused, that what they did not want is to be surprised by a war with WMDs. They looked out at the horizon and said 'who is the potential threat, who we know is trying to acquire new weapons, who we know sees us as an enemy', and their conclusion was Iraq. This does not mean that Iraq was the only target, but it obviously got emphasised.
Should it have been emphasised starting immediately following 9/11? I don't know. The only reason WMDs are the emphasis right now, is the fear that he [Hussein] is close [to completing them], and we can't afford to wait [for that]. I don't know if they have intelligence saying that about him. If they have it, I would suggest they should reveal it. If Saddam does not reveal what he has, then it is up to the administration to prove that he has them [WMDs].
Meanwhile, 'why now', is an absolutely legitimate question. But the point is that it doesn't change the reality: he [Hussein] has not delivered answers yet. The administration is aware that Saddam is running a big risk, because if he comes in and files what amounts to a false report [on 8 December, the deadline for Iraq to submit a list of its weapons], then the administration will have to compromise certain intelligence means, and will have to show [the report is false]. They [will then] have two choices; one choice is to turn over the information they have to inspectors, and let them go search; the other is to reveal the information publicly. The issue of war is in Saddam's hands. Saddam does have a choice. If he disarms, he survives. If he doesn't disarm, he is not going to survive.
You were very involved in the Middle East peace process from its inception in 1993. Do you feel frustrated that all the efforts you exerted over eight years seem to have collapsed?
I feel profoundly frustrated. It is a disaster. That's the only way you can talk about it, especially if we talk in terms of human losses. To look at where we were two years ago and where we are now, you could only describe it as being a disaster. I think we have to learn lessons from the past; I think we also have to recognise that one thing about the peace process is that there is no such thing as the status quo. It always gets worse or it gets better. But it doesn't stay the same. We are in a situation now where things will only get worse unless something changes. It is like riding a bicycle, if you stop peddling, you fall off. And that's what we are seeing. We have fallen off.
Why not say that there was too much peddling in the beginning [during the Clinton administration], but by the time you had nearly reached the end, you ran out of energy and fell off.
We did not lose the energy, we went all out. Some people said earlier on, 'well, you did too much step by step.' But then some of the same people turned around later and said, 'why did you go for Camp David' [peace talks in July 2000 aimed at reaching a final settlement]. You can't have it both ways. You can't say it was wrong to take things step by step, and that it was wrong to go for the whole thing. We went for the whole thing because we understood what the consequences would be if we did not try to reach an agreement. You also now see the consequences of not having a peace process. We don't have a peace process. We have a war process. That's what is going on now between Israel and the Palestinians: it's a war. The challenge is to get back to a peace process; the objective is to find a solution. But at a time when both sides have lost faith, you are not going to go from this situation to an interim solution. That's a dream, that's an illusion.
So you think we should return to the step-by-step approach?
I think so. Look, I don't think the final outcome is any great mystery. I think that's one of the things that we [during the Clinton administration] showed. It is going to look something like the Clinton ideas [a two state solution], because they respond to the fundamental needs of each side. But you can't produce that today. You can't produce it on either side, because there isn't the readiness on either side right now to accept that if they would take these steps, the other side would, too.
In the case of the Israelis, there is profound disbelief because they feel Palestinians will continue to use violence. And they believe that whatever they concede, if the Palestinians aren't satisfied they will continue to use violence. That has to be changed. One of the things that has to happen with the Palestinians and the Arab world is to make it clear that there is a legitimate way of pursuing this cause and an illegitimate way. Violence and terror is illegitimate. That has to be clear. Palestinian security and police can't look like they are going to make arrests because they are under US or Israeli pressure. They have to look as though they are doing so because Palestinian interests require them to.
What about the Israeli side?
The Israeli side is going to have to meet the same realities. They are not only going to have to freeze the settlements, they are going to have to give up and do something like what the Clinton ideas called for. These ideas called for giving up almost all [occupied] territory, 97 per cent, they called for Arab East Jerusalem to be the capital of the [Palestinian] state, they called for an international presence, and they called for the right of return of Palestinians to their own state, but not to Israel.
Do you think the Bush Administration's policy of insisting on isolating Arafat has been useful?
The fact is Arafat has never condemned Hamas or Jihad by name. He says we condemn the killing of civilians, but he does nothing. Meanwhile, I think Arafat has made a historic miscalculation. We hear a lot about the need to recognise the political rights of the Palestinians. Well, they had it [a recognition], and they let it go. They had them [the rights] first in Camp David and then in the Clinton ideas. The problem with Arafat is that he couldn't end the conflict. He would have accepted the Clinton ideas, except for three words: end the conflict. He couldn't do that because for him, he never wants to totally close the door. I think he felt that violence would make the Israelis give more. To that effect, he did not try to stop the violence, he doesn't try to deligitimise it. A choice has to be made. If it was up to me, I would say there are responsibilities for both sides. I would outline what the Israeli responsibilities are; Palestinians also have responsibilities, and they have to transform their psychology from that of the victim, which they have been, and nobody can deny that. But being a victim has to be a condition and not a strategy. You have to assume responsibility, you have to make decisions and be accountable for the decisions. Meanwhile, you have to create an environment where the Palestinians will have a chance to succeed, and that is why I would start by outlining Israeli responsibilities.
But that never happens. Any proposed compromises always start by listing Palestinian responsibilities, followed by those of Israel.
You have to have both, and you also have to have Arab responsibilities. What the Palestinians are required to do right now is not going to happen unless there is also clear support from the Arab world for the legitimate way of pursuing a cause. If Hamas and Jihad are not prepared to [accept] peaceful means to resolve this conflict, and they are going to continue to use violence, they have to be seen as an enemy to the Palestinian cause.
But you do know that Palestinians, Arabs and even some Americans disagree with you that what was offered in Camp David was "historic". Even President Hosni Mubarak said it would have been difficult for Arafat to accept the proposed settlement, for example, over the Al- Haram Al-Sharif [the Temple Mount] in Arab Jerusalem, giving Palestinians sovereignty over the platform and Israelis sovereignty beneath it. Many people in our region laughed about that solution.
But why? At Camp David, I presented a proposal that both sides turned down. I said, this is a sacred [area], it is unique in the world. It is holy for the two faiths [Islam and Judaism]. So why not say that sovereignty here belongs to God? And then when it comes to practical arrangements, Palestinians control those relating to the Haram, and Israelis have their own relating to the Wailing Wall. And the Western Wall is basically underground. The reason we went for the above ground/below ground [formula] was that everything that mattered to the Palestinians and to the Islamic world was on the surface. Then, we excluded what is beneath the ground. We would also have limitations within shared sovereignty, or an international body that has to decide on excavations from the surface done by the Palestinians, or from the wall backward by the Israelis. That way neither side would have sovereignty over excavations.
But former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was clearly not negotiating in good faith. He publicly stated during his election campaign in 2000 that one of his accomplishments was that he negotiated with Arafat for two years without withdrawing from a single inch of occupied Palestinian territories.
I would not defend his tactics of negotiation because frequently they made no sense. But what he was prepared to do in the end was that when Clinton presented his ideas, he said 'OK'. He was prepared at that moment of truth; maybe before he got there he played all sorts of silly games. But at the moment of truth, he was prepared to say OK and confront history and mythology. And that's the test. Clinton was prepared to do it too, because we had never presented anything like this, never.
It was also Barak who allowed Ariel Sharon to visit Al- Aqsa Mosque, triggering the violence that continues today.
I think that Barak could have done more to stop it [the visit], but Sharon was also trying to embarrass him. If he had stopped him, Sharon would have said, 'We don't control the area that is most holy to us?' In the case of Arafat, he seized on it, no question. The reason he seized on it was that he wanted to send us the message that his hands were tied when it came to Al-Haram. He did not like the possibilities that we presented for settling the Haram. Yet, I am not one of those who believe that Arafat planned the whole thing. Arafat does not plan anything. He reacts. What happened was that violence took on a life of its own. The Israelis cracked down very hard to begin with and caused a lot of deaths. That triggered more Palestinian violence, and then the Israelis did more. Arafat, again, acted like a surfer. He rides the wave -- he doesn't try to stop it. He knew we [the United States] were about to present our own ideas, but after the violence broke out, these [Clinton] ideas were presented on 23 December. We told him [Arafat] the night Sharon went up there [to the Temple Mount], that we had received information that a lot of demonstrations were planned for the next day, which was a Friday. We told him we could not present our ideas if violence broke out; we told him he had to make an effort to stop it, but he said he would not even lift a finger. In fact, we had intelligence that he was encouraging it instead of stopping it.
Don't you think that Israel has also been pushing for more Palestinian violence by assassinating Palestinian fighters, even at times of calm as, for instance, it did when it killed Fatah leader Ra'ed Al-Karmi at the beginning of this year? That assassination came after three weeks of complete calm. Some observers said Palestinians were leading their own peace offensive.
I think that the decision on Karmi was a fundamental mistake.
So how do you think we can get out of this situation, especially with a government in Israel that has Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz as top figures?
People always ask me about Sharon and what he can do. I say that, in a sense, he has never been put to the test, because as long as the violence is there, he has a reason not to do anything. Take the violence away -- I don't mean for three weeks. Make a clear-cut statement that you are not drawing a distinction between killing Israelis in the territories versus killings in Israel. Say what [PLO Executive Committee member Mahmoud Abbas] Abu-Mazen is saying [about stopping violence and claiming that the Intifada has caused more losses than gains]. Make that the policy. Have it backed up by the Arab world and then challenge the Israelis. This would also make it easier for the American Administration. Challenge the Israelis and tell them, 'look, we are going to accept that there is only one way to resolve this and that's through negotiations and non-violent means.' This has to be through real action, and not just words, because the Israeli public no longer believes what Arafat says. And if you ask me what Arafat's single greatest mistake was, it was losing the Israeli public. They have always been a source of pressure on Israeli governments.
So do you think there is any immediate way out of this situation?
If we go to war [against Iraq], then I hope the administration will launch a major [peace] initiative afterwards. That initiative should be built around responsibilities for everybody. The roadmap [proposed by the Bush Administration] is designed to do that, but the roadmap is too technical and too mechanical. It needs to have some strategic objectives upfront that spell out the responsibilities of all sides in order to make it clear that it is serious and real.
This means that nothing will happen on the Palestinian front until the Iraq issue is settled?
I live in the real world, and I don't think anything will happen before that. I also believe that trying to push an initiative when it is not going to happen only ends in discrediting that initiative. I would shape an initiative at a point that I think is the right moment. There will be a moment after the war, because it will be an earthquake; you don't want to go to war without a purpose for doing so. If the war doesn't happen, I think the administration has to come back and revisit the issue and see what it can do. But one thing is clear: doing nothing is not an answer.
How serious is the current strain in ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States? How bad is it, and is it related to US pressure on the Saudis to permit the use of their territory in the event of a war against Iraq?
I think the problem is more pronounced with the American public, rather than within the American Administration. You have to understand again the trauma of 11 September. You have a country that has always felt secure and suddenly it finds out it is not. 15 of the 19 [attackers] were Saudis. And then it comes out that the Saudis support the madrasas [schools of religious Islamic learning] around the world, and the madrasas produce terrorists. The perception is that the Saudi government lets it happen. It has a deal with the religious authorities who then go and invest money. There are Saudis who give to these charities, and then the charities give money to the people who go out and carry out acts of terror. I'm talking about the public's view. It is very important for those in the Arab world to understand why the Americans have that perspective. We don't have a dialogue with the Arab world. We have the dialogue of the deaf. We talk at each other, we don't talk to each other, but we don't really listen to each other.
We have had contact with the Saudis for the last 60 years and the essence of the relationship is that we provide for their security and they ensure that the oil flows. It is an instance of shared interests -- not shared values.
One of things we discovered is that the deal they have [internally] that allows religious authorities to promote the madrasas and so forth, became something that created consequences for us. We have to talk to the Saudis about it. Should we beat them over the head about it in public? I think that would be a big mistake. What we should be doing is having a quiet dialogue about how what is going on there could have consequences for us. We should also have a quiet dialogue with them on the issue of how they can increase participation in the war against Iraq. Politically and economically it is in their interest to find a way to increase a sense of participation. Saudi Arabia is going to have to confront its own problems, and even Saudi officials are saying this. The administration, so far, hasn't figured out how to deal with that. Instead, the administration says grudgingly, well they [the Saudis] are cooperating.
Finally, you continue to seem moderate in your views, so why are you heading an organisation known to have an Israeli and right-wing bias?
I came here because I believed that I could do my work from here. It gave me a platform from which to write and speak. I'm just as committed to the pursuit of peace as I ever was; I haven't changed in that respect at all. And I want the Washington Institute to be seen as a place that promotes honest analysis and an honest exchange of views, and that's what I want us to be known for. If we are going to make peace in the Middle East, everybody has to give up their myths and start to focus on what the truths are that everybody has to understand. Peacemaking requires that those on all sides -- the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Americans -- confront the hard truths. And I hope to do that from here.