The Middle East

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I attended a lunch yesterday at the Nixon Center featuring Dennis Ross, who served in the Bush 41 State Department and was Bill Clinton's chief negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It was a good opportunity to learn more from Ross than I have been able to from his appearances on Special Report With Brit Hume on Fox News Channel and our conversations in the Fox green room. Ross visits the Middle East frequently, has the widest possible range of contacts, and has a minute and specific knowledge of the players and the issues. His enormous book The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace recounts, in great detail, the negotiations he participated in. Ross is a pleasure to listen to: He is clear, fair-minded, thoughtful, willing to admit mistakes.

Ross amplified the argument he made in The National Interest, a Nixon Center publication. He admits that Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority have not made security arrangements in Gaza that any Israeli government could consider acceptable. He argues that the United States now should conduct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of the road map advanced by George W. Bush to which both sides agreed. He points out that the two parties have different understandings of their obligations under the road map and that a high-level negotiator is needed to get them to agree on common understandings–a role that sounds very much like the one Ross played in the Clinton administration.

It's pretty clear the Bush administration isn't doing this now. If it doesn't do so in the next few months, Ross argues, there will be adverse consequences.

One of the lunch guests, lawyer David Rivkin, pressed Ross on the last point. Why not hunker down in the present situation? he asked. The wall that the Israelis have built around Gaza and are building around the West Bank makes impossible the large number of suicide attacks we saw during the Second Intifada, and the Palestinians will learn that they must give Israel reasonable security guarantees before the Israelis will negotiate further. Ross replied that the barrier will not be foolproof, that it will be breached and there will be more attacks and presumably Israeli retaliations, and that the situation will get worse. I wonder. Ross has long conceded that the talks he led were unsuccessful because of Yasser Arafat's refusal to accept generous terms and his launching of the Second Intifada.

His portrayal of the current Palestinian leadership provides plenty of support for those pessimistic about the success of further talks and about the Palestinians' willingness and ability to prevent violence. I came away with the sense that the Bush administration is not going to follow Ross's advice and that over the next several years we will see whether that is a wise policy. On this I'm somewhat more optimistic than Dennis Ross.