The gulf between Israel and the Palestinians has never been wider, said Dennis Ross in a Dec. 10 program at Princeton University.
But while that makes peace impossible in the foreseeable future, he said, it is possible down the road if both sides are committed to making changes.
Ross is the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Washington insider involved with the Middle East peace process in the administrations of four presidents.
His appearance was cosponsored by the university’s Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination and the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel.
Many Arab countries not aligned with radical Islam have a common enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, which, in turn, is aligned with Hamas, said Ross.
“During this summer’s war in Gaza,” he said, “there were ugly demonstrations throughout Europe and, to a lesser extent, in this country, against Israel. In the Middle East, there were no demonstrations against Israel. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? I wouldn’t have predicted that.”
Ross said that if Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas feels it would be too risky to forge a settlement with Israel on his own, a behind-the-scenes Arab coalition backing a two-state solution might be assembled with prodding from the United States.
But for any initiative to work, said Ross, the deep mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians must be repaired, and the United States must get more involved without “putting boots on the ground.”
“We can’t make the choice to do all or nothing,” said Ross of U.S. policy. “There are gradations of involvement. But to do nothing creates a vacuum, and we all know what happens in that part of the world when there is a vacuum.”
“Israelis understand if they had Arab partners there would be more peace,” said Ross. “If Arab states would suddenly embrace the State of Israel, it would be more secure.”
However, both Israelis and Palestinians must be willing to take steps to restore faith that the other is sincere about the two-state solution.
For its part, Israel should pledge not to build settlements in “what it thinks will be the Palestinian state.”
As for the other side, “It would be great if the Palestinians had a map that shows Israel,” said Ross. “It’s hard to believe the Palestinian Authority believes there could be peace with Israel when you can’t find it on any map. They need to do something about the incitement. You can’t watch Palestinian TV for five minutes without every single thing there being about demonizing Israel.”
After the Oslo peace accords, the Americans missed an opportunity to hold both sides accountable, said Ross, noting, “We weren’t tough enough on [Yasser ] Arafat on security and not tough enough on Israelis about settlements.”
However, the Palestinians missed an opportunity after the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza to build a viable state and a lasting peace when they chose violence and terrorism toward Israel over nation building.
“I said to them at the time, ‘You control your own destiny toward a two-state solution,’” recalled Ross. “Two weeks later there was a bombing in Be’er Sheva.”
Over the next six months, Hamas attacks continued at border crossings, prompting the Israelis to reduce hours and close checkpoints, cutting off supply lines.
As Hamas has continued to pour money into arms and terrorism while ignoring the needs of the Palestinians in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority has helped feed “a Palestinian culture of victimhood.”
“The only thing gained from victimization,” said Ross, “is that it ensures you will always be a victim.”