After Bush 43 took office, Dennis Ross, a twelve year steward of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process who served both Bush 41 and Clinton, found himself out of the official loop. He used his time wisely; writing bestselling books, speaking and consulting. Upon Obama’s victory, he re-entered official public life serving first in the State Department as U.S. Special Envoy to the Gulf and southwest Asia, including Iran, and now as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region (i.e. the Middle East). During his time out of government, I welcomed Ambassador Ross to many speaking engagements in my capacity as the Regional Director of AIPAC’s Southwest Region and learned much from his discussions.
As I read about the current revival of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, I recall a conversation with the Ambassador maybe 6 years ago on the topic of the Bush Administration’s level of engagement viv-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush, who in his first term essentially cut ties to Yasser Arafat after losing faith in Arafat’s veracity, was roundly criticized for not doing enough for peace. Understanding that the climate at that time was not conducive to long-term agreements, Ross noted nonetheless the importance of keeping the two sides talking; if anything, to prevent further erosion of the already fractured relationship.
Certainly, today’s climate presents better opportunities for successful engagement than 5 or 6 years. Palestinians in the West Bank provide greater security against terrorists allowing Israel to significantly reduce the number of roadblocks (removed over 200 in the last few months alone) helping create the environment for a stronger Palestinian economy (West Bank GDP grew 8.5 percent in 2009; see also Business Week). And just recently, Israeli engineers removed a 600 meter security barrier between the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo and Beit Jala.
Conversely however, without the construction of the 434 mile Security Barrier, West Bank terror could still threaten Israelis and the incitement of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic fervor by the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah party does not create the atmosphere required for real peace. Not to mention the white elephant in the name, namely a Gaza Strip controlled by the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hamas.
Still, as long as expectations do not exceed potential, and crisis beyond the scope of the immediate conflict do not erupt, the direct talks could lead to a productive outcome. Just how productive and successful is anyone’s guess.