Ambassador Dennis Ross, a prominent Middle East adviser to Presidents Obama, Clinton and George H. W. Bush, affirmed his belief Tuesday night in CEMEX Auditorium that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threats to attack Iran if an agreement on nuclear weapons is not reached are sincere.
“I don’t think he’s bluffing,” he said in response to an audience member’s question. “Netanyahu defines his role as prime minister as protecting Israelis and protecting Jewish people — this is a part of his self-definition.”
Marty Zack ’14, president of the Stanford Israel Alliance (SIA), introduced Ross as “one of our country’s leading champions in Middle East peace,” noting “he has dedicated almost his entire career to the cause.”
Ross was appointed Middle East envoy under President Clinton and was heavily involved in the peace negotiations of the 1990s between Israel and Palestine. During this time, he helped broker the 1995 Interim Agreement and the 1997 Hebron Accord.
In 2009, he was appointed special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He left the post the same year to join the National Security Council staff as senior director for the central region and special assistant to the president. Ross stepped down from the position last November.
“I want to look conceptually and historically at the whole approach to peace and conclude with a new model,” Ross said.
He traced peace efforts from the 1970s to the 1993 Oslo Accords, giving examples of various approaches, including Kissinger’s “incremental” approach and the Carter administration’s opposing “comprehensive” approach.
“People describe me as someone who believes in ‘incrementalism,’ but my approach is you do what the context permits you to do,” Ross said.
“Statecraft is about marrying objectives and means,” he added. “If context isn’t right, you have to find a way to change the context.”
Based on this idea, Ross argued that a new approach and model is needed for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because the current context for conflict is not conducive to negotiating peace.
“I offer a hybrid model,” he said. “There needs to be a political process, but there needs to be something done from the ground up as well.”
Citing polls that show that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians support a two-state solution but express doubt about its possibility, Ross argued that peace cannot be achieved if the majority of each side thinks the other is not serious about a two-state solution.
“One of the reasons why both publics don’t believe in it [the possibility of resolving the conflict] is that they’ve seen this movie before,” Ross said, referring to prolonged negotiations throughout the 1990s that yielded no significant results.
Offering steps on both sides to break through the impasse, Ross suggested that the United States could help broker negotiations.
On the Israeli side, Ross proposed several measures including reducing the level of Israeli control in the West Bank territories, providing more economic opportunities for Palestinians, recognizing Palestinians who take a nonviolent approach and adopting legislation to offer compensation for settlers who voluntarily move out of the West Bank.
On the Palestinian side, Ross listed steps including halting incitement, condemning violence, including Israel in maps in Palestinian textbooks and institution building.
According to Ross, following these steps “will cause both sides to take a second look and change the dynamics of political negotiations.”
Ross pointed out that the world’s attention is currently focused on “everything but the peace issue between Israelis and Palestinians. It has not gone away and it won’t go away.”
However, he said he views this moment as an opportunity to push for progress in negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“The Arab countries are all focused internally right now,” he said. “Both the Israelis and Palestinians have the space to do something. It is in this moment, when no one is paying attention, that we should and they should act.”
Following the talk, former Middle East bureau chief for the Washington Post and communication professor Janine Zacharia joined Ross on stage for a question-and-answer session.
Ross dismissed the notion that the current administration is focused on Iran and ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The problem of Iran and the emergence of nuclear weapons weighs very heavily,” he said. “The administration is active behind the scenes [on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] and approaching it in a low-profile way.”
He also expressed optimism on the progress of negotiations with Iran, crediting increased pressure from the United States for improving the situation.
“I don’t expect there to be a breakthrough tomorrow, but I don’t think we have the luxury of approaching talks like we have all the time in the world,” he said. “There needs to be a sense of urgency.”
Moving to the topic of Syria, Ross highlighted a need to engage Russia in efforts to oust current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ross stated his support for a safe haven for the dictator on the Syrian-Turkish border.
In response to a challenge from an audience member of his definition of Palestinian identity, Ross said, “You cannot deny Palestinian national identity. We cannot make peace if we do not recognize the Palestinians.”