A peace divorced from history and the real world is no peace at all.
Book review of The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace by Dennis Ross HarperCollins, New York, 2004.

There is no lack of books on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but few achieve the depth and rich detail of Dennis Ross' The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. No serious student of the conflict should pass it by. During the twelve years (1988 to 2000) that Ross enjoyed the status of preferred US peace diplomat for the Middle East, he acquired a wealth of invaluable experience. Under President George Bush as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department, and then under President Clinton as Special Middle East Coordinator, he became intimately acquainted with the problems and hopes of the different Arab and Israeli peoples. The resulting book is based on his painstaking memoirs and offers a goldmine of unknown, behind-the-scenes historical information you can't find anywhere else: bold attempts, secret successes, discarded ideas, engaging anecdotes, and disturbing failures involved in the peace process. Like a stained-glass window, these bits of history together compose a detailed picture of the Arab-Israeli conflict and why peace is "missing"- at least from the perspective of one seasoned diplomat.

The singular problem with Ross's narrative however, turns out to be the very same problem that has repeatedly prevented a true and lasting peace in the Middle East. Ross subscribes to the extremist world view that dictates an illegal and unjust, joint Israeli and American domination of the Middle East politically, economically and militarily as the only viable response to "Islamic" terrorism.

Playing dumb is the method Ross uses to disguise and push this radical ideology. For example, he claims Yasser Arafat "made up stories about Israeli atrocities", then a few pages later wonders why "[t]here wasn't a new day, just a repetition of Arab hostility toward Israel." He does not admit that frequent Israeli crimes provoke Arab hostility. In his mind, the Arabs are an insincere, weak, childish, dishonorable and innately aggressive lot. When Syrian President Hafez al-Assad demands his people's rights to territorial sovereignty, he is pictured as "throwing a tantrum"; but when Israeli Prime Ministers demand their people's rights to territorial sovereignty, they are pictured as "refusing to give in to terror". These double standards are clear instances of racism designed to exonerate Israel and justify its continued denial of Arab human rights.

Ross begins the first chapter by pointing out, "There is little prospect of mediating any conflict if one does not understand the historical narratives of each side." Unfortunately, Ross does not understand either the Palestinian or the Israeli historical narratives very well. The chapter's title, "Why Israelis and Palestinians See the World the Way They Do", hints at his method: to learn the factors building each side's attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and actions. Working to carefully alter those factors in the right direction, Ross contends, is the key to peace. Thanks to his fanatical "Israel-first" ideology, his grasp of the Palestinian side is superficial and distorted.

The most glaring example of inconsistency is provided by the issue of Palestinian refugees. Throughout the book, Ross derides their inalienable right of return to Israel as a "perceived right" and brands Arab insistence on it as "bad behavior", supporting their illegal permanent displacement. Israel's forcible expulsion of one million Palestinians from both Jewish and Arab areas of Palestine in the late 1940s is to the Palestinian psyche what 9/11 is to us Americans: a catastrophe to be marked for all generations on their historical narrative. Yet Ross blames the Palestinian refugees themselves for their problem. In fact, the evicted Palestinians are still the legal and rightful owners of all the so-called Jewish "settlements" planted inside and outside Israel - and that until this stolen property is returned, the conflict will persist.

Ross's Israeli extremism leads to denial of other Palestinian rights as well. During the book's account of talks over control of the historic Jewish city of Hebron in the mid-1990s, Arafat points out a discrepancy. In the draft understandings, Palestinians living in designated zone H-1 of the ancient city were forbidden to keep and bear arms, while Israeli tanks could invade it at any time. This obvious injustice demonstrated Israel's aggressive thrust, but Ross lumps the innocent Palestinian majority and the Palestinian "terrorist" minority into one giant menace to Israel to justify its illegal ban on Palestinian arms.

In addition to the 1948 evacuation of Palestinians, the reader should be aware that internationally documented Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people include the expulsion of 150,000 more Arabs from the Syrian Golan Heights in its 1967 war; cutting down Palestinian orchards and capping their wells to sabotage the Palestinian economy; chasing the entire Palestine Liberation Organization into Lebanon as punishment for the resistance attacks of a few Palestinians, then subjecting Palestinian and Lebanese civilians alike to indiscriminate bombing raids during the 1980s Lebanese civil war; using poison gas during the generally peaceful 1987 Palestinian demonstrations; and bulldozing thousands of Palestinian homes from 1967 to the present.

All of these misdeeds - which are just the tip of the iceberg - have contributed to the longstanding and understandable Arab hostility toward Israel. What is more, the anti-Americanism of Palestinians and Arabs is a result of longtime, massive and disproportionate US military and economic support for Israel, which has enabled it to carry out these offenses. But none of these facts figure into Ross's equation for building trust and commitment between the two sides. A peace divorced from history and the real world is no peace at all.

"In the zero-sum world of Arab-Israeli relations", Ross notes that "every advance brought new problems." Why? Because Ross lacked the willingness to confront Israel's Zionist extremists just as firmly as he denounced Palestinian extremists. Every time he helped orchestrate a concession to the Palestinian or Syrian people, Israeli radical Zionists would howl with protest and agitate against it, some even perpetrating terrorist crimes. Then the next time around, Ross would typically back-pedal and strive to lower the expectations of Arab leaders, which would lead to increased Arab civilian attacks, which in turn would prompt tighter Israeli security over Palestinian territory and punitive measures, finally deadlocking the peace negotiations and necessitating a fresh start.

Holes in Ross's radical American-Israeli worldview are inescapable. On page 199, he relates an experience in Israel that he says made him feel "uneasy". He had helped establish a "Cairo channel" of talks between Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, Egyptian foreign minister Amre Moussa and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the subject of Palestinian elections. Upon arriving in Israel to assist those negotiations, Ross was greeted by violent demonstrations: radical Zionists seizing Arab territory, blocking traffic and committing terrorist attacks on innocent Palestinians in several villages to stop the peace process. But he forged on with negotiations, which would soon lead to the 1995 Taba agreement - and win Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin his subsequent assassination at the hands of one such Zionist state-sponsored terrorist.

In an unusually candid admission, Ross notes that the Israeli government was either unable or unwilling to fight Israeli terrorism. The implications of that statement are enormous, not the least of which is that a state permitting terrorist crimes by its own citizens cannot possibly make lasting peace with its neighbors. By failing to address this massive and disturbing reality, Ross generates an equation for peace that doesn't add up.

He claims that Arafat chose to adopt his status as a victim, which "meant that the international community or the United States should assume responsibility for resolving the conflict, and relieve him of it." Not so at all. To the end Arafat did his utmost to resolve the conflict, despite running into Israeli brick walls (such as radical Zionist terrorism) at every turn. That's what earned him the undisputed acclaim of the Palestinian people.

Terms such as "unquestioned strength", "creating facts on the ground", and "self-reliance" which Ross describes as belonging to the "Israeli sociology" are in fact nothing more than euphemisms for "arrogance", "oppression" and "violation of international law". Instead of merely recounting the experiences of a disinterested diplomat, the book's highly professional yet readable style seems calculated to give Ross's extremist ideas a moderate cover and to indoctrinate them, together with his bigoted way of thinking, into the unsuspecting reader's mind. As the primary architect of the Middle East peace process for twelve years, Ross never swayed from this overarching doctrine: to advance the foremost strategic, political, economic, and military interests of the US and Israel.

Together, the final chapter "Learning the Lessons of the Past" and epilogue sum up Ross's overall view of why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved to date - and how he thinks it should be resolved. He expresses outright arrogance: "It will always be Israel's Arab partner, and not Israel, who decides if a deal can be done." Ross seems to forget that Israeli terrorism and injustice has long endangered the peace process.

Just as unfair is his portrait of Arab leaders. While he is correct that Hafez al-Assad of Syria, King Hussein of Jordan, and others were not democratically elected, to say that they lack legitimacy with their peoples is a bald-faced lie. Even Iraqis today prefer the repressive rule of Saddam Hussein to the chaos and war brought to them by the US and Israel. In another piece of propaganda, Ross says that leaders of Arab nations refuse to accept Israeli rights and needs. The fact of the matter is that Arab leaders receive and confirm their legitimacy by standing up courageously for the basic human rights of their people. The remarkably tight bond between most Arab leaders and their subjects demonstrates their legitimacy and proves Ross wrong.

On page 726, an important clue to Ross's political system slips out. He claims that fairness is ultimately a "subjective" idea. If that were true, organizations such as the Zionist 'Anti-Defamation League' and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting would be no fairer than their enemies, and Fox News could be "Fair and Balanced" for you but not for me. On the contrary, this appeal to subjectivism is designed to advance American-Israeli global interests by sneaking around the universal principles of justice laid down by God in the human heart. Such a trick allows Ross to define what is fair and just. Anything that impedes American-Israeli domination of the world is unfair and unjust - in Ross's eyes. To say that nothing will stand in our way, not even God's inalienable principles of justice, is classic extremism. The Palestinian right to return, statehood, and the international character of Jerusalem are all sacrificed to the pride and unrestrained appetite for wealth and power of these two dominant nations.

Despite his fervent support for the "War on Terrorism" and especially the war in Iraq, Ross airs plenty of criticism of President Bush's strategy for peace in the Middle East. He notes with dismay that the US president did not appoint a peace envoy to replace him. Furthermore, he explains how the Bush administration made a number of fallacious assumptions and blunders which have collectively halted the peace process, including its defeatist refusal to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss peace with Yasser Arafat. Ross explains that the administration's obsession with Iraq has dominated our entire policy toward the Middle East; involving the EU, Russia, and the UN in America's "road map" to Middle East peace was in fact designed to gain their support for the Iraq war. Clearly this is the wrong way to do things, observes Ross. Moreover, persistent misunderstandings doomed the road map from the beginning: "It was almost as if the administration felt that the road map to peace would be self-implementing. How could it be? It had not been negotiated with the parties. It had fifty-two paragraphs, and each side interpreted each one differently."

The book's abundant incoherence and hypocrisy come together in the final chapter and epilogue. To distract the reader from the book's extremist "Israel-first" worldview, a sufficient number of true statements are woven through these conclusions (just as they are sprinkled throughout the volume). While Ross maintains previously that terrorism "could not be appeased" and repeatedly warns against "giving in to terror", in the end he capitulates to Israeli fundamentalists: "domestic Israeli politics dictated appeasing the settlers."

Ross contends Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories and "some" settlements; but if Palestinians had taken chunks of Israeli land, he would certainly demand every inch of it back. He says that "Arafat never went through any transformation at all" and promoted hostility to Israel, yet Ross witnessed him recognize the state of Israel in the Oslo Accords against Palestinian terrorist protests in 1993. Most contradictorily of all, he defends the 30-foot high Israeli apartheid wall, which he terms a "fence", being constructed in the middle of the Holy Land to protect Israel from Palestinian terrorism. Ross's acceptance of this wall is a metaphor for his acceptance of Israeli extremism. Though he is right to insist that terrorism must stop, a wall cannot stop either Palestinian or Israeli terrorism. It will impede, not facilitate, the transformation of attitudes and policies which he prescribes as necessary for peace. Furthermore, he states Israel must surrender control over much of the occupied territory (which it has appeared to start doing), but the wall tightens that control.

Ross goes on to make the specious claim that Palestinian terrorism is not a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He says it serves as a "pretext to divert attention and anger away from internal failings and onto the US and Israel", which the Arab media makes "responsible for every conceivable ill." In Ross's imaginary world, scheming Arab leaders stir up hatred of Israel and America among their people, leading to terrorist acts, which are then used to deflect attention from their own criminal government. However, the US and Israel are largely responsible for perpetrating the conflict. And Palestinian terrorism, (when it is actually carried out by Palestinians and not by Israel itself) is a reaction to injustice, not a game of follow-the-leader.

But on the positive side, after dismissing the radical "Israel-first" ideology, I found The Missing Peace more readable and informative than I anticipated. Given its sheer bulk, I thought it would be endlessly technical, but Ross's prose flows in a simple, jargon-free style. Catchwords and technical terms are promptly defined. The depth of historical information it contains about the Arab-Israeli dispute during the relatively quiescent period between the Cold War and the September 11 tragedy is priceless.

Nevertheless, it's crucial to read between the lines when studying this volume, since hundreds of polished sentences are highly deceptive and misleading. Far from the truth-teller or myth-dispeller he claims to be, Ross is a knowledgeable historian and talented propagandist. A little critical thinking pulls apart at the seams the extremist worldview which infects the entire book. In sum, The Missing Peace is an absorbing narrative of the epic conflict of our time - and how the radical American-Israeli ideology threatens to dash all hope for peace.