On Tuesday evening, Dennis Ross gave a lecture about the “challenges ahead” for America and the Middle East at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. I definitely appreciated his approach of not trying to predict the future, but I did find fault with his assessment of Iran and his analysis of the current status of Israel-Palestine and the “peace process” (or whatever we’re calling it now).
First, he went into detail about the Arab Awakening, emphasizing that whoever ultimately comes to power in places like Egypt and Tunisia has to govern their citizens and not rule them as subjects. As for the American role in these events, he said, “The story [and] its authors are in the region, they’re not outside the region. We may have a huge stake in what’s going on here, but we’re not in a position to be shaping it.” I’ve deduced, therefore, that he is against an American intervention in Syria, and is probably also against arming the Free Syrian Army. Unlike a lot of talk I’ve been hearing, though, Ross seems to be confident that the Syrian regime’s days are numbered.
Next, he talked about Iran. His “psychic map” for that topic is that crippling sanctions, plus increasing regional and international isolation, provide a context for negotiation. The balance of power, he says, has shifted against Iran, which is no longer able to coerce its neighbors. Beginning in July, the European Union will boycott Iranian oil, and Saudi Arabia has promised to step up and make sure there’s enough oil on the market. Ross seems to think that crippling sanctions hold great promise because, in the past, Iran has changed its behavior when it thought the price was too high. It is ultimately up to the Supreme Leader whether or not Iran goes forward with its nuclear program and how it uses nuclear power, but I don’t think we can necessarily claim precedent on this one. The longer a conflict lasts, the harder it is to solve, and sanctions usually take a long time to work. Israel will bear with negotiations for only so long.
I was pleased that Ross began his comments on Israel-Palestine with observation that the psychological gaps are more profound than the substantive gaps, and that there is popular support among Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution that embraces terms similar to the Clinton Parameters. He accurately continued that each side is convinced that the other will not do what is necessary, and that we’re going to see “more of the same.” Sure, the rest of the region isn’t exactly focused on this issue right now, but it’s not going away. Ross concluded that we must continue to pedal the peace process bicycle, or else things are likely to get worse. Even if the circumstances aren’t ripe, both sides must ask themselves how they can alter the context so that change happens over time.
Ross suggested that Israel find ways to validate Palestinians who believe in nonviolence by showing them through reciprocity that Israeli control in the West Bank is receding. He proposes that Israel stop its incursions into Area A, support a larger Palestinian police force in Area B, and permit more Palestinian economic activity in Area C. Maybe then the context will change.
My fundamental disagreement with this point is that changing the facts on the ground will not affect psychology at this point. Statistics show that longer lasting intractable conflicts are much harder to resolve, and you don’t need to look back very far to see how psychologically intractable this conflict is. Just last week, after all, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abu Mazen traded barbs over Jerusalem. It doesn’t matter what kinds of baby steps Israel takes; there will always be an insurmountable gap on Jerusalem. As for those opinion polls, it’s all hypothetical and, like he said, neither side believes a two-state solution with Clinton Parameters is really going to happen. The leadership on both sides seems to be satisfied with maintaining the status quo, which makes the prospects for what Ross calls “coordinated unilateralism” untenable. If nothing is working, he says, each side can take parallel steps that would be in their own interest and benefit each side. No concessions, just rational actors making rational choices. Unfortunately, it’s quite clear that Netanyahu and Abu Mazen are irrational actors, at least when it comes to the conflict. Ross did leave us with the caveat that he’s not optimistic, but I wonder if pedaling this bicycle actually does more harm than good.