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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Dennis Ross

Finding a New Path to Peace in the Middle East

December 29, 1996|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus is the editor of the Middle East Policy Review

WASHINGTON — With the appointment of Madeleine K. Albright, the last decade has seen four men and one woman as secretary of state. But through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, only one person has acted as point man for arguably the most demanding and politically treacherous foreign-policy issue--the Arab-Israeli peace process. And Dennis B. Ross, 48, has not only survived, he has thrived on the job. Indeed, his influence has never been higher than it is today.

Since the November 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on through the series of terrorist attacks that left hundreds of Israeli civilians dead and wounded, Ross has worked with Israeli and Arab leaders to make peace. But Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu's victory in Israel's May 1996 elections presented new problems. Because of the new prime minister's inexperience with and reputed skepticism toward the peace process, Ross has redoubled his efforts. This took on great urgency in September, when Netanyahu's decision to open an underground passage in the Arab section of Jerusalem sparked an orgy of violence on the West Bank and in Gaza.

While tantalizingly close to achieving agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the last remaining occupied Palestinian city, Hebron, Ross has yet to succeed. Still, he is breaking new ground as the first American to preside over Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The following conversation took place just before Ross' last trip to the Middle East, in his State Department office, unremarkable except for the array of his three children's art work. But in bureaucratic politics, location is everything: His office is on the coveted 7th floor of the State Department, down the hall from the secretary of State.

Ross prides himself on being a student of bureaucratic politics. and his career is a testament to his skill. He left teaching at UC Berkeley, in spring 1986, to serve as chief Middle East policy staffer on the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan. Because he was new, Ross was exempted from responsibility when the Iran-Contra scandal broke six months later.

While at the White House, Ross developed close ties to Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and Vice President George Bush. In the summer of 1988, Ross joined Bush's presidential campaign and, after Bush won, Ross opted to head Secretary of State Baker's policy planning staff, with responsibility for Arab-Israeli affairs. The 1991 Gulf War gave Ross an opportunity. With Baker, he plotted, negotiated, cajoled and sometimes coerced Arabs and Israelis to a historic peace conference in Madrid.

When the Clinton team arrived in late 1992, they found Ross at State, still focusing on the peace process. This, despite his having worked on Bush's reelection campaign. Ross now says he had misgivings; and there is no doubt his wife, Deborah, a former Federal Trade Commission lawyer and lifelong Democrat, was unhappy with this arrangement.

The new Clinton team was taken with Ross' knowledge of and passion for Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Within a few months, Ross was offered the job he coveted: special Middle East coordinator, with the rank of ambassador.

As Ross has become the indispensable man in the Middle East peace process, initial coolness from key Arab leaders like Syrian President Hafez Assad and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has given way to a strong embrace--even dependence. And that evolution is clearly reflected in Washington, where Albright, even before her nomination was formally submitted to the Senate, asked that Ross stay on the job.

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Question: How have you seen your role evolving since you became special Middle East coordinator?

Answer: Over the past four years, the task has been an extremely demanding one, because we expanded our efforts beyond just talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Every negotiation ended up creating multiple committees, and overseeing that became something that was exceedingly demanding. And when you add the various crises and problems we had to cope with, it was something that has been unrelenting.

Q: Has your role changed dramatically since the new government took over in Israel?

A: I guess I would say the following: There were clearly periods, even during the previous government's time, when I was as intensively involved, but not always out there, and certainly never for an extended period of time. This is new. Now that happened, first, because you had an unprecedented crisis because of the explosion of September. It was qualitatively different from anything we had ever seen.

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