Diplomatic Pouch / January 9, 2009
By Larry Luxner
As fighting rages in the densely populated Gaza Strip, world leaders are clamoring for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. But the United States should only support such a cessation of hostilities if it prevents Hamas from rearming itself.
That's the word from Dennis Ross, top Mideast envoy and peace negotiator for two presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He'll likely be advising a third — Barack Obama — as soon as the president-elect takes office Jan. 20.
"The key for us is trying to make sure it's not just a ceasefire, but to ensure some stability," said Ross, speaking Sunday night before 150 people at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville. "If Hamas is able to rebuild themselves with longer-range rockets, it'll just be a prelude to the next round, which will be worse."
Ross, currently a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Middle East is a vastly more dangerous place than it was in 2000, when Israel pulled its troops out of Lebanon. Israel's ensuing war with Hezbollah — and the current fighting in Gaza — does not bode well at all for an eventual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
"The one thing guiding the Israeli public is this: if we were to withdraw from the West Bank and it became like Gaza, then every Israeli community would be threatened," he said. "I just wonder how many countries around the world would tolerate a situation where their next-door neighbor fires rockets into their territory. I suspect very few countries would."
However, Ross noted that Hamas is a political movement as well as a terrorist group, so the idea of finishing it off could be well beyond the reach of the Israel Defense Forces.
"If Israel wants the end of [this campaign] to be different than the war on Hezbollah, it's going to be critical for them to marry their objectives with their means. If their objective is to destroy Hamas, they'll probably have to reoccupy Gaza," he said.
"But the language Israel is using now is quite general. They're trying not to box themselves in by raising the standards so high they can't meet them. Israel says it wants to stop the rocket fire. That's a whole lot different than saying they want to destroy Hamas."
Ross, who was raised by his Jewish mother and Catholic stepfather, lives in Bethesda with his wife and three children. His speech — part of a series of programs on Israel at the reform synagogue — was scheduled long before the latest outbreak of fighting in Gaza. As such, he attempted to put the current crisis into a wider regional context. That meant focusing not only on the Arab-Israeli conflict but also the U.S.-led war in Iraq as well as Iran's growing nuclear capability.
"Where we are today isn't where we were in 2000," he said. "Number one, we have a Palestinian Authority that is divided and dramatically weaker than it was. Number two, Israel withdrew from Lebanon and Hezbollah got a whole lot stronger. Israel got out of Gaza, Hamas took over and you see where we are now. Also, Iran has leverage it didn't have in 2000. So any approach to peace has to take into account these contextual changes."
He added: "Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority have condemned Israel but also Hamas. That reveals that many in the Arab leadership don't want Hamas to succeed. Israel's challenge is to take advantage of that."
As Ross spoke, copies of his recent book, "Statecraft and How to Restore America's Standing in the World," were displayed on a nearby table. Jonathan Freedland, writing in The New York Review of Books,says "Ross urges a return to statecraft, to the painstaking work of diplomacy and alliance-building. His is the book that would be of most direct use to the next administration taking office in 2009."
Ross declined to speculate on how the current Gaza ground offensive would affect Israel's upcoming elections. He also said it would be wrong for the United States to push the Israeli government to negotiate directly to Hamas.
"In the end," said Ross, "Israel decides who they talk to. It's not up to anyone else."