Dennis Ross remembers a light moment during the Israeli- Palestinian peace negotiations held at Camp David, Maryland, in July 2000. As tension increased, the negotiators proposed a basketballgame-Israelis vs. Palestinians. Ross, an excellent athlete, faced a quandary-both teams wanted him on their side, but because he represented the United States, he needed to remain neutral. Which basketball team would he choose?
"I had to be fair," Ross recalls. "I played on both sides."
As America's chief Middle East peace negotiator from 1989-2001, Ross was instrumental in helping Israelis and Palestinians reach numerous significant peace accords. Now a policy expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ross is an author and frequent commentator on Middle East issues. Since we were anxious to learn about the peace process, we were thrilled to be "treaty"-ed to an interview with Ambassador Ross.
BABA: Hello, Ambassador. Why is ending the Arab-Israeli conflict important to you?
ROSS: I suspect partly because of my Jewishness, where to be a rodef shalom, a pursuer of peace, is an ideal. Also, the more I met people who endured and suffered from this conflict, the more I felt an obligation to do the right thing and try to resolve it.
BABA:Why is it so difficult to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians?
ROSS: There are two peoples, who believe they have historic claims and legitimate rights to the same space. So you are trying to sort out two rights. That's point one.
Point two: It's always easier to undo a peace process than to make one, because it takes enormous effort to solve problems but very little effort to undo solutions. For example, by killing themselves and innocent bystanders, suicide bombers prevent Israel and those Palestinians who want peace from overcoming their history of distrust. That's why those who are against peace always have the upper hand, and those who are for it are always struggling.
BABA: Is being Jewish an advantage or disadvantage in your efforts to negotiate peace in the Mideast?
ROSS: In my case, being Jewish not only reinforces my passion for peacemaking, but also gives me strength to persevere in a field where setbacks are more normal than progress. Those who are emotionally detached from the issues give up.
Many people have said that since I'm Jewish I must be biased. But that's irrelevant, because with conflict resolution there's almost no circumstance when you have a mediator who is completely neutral. You don't have to be neutral, but you do have to be able to see that both sides have needs.
BABA:What is it like at peace summits when you're negotiating agreements?
ROSS:When leaders represent their people, they are literally bearing the weight of history on their shoulders. They have to be able to go back to their people and explain why their compromises and concessions make sense. Under such enormous pressure, we work through the night and the atmosphere is very tense and emotional.
BABA: Do you think peace in the Middle East is possible within the next ten years?
ROSS: I do. I don't know if it's likely, but I think it's possible. The Israeli public today doesn't believe that the Palestinians are interested or capable of making compromises, and the Palestinians believe the Israelis aren't prepared to give up control over them. You have to break through those kinds of barriers.
BABA:What can kids do to promote peace in their communities?
ROSS: The starting point for kids is to understand that conflicts, though inevitable, can be solved without fighting. Conflict resolution requires us to look beyond our own needs and interests and see someone else's point of view.
BABA: Thanks, Ambassador. You're a real "peace" of work!