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Ambassador Dennis Ross

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Middle East diplomat advances plan for a two-state outcome

March 15, 2013

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — Progress toward achieving a two-state outcome in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will occur only if the two sides re-establish belief in each other, said Dennis Ross, the former special assistant to President Obama, in a lecture at Middlebury College on March 12.

Opinion polls conducted of Israelis and Palestinians indicate that both sides favor the two-state outcome and yet, Ross said, the same polls indicate that both sides believe it will never happen. “The biggest single problem we face today to produce peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is disbelief. Both sides have perceptions of disbelief about the other.”

Watch the video.

Ross, a former Middle East envoy for three U.S. presidents who is now the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, appeared at Middlebury to speak on “Israel, the Peace Process, and the Implications of the Arab Awakening” as the guest of the Office of the President and the Rohatyn Center for Global Studies.

“To produce progress and preserve the two-state outcome as a real possibility, something [dramatically different] has to happen. It can’t be more of the same,” and so Ross has put forth a 14-point plan to “change the dynamic” and encourage the two sides to talk with each other again. He said his plan, which was revealed in a full-page opinion piece in the New York Times on March 2, is not intended to take the place of negotiating on borders, security, refugees, settlements, and the fate of Jerusalem – the hard issues in the disagreement. Rather, his proposal is “an agenda for discussion” that he hopes will lead the way to the negotiating table.

The Ross plan calls for the Israelis to demonstrate that they have no intention of expanding further into the West Bank by agreeing to:

— declare that it will build new housing only in settlement blocks and in areas west of the security barrier,

— offer compensation to Israeli settlers who will voluntarily relocate to Israel or to the settlement blocks, and

— begin the construction of new housing inside Israel for the settlers who are willing to move.

The Ross plan beckons the Palestinians to show they are serious about accepting two states by pledging to:

— put the state of Israel on the maps used by Palestinians,

— speak of “two states for two peoples” and acknowledge that there are two national movements and two national identities, and

— commit to building a state of Palestine with a focus on the rule of law.

The diplomat’s plan to suspend disbelief also lays out specific ways that Israel needs to show that it is serious about “ending control” over Palestinians in the West Bank, and puts forth certain methods by which Palestinians need to demonstrate that they will be “good neighbors” and not threaten Israel’s security.

His proposal also advocates for two crucial steps that both sides would have to engage in mutually.

About 300 members of the community listened to Dennis Ross' lecture in Mead Chapel.

First, Ross wants the Palestinians and Israelis to commit to organizing regular youth exchanges as early as the third grade. “The only Israelis that Palestinian kids see are either settlers or soldiers, and I can assure you that their encounters are not good. So it’s very easy for Palestinian kids to grow up demonizing and dehumanizing the Israelis.”

Likewise, “Israeli kids aren’t seeing any Palestinians and so it’s pretty easy for them to do the same,” i.e., demonize and dehumanize the Palestinians. “Regular youth exchanges,” Ross said, “will not only change the dynamic now, it will socialize kids differently than they have been socialized for decades.”

Second, the 64-year-old envoy wants both sides to acknowledge publicly when the other side does something positive. For example, Ross said the Palestinian security forces do their job professionally and yet the Israelis do not acknowledge it. Similarly, twice in the past year Israel advanced tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority earlier than it was required to do so and yet its actions were not publicly acknowledged.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is highly emotional and everyone involved in it has an agenda, Ross said. “Everybody comes to it with a point of view, and if your point of view isn’t accepted then you have to basically discredit the other side. That’s the reason why this conflict has endured for so long.

“If we had an approach to conflict resolution that was about solving problems as opposed to scoring points, then we would be in a very different place.”

Ross opened his lecture by examining recent developments in Egypt, Syria and Iran, and by saying that he prefers the term “Arab awakening” to “Arab spring.” His reasoning: “spring” suggests a rapid, promising transformation to democracy, when the reality is more of an “awakening” in which people have begun to see themselves as “citizens who have a voice” rather than “subjects of a regime."

The guest speaker said the U.S. should encourage the Egyptian government to respect the rights of minorities, notably the Coptic Christians; educate women and include them in governance; and adhere to its international obligations including its peace treaty with Israel.

The guest speaker was introduced by Sarah Rose Cohen, Class of 2015.

Regarding Syria, the UCLA-educated Ross wants the U.S. to provide assistance (including weapons on a limited basis) to the opposition forces, implement a containment strategy to prevent the conflict from radiating outward, and do more to protect Syria’s citizens, including the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syria by placing batteries of Patriot missiles on the Turkey-Syria border.

On the subject of Iran as a nuclear threat, Ross advocates a course of containment rather than prevention. He believes that the U.S. should define what is meant by “civil nuclear power,” and that Iran could be permitted to use nuclear technology to produce electricity but not to build nuclear weapons.

Reported by Robert Keren
Photography by Brendan Mahoney '11