April 5, 2001
Voices of Peace
In the long view -- and who could have a longer view than the man who, until recently, was the U.S. State Department's Middle East negotiator for the past 12 years? -- Dennis Ross believes that diplomacy in the Middle East boils down to psychology. "The idea of taking politics out of foreign policy," Ross said, "is as illusory as taking psychology out of human behavior, and what is foreign policy after all, but a collection of human behaviors."
As Ross presented his ideas to the students of the "Voices of Peace" class of Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at UCLA, there was a silent nod of recognition.
"In the end, when you're going to settle a conflict like this, everybody has to give up his myths," Ross told his audience. "Myths are what fuel the conflict; they create a sense of identity and struggle and a sense of legitimacy to a struggle. But when you're trying to end that struggle, you have to look for a practical way to accommodate each side's needs."
I've resigned as negotiator, he told the class. Now, what would you do? What do you think should happen right now?
The Palestinian, Israeli and American students gave a nervous chuckle and twisted in their seats. Some adjusted their Chinese take-out on their laps, scanned their hair for split ends or laughed nervously at the thought of being asked to negotiate. Other brave souls raised their hands to share with Ross what they would do for peace.
"What if there was an autonomous arrangement for the Palestinians, and then down the line, we talked about sovereignty?" one student suggested.
Ross countered, "Problem is, they've already had autonomy, and that hasn't been very satisfying. If the Palestinians really had that and didn't face checkpoints and were able to move goods in and out, that would be one thing, but how do you reconcile freedom of movement with Israeli concerns for security?"
"What if each side tried to settle their differences first?" "What if we turned back the clock?" "What if the media played more of a role in equalizing the conflict?" other students suggested.
Eventually, each side's myths began to explode around the classroom.
"It seems there is a double standard," a young woman said, "Palestinians get away with acts of violence that Israelis are condemned for."
"Israelis start a majority of the violence," another said angrily. "It's not fair that people say Palestinians start the violence. The fact is that what happened is the Palestinian homeland was taken away from them violently. That's the truth."
A sense of grievance, a term used earlier by Ross to describe each side, also described the classroom at this moment, ending a pathway back to where a solution was possible.
In the end, Ross told the students that he is an optimist. He believes that through sheer exhaustion, or by realizing there is no other alternative, Israelis and Palestinins will return to the negotiating table.
"So as I've thought about it, the need to give up myths is essential," Ross stated. "But you can't do it all at once. It's pretty clear there has to be a psychological adjustment. The most profound contribution at Camp David, was the breaking of taboos, the ability of getting beyond slogans to deal with the core existential questions. The failing was to think you could break those taboos and [have] an immediate psychological adjustment. I spent enough time around Arafat to believe he genuinely wanted peace, but to act on it was something he could not do. The fact was, Barak was prepared to assume that historic burden, but look what happened in the process."