Fixing the Blame, Fixing the Problem
by Neil Caplan,


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE MONTREAL GAZETTE: Saturday, September 11, 2004

Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. 840 pp. $52.50

At one point during a downturn in the negotiations towards the creation of separate Palestinian and Israeli zones in the disputed city of Hebron, the U.S. chief negotiator packed his bags to return to Washington. The envoy’s move left the parties bickering over who had been responsible for this latest breakdown. In response to questions about his sudden departure, the American retorted that he was not in the business of fixing blame, but rather of fixing problems.

This ploy and this quip were the quintessential baggage of Dennis Ross, the indefatigable American who worked for 15 years as a behind-the-scenes facilitator to Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The Missing Peace is replete with evidence of the author’s focus on problem-solving and his attempts to overcome myriad frustrations and disappointments in pursuit of compromise formulae between Israelis and Arabs. Despite modest gains, these efforts were usually stymied by the parties’ idiosyncratic bargaining behaviour, their dwelling on past and present grievances, their militant posturing before their publics, and/or their manoeuvres designed to deflect blame onto the other side. The October 1996 incident described above was but one of hundreds of recurring stalemates recounted in Ross’s epic treatment of his role in the ups and downs of Arab-Israeli peacemaking efforts, going back to his first visit to the Middle East with Vice-President George Bush in 1986 and leading to the pivotal failure of the Camp David Summit of July 2000 and outgoing President Bill Clinton’s parameters for peace presented to Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat on December 23 of that year.

As a key behind-the-scenes player, Ross achieved modest successes by wielding impressive interpersonal and negotiation skills and by having a realistic sense of the extent of his influence over the process and the parties in conflict. His discussions of why efforts succeeded or failed testify to an acute political savvy about the complex inner workings of domestic politics inside Israel, the Palestinian community, Syria, the Arab regional system and the U.S.A. The author also offers readers many personal insights into the modus operandi and foibles of the leading ‘dramatis personae’ he came to know at close quarters over the course of a decade and a half – from the late Yitzhak Rabin, Hafez al-Asad and King Hussein to Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Arafat, Shimon Peres and Barak. The book’s fly-on-the-wall glimpses into arduous backroom negotiations, with their colourful detail and frequent dramatic moments of brinkmanship, add to our deeper understanding of the obstacles that continue to block the road to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The book is rich not only in its detailed reportage and vivid portrayals of the main actors, but also in its practical wisdom (some of it admittedly post facto) about the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the negotiation process, and the intricate third-party role played by the U.S. Rather than offering a dry handbook of abstract rules for successful negotiation, Ross presents the sequence of episodes in their historical and emotional contexts, providing lively and convincing illustrations of those rules and tactics in action. Often he makes his readers feel as though they are peeking over the shoulders of hard-core gamblers around the card table, with Kenny Rogers’ classic tune playing in the background.

The chapters on conflicting Israeli and Palestinian narratives and mythologies serve as an excellent introduction, and Ross returns to them in his analytical conclusion. These discussions show the author’s rare degree of empathetic understanding of both sides’ respective psychology, interests and needs. Never pretending to be unbiased or infallible, Ross offers an American-centered close-up of the events he witnessed and the personalities he dealt with. He is refreshingly (and sometimes brutally)
honest but invariably tries to be fair, even when criticizing those who, in his judgment, were not among the good guys working for solutions. As a result, very few of the major and minor players described in The Missing Peace come across as lionized, demonized, or caricatured. The author is also capable of self-criticism over a bad move, inappropriate remark or missed opportunity. He also offers a frank assessment of how his own Jewishness may have affected his credibility and effectiveness not only with Arab interlocutors but with Israelis as well.

As much as Ross may have focused on fixing only problems up until the end of 2000, he has clearly decided to use this memoir for fixing blame as well. Arafat tops the list for a litany of flaws and failings, including indecisiveness, deceptiveness and manipulation. While all parties were guilty of tactical mistakes, “only one leader was unable or unwilling to confront history and mythology: Yasir Arafat.” The Palestinian leader was, he concludes, “incapable of transforming himself from a revolutionary into a statesman.” Ross also criticizes Israeli players on occasions when they resorted to arrogant, short-sighted, or duplicitous negotiating manoeuvres. He deplores missed opportunities in which America’s Egyptian, Syrian and Saudi “friends” failed to deliver promised contributions considered essential for an expected breakthrough, and goes further to suggest that Arab leaders have not prepared their publics for the necessity of making peace with Israel. Ross also cites the “dysfunctional side of intra-Palestinian competition” – resulting in periodic machinations of hardliners that reversed fleeting and fragile deals achieved by more flexible negotiators -- as a recurring cause of negotiation failure.

Dennis Ross’ finely-crafted memoir of his seminal diplomatic activity makes a convincing argument that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be resolved by focusing on right versus wrong, good versus evil, or on theological or ideological dogmas. The bloody conflict can and will be managed and defused only when local leaders tone down the rhetoric and, with the help of important outsiders, take political risks for the sake of pragmatic gains that benefit both sides.

As portrayed in The Missing Peace, Israelis and Palestinians are two national communities locked in a double struggle: one in which each party craves dominance over the same small piece of much-promised and symbolically-vital land; and one in which each genuinely considers itself to be a righteous victim of the other’s aggression and ill-will. Through Ross’ account we see both Israelis and Palestinians as real people, with a full range of human qualities and frailties, both desperately needing – behind all their bravado and posturing -- to stop the bloodshed and resume the tough work of hammering out compromises that will ultimately satisfy their basic interests and needs.


Neil Caplan teaches Humanities at Vanier College and History at Concordia University. He is the author (with Laura Zittrain Eisenberg) of Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: Patterns, Problems, Possibilities (Indiana University Press, 1998).


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