Saudis should lead del­e­ga­tion to Is­rael as cat­a­lyst for peace talks, says Den­nis Ross

The Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By TOVAH LAZAROFF

Saudi Ara­bia should lead a del­e­ga­tion to Is­rael as part of a tri­an­gu­lar ini­tia­tive that would help jump-start the frozen peace process, for­mer US en­voy to the Mid­dle East Den­nis Ross told The Jerusalem Post.

“Is­rael is not go­ing to make any con­ces­sions to the Pales­tini­ans un­less they get some­thing from the Saudis or the Arab states,” Ross said on Thurs­day.

The vet­eran di­plo­mat was in Is­rael on Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day to at­tend the sec­ond an­nual Track II en­vi­ron­men­tal con­fer­ence at the Arava In­sti­tute at Kib­butz Ke­tura, near Ei­lat, which brought to­gether Is­raelis, Pales­tini­ans and Jor­da­ni­ans.

Both to the Post and to the con­fer­ence, Ross spoke of how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion could lever­age be­hind-thescenes co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Is­rael and the Sunni Arab states with re­gard to the Ira­nian threat.

“The Saudis could lead a del­e­ga­tion to Is­rael... to dis­cuss com­mon se­cu­rity threats in the re­gion,” Ross said.

Is­rael does not have for­mal diplo­matic ties with Saudi Ara­bia. Its lead­er­ship does not rec­og­nize the Jewish state and has never vis­ited it.

But Ross, who in the 1990s worked to bro­ker an Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace deal un­der US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, said he be­lieved that now, in light of the com­mon Ira­nian threat, a new de­vel­op­ment could al­low for some progress to be achieved.

“There is one new el­e­ment in the equa­tion... this con­ver­gence of threat per­cep­tion be­tween Is­rael and the Sunni Arab lead­ers. Be­low the radar screen, there is al­ready a level of co­op­er­a­tion that goes on that you have never seen be­fore. The ques­tion is, can you take ad­van­tage of it for this is­sue?” he said.

Ross pre­sented the pos­si­bil­ity of a Saudi visit as part of a pack­age of criss­cross­ing in­cen­tives that could lead to a new peace process. In ad­di­tion to Riyadh, the idea would in­volve the US, Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans.

He ex­plained that – in ex­change for a Saudi ges­ture – Is­rael would make con­ces­sions to the Pales­tini­ans. The Saudis would then take a step to­ward Is­rael based on those con­ces­sions and on US as­sur­ances of re­gional sup­port. As part of the pack­age, the Pales­tini­ans would in turn make con­ces­sions to Is­rael.

“You bring the re­gion into this process, be­cause nei­ther the Is­raelis nor the Pales­tini­ans will make a move to each other un­less there is an Arab cover. Noth­ing gets launched with­out the Arab cover,” Ross said.

Is­raelis have to be­lieve they will re­ceive some­thing for mak­ing con­ces­sions to the Pales­tini­ans. That has to come from the Arabs states, Ross said, es­pe­cially from the Saudis. And those Arab lead­ers, he added, need in­cen­tives from the United States to take those steps.

The Saudis have to be­lieve that “the US will ad­dress what is their big con­cern. They have this fear that the US will with­draw from the re­gion and won’t con­tain the Ira­ni­ans,” he said.

“Most Arab lead­ers who have his­toric re­la­tions with the US have al­ways viewed the US as be­ing the guar­an­tor of their se­cu­rity. The [Arab] fear is that the US will not play that role. If they be­come con­vinced that the US is play­ing that [re­gional]

role, then the US can say to them, we are do­ing this, but this is what we re­quire from you,” Ross said.

A Saudi visit to Is­rael would be seen “cross­ing a big thresh­old” and could jus­tify Is­raeli con­ces­sions to the Pales­tini­ans, he said.

Ross sug­gested that Is­rael take three steps to­ward the Pales­tini­ans: Freeze all set­tle­ment build­ing out­side the blocs; for­swear sovereignty over 92% of Area C, es­sen­tially those ar­eas beyond the West Bank se­cu­rity bar­rier; and ad­vance Pales­tinian de­vel­op­ment – par­tic­u­larly eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and build­ing – in Area C.

Area C con­sti­tutes about 61% of the West Bank, and un­der the Oslo Ac­cords, Is­rael has se­cu­rity and civil au­thor­ity there.

The Pales­tini­ans, in turn, could ac­knowl­edge that the Jews are a peo­ple with a right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. “That would be a big deal,” he said. “Each side has a set of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties if they want to break the stale­mate, if they want to re­store as sense of pos­si­bil­ity.”

Ross spoke as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has taken steps to launch a new peace process. US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ex­pected to meet in New York on Mon­day with Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and on Wed­nes­day with Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas.

The talks will take place on the side­lines of the open­ing ses­sion of the an­nual UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly meet­ing.

Another for­mer di­plo­mat com­mented on the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s peace-mak­ing ef­forts on Thurs­day.

El­liott Abrams, who was a spe­cial as­sis­tant to US pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, told the Is­rael Project in a tele­phone in­ter­view that he did not ex­pect any move­ment on the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace process.

“I do not see a ba­sis for op­ti­mism in 2017,” he said.

Do­mes­tic pol­i­tics have made it dif­fi­cult for both Ne­tanyahu and Ab­bas to make the kind of con­ces­sions nec­es­sary for a deal, said Abrams.

Ab­bas’s age, 82, means that he is more vul­ner­a­ble to po­lit­i­cal at­tacks, and Ne­tanyahu’s le­gal is­sues have made him reliant on his hard-line right-wing base, Abrams said, adding that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is less op­ti­mistic than it had been six months ago.

“They are now fully fa­mil­iar with the de­tails and with the rea­sons that pre­vi­ous ef­forts by every­one from Bill Clin­ton on have failed.”

Still, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is push­ing to restart ne­go­ti­a­tions and there are things that can be done, par­tic­u­larly in the eco­nomic sphere, said Abrams.

It is plau­si­ble that some form of a ne­go­ti­a­tion process will re­sume, he said.

Abrams re­called that US pres­i­dent Barack Obama had opened ne­go­ti­a­tions in the fall of 2010 with a Wash­ing­ton meet­ing be­tween Ne­tanyahu, Ab­bas, King Ab­dul­lah of Jor­dan and then-Egyp­tian pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak.

“They said we are ini­ti­at­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions, but it only lasted for six weeks,” Abrams said.

Ross said that he was an op­ti­mist about the fu­ture.

“I am not one of those who are highly skep­ti­cal of what [the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is] try­ing to do,” he said.

“The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is in the early stages still of defin­ing what their ap­proach will be. The right thing to do be­fore you come up with an ap­proach is don’t build ex­cep­tions, last thing we need right now is a high pro­file, new ini­tia­tive that is bound to fail,” Ross said. “Cyn­i­cism and dis­be­lief is the great­est thing we deal with right now.”

Both Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans think it is im­pos­si­ble for the other side to ac­cept some of their ba­sic de­mands, he added.

“The gap psy­cho­log­i­cally is wider now than at any time since I be­gan to work on this. The idea that you can go for the whole deal right now, when there is this kind of a gap, is an il­lu­sion,” Ross said.

But sig­nif­i­cant progress can still be made, par­tic­u­larly if peo­ple on the ground can feel that some­thing has changed.

“It is not hope­less, it is just dif­fi­cult,” Ross said. •


FOR­MER US EN­VOY to the Mid­dle East Den­nis Ross speaks at the Arava In­sti­tute at Kib­butz Ke­tura on Thurs­day.

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