How my desire for Middle East peace was motivated by two encounters with two mothers – one Israeli and one Palestinian
by Dennis Ross*
My initial experience as a negotiator was doing arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union during the George H. W. Bush administration. The START negotiations like most arms control talks were based on an abstraction: reducing categories of arms can produce greater predictability, build confidence about the other’s intentions, and remove those arms that may create incentives for striking first because they promise to limit the capacity of the opposing side to retaliate. The theory and logic of arms control and reduction is about dealing with arms that make conflict more likely and making their use less likely. There is unmistakable value in the success of good arms control agreements.
The JCPOA—the nuclear deal with Iran—was an arms control agreement. It deferred for at least a decade Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon. Has it made conflict less likely? No, not in the region; even one of the Obama administration’s main arguments for the JCPOA was built around the idea that conflict in the Middle East would be more dangerous if Iran possessed nuclear weapons and the deal reduced that danger.
I understood the value of arms control negotiations but they never emotionally seized me. I say this because people often ask me why do I remain so committed to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; why not give up, particularly these days when its resolution seems like such a distant possibility. My answer is that, unlike arms control negotiations, there is nothing abstract about this conflict. Real people pay the price; real people suffer. In trying to resolve this conflict, I have not been dealing with abstract theory about reducing or controlling certain missiles or warheads which could create greater stability. Instead, I have been dealing with what would affect the reality of the lives of real people and their families.
Whatever the differences between Israelis and Palestinians—and their continuing disbelief about “the other”—I have always felt a longing on both sides to see the conflict and pain end. While I had many encounters in which I felt this longing, two, in particular, stand out. One was with an Israeli woman—an Israeli mother. During what was the second twenty three day shuttle I would carry out to broker the accord on Hebron in January 1997, I was approached at Yad Mordechai—a kibbutz close to the border with Gaza. Often when driving into or out of Gaza, we would stop—my team and our security contingent—at Yad Mordechai. On one occasion after spending a full night negotiating with Yasser Arafat, we stopped and I was out stretching my legs and a woman came up to me. She had tears in her eyes and she tightly grasped my hands, and said “please succeed for the sake of my children.” She went on trembling, barely able to get the words out, saying she prayed for me and again, said “please succeed and don’t give up.”
There were many times during the negotiations that were endlessly frustrating when I would think of that woman and feel whatever the problems and frustrations, it was necessary to press on. A second encounter reinforced this feeling. Twice I would take my family, and my three kids, to the region so they could see where their father spent so much of his time. During both trips, when we were touring people would come up to my kids and engage them. After the Camp David summit but before the beginning of the second intifada, we were in Jericho, and a young Palestinian woman came up the kids, and said “thanks for lending us your dad; we know it is hard on you, but we need his help to make peace and we need and want that very much.” It was moving for them—giving them a sense that they were helping in this noble effort. And, it was moving and meant something to me.
Peace-making in historic conflicts, particularly one where there are two national movements competing for the same space, is enormously difficult. History and mythology must be overcome. The wounds and grievances weigh heavily and the ability to see the other side’s needs and fears is always limited. Setbacks are the norm—progress the exception. And, the enemies of the process are ready and have the means to disrupt it. In such circumstances, it is hard to maintain the commitment to persevere, but my own desire to do whatever I could to try to help end the conflict was certainly motivated in no small part by these two encounters with two women–one Israeli and one Palestinian.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.