The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, by Dennis Ross

reviewed by
Ann M. Lesch

Dennis Ross served as a key architect of US policy in the Middle East in his capacities as the head of Policy Planning in the State Department under James Baker III in the administration of George H.W. Bush (1989 - January 1993) and then as chief negotiator for Arab-Israeli issues under Bill Clinton’s two Secretaries of State, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright (1993 - January 2001).  Those were dramatic years that encompassed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the US-orchestrated Arab-Israeli conference in Madrid, and the Oslo Accord of September 1993.  In the ensuing years Washington made continual – though unsuccessful – efforts to achieve peace agreements between Syria and Israel, and only partly successful efforts to extend the initial Israeli-Palestinian agreements into more comprehensive arrangements.  Those efforts ended abruptly with Syrian President Hafez al-Asad’s death in June 2000 and the acute violence that erupted on the West Bank and Gaza Strip following the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David in July 2000.  Ross’s own diplomatic career ended a few months later, when the second Bush administration took office and he left government to join the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a well-connected pro-Israeli think tank.

Ross’s memoirs provide a day-by-day account of the American effort to promote negotiations among Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians.  The high point of Ross’s description of the G. H.W. Bush era involves the maneuvering that led up to the multilateral Madrid talks in October 1991, a rapidly successful set of moves that contrasted sharply with the stalemated period before the Iraq war, when little momentum was possible despite the major Palestinian initiatives at the time of the intifada -- initiatives that were rejected by hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.  For the Clinton era, Ross shifts his attention back and forth between the increasingly frustrating Syrian and Palestinian fronts.  He concedes that he did not take seriously the back-channel Israeli-Palestinian talks in Norway that led to the successful Oslo Accords.  Subsequently, he was at the center of efforts to deepen those accords, which led to the Oslo II (September 1995), Hebron (January 1997), and Wye Plantation (October 1998) agreements.  Ross details the negotiations before, during, and after those accords in excruciating detail – a level of detail that highlights the extreme mistrust between the two sides and the difficulty that the US had in attaining even these very limited changes, much less getting Israel to implement their terms.  The details also make clear that every US position was discussed with the Israeli government prior to presenting it to the Arab side, in acknowledgement of the special relationship between the US and Israel – a bias that not only heightened Palestinian and Syrian mistrust of Washington as an honest broker but also weakened Washington’s ability to perceive and address the core needs of the Arab parties. 

The narrative culminates in Clinton’s failed summit with Syrian President Hafez al-Asad in spring 2000 and the dismal Camp David summit that July.  Ross gives little attention to Jordan, because (to his disappointment) the Israeli and Jordanian governments negotiated their agreements with little need for US (read: Ross’s) involvement (p. 183).  Ironically, despite the centrality of the US to the negotiating process, the only really successful agreements turned out to be those in which Washingon was minimally involved.

Ross’s exceptionally detailed reportage is possible because, as he explains (p. 813), he made a written record every night of that day’s conversations and events.  He also wrote memoranda before embarking on each trip and each set of negotiations.  Afterwards, he recorded his reflections on whether or not the negotiations had met his expectations.  This level of detail is rewarding for the specialist and the policy-wonk, in that it provides the reader with every-bit-of-nuance in face-to-face conversations (including each instance in which he, the secretary of state, or the president lost their temper at their Israeli or Arab counterparts) and every shift in negotiating positions.  However, it is so detailed that the wider context is often lost in the barrage of micro-events. 

Moreover, by relying almost exclusively on his own notes, Ross ignores the perspectives of other participants in these negotiations.  This comes across as breathtaking egotism.  Only his own opinions and recollections count; there is no need to double check or cross-check them against the memoirs of others.  Thus, although he cites in passing James Baker’s The Politics of Diplomacy, Clinton’s press secretary George Stephanopoulos’ All Too Human, and Israeli ambassador cum Syria specialist Itamar Rabinovich’s The Brink of Peace, he fails to comment on or assess their viewpoints.  Moreover, one searches in vain for mention of and critiques of the discussion of Middle East issues in George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft’s A World Transformed, Bill Clinton’s My Life, Warren Christopher’s Choices of a Lifetime, and Madeleine Albright’s Madam Secretary: A Memoir, much less articles by his fellow diplomats Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer, Rob Malley, Aaron David Miller, and Edward (Ned) Walker.  The result is a version of history that privileges not only an American perspective but one specific perspective: his own.

The Missing Peace became famous because of Ross’s denunciation of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat for rejecting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in July 2000 and especially for “equivocating” (p. 3) about Clinton’s follow up offers.  The book opens with Ross’s dramatic reenactment of Arafat’s visit to the White House on January 2, 2001, framed by Ross’s stark question: “Could Yasir Arafat end this conflict?” (p. 4)  Arafat responded that he “accepted [Clinton’s] ideas” but had “reservations” (p. 11), which meant to Ross that Arafat could never make “a comprehensive deal…  He could live with a process, but not with a conclusion” (p. 13).  Ross concludes with an even more sweeping assertion: “Only one leader was unable or unwilling to confront history and mythology: Yasir Arafat” (p. 758). 

That brusque dismissal ignores the reality that, in January 2001, Arafat was talking to a US president who would be out of office in two weeks concerning an agreement with an Israeli prime minister who was about to be crushingly defeated by Arafat’s arch-enemy, Ariel Sharon.  Clinton even (rather bizarrely at that point) tried to appeal to Arafat to sign the accord in order to help prevent Ehud Barak’s defeat, even though Ross concedes that Barak’s defeat was “near certain” (p. 5).  Moreover, whereas Clinton and Ross had discussed their ideas with Israeli negotiators on a let’s-talk-further basis, they confronted Arafat with a final deal, whose terms had to be accepted in toto.  Even if Arafat had initialed an accord at that moment, it could have been renounced in less than a month by the new US President and the new Israeli prime minister, leaving Arafat exposed and isolated. 

Ross’s dismissal of Arafat’s intentions also ignores Ross’s own admission that Arafat had entered reluctantly into the Camp David peace process the previous summer, fearing that Barak was setting a trap. Ross himself feared that the parties were not ready for a permanent status accord: Ross speaks of his “dread” in anticipation of the negotiations (p. 649).  Furthermore, Ross ignores his earlier statement that Arafat had reason to be wary of both Clinton and Barak. In early July, Clinton had assured Arafat that he would not be blamed should the summit fail (p. 633), an assurance that Clinton violated as soon as the summit ended.  And Barak had promised in the spring of 2000 to withdraw from three villages adjoining East Jerusalem, to release a substantial number of Palestinian prisoners, and to transfer to the Palestinian Authority some of the taxes Israel collected on goods going to the West Bank and Gaza, only to backtrack a month later when his governing coalition began to fray (p. 625).  Barak had also delayed making the third interim withdrawal, scheduled for June 23.  This backtracking contrasted with Barak’s bold unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon in late May.  Ross expressed concern at the time that Arafat felt “beleaguered” and betrayed (p. 627) and he worried that Barak was ignoring the negative “effects of his failure to fulfill his promises” (p. 628).  Indeed, Ross seemed to share Arafat’s concern that, “if Barak could not do the little issues, how could he do the big ones?” (p. 630)  In sum, while Arafat’s actions should certainly be subject to a rigorous critique – as should the actions of his Israeli and American counterparts -- his hesitation or negativism at critical moments should be placed in context, rather than essentialized.

Despite the propagandistic tone of Ross’s critique of Arafat (after all, Arafat-bashing has been a popular sport in the United States), The Missing Peace contains acute and fine-tuned observations about leading political figures – notably Yitzhak Rabin (especially pp. 90-94, who tends to be lionized following his shocking assassination), Shimon Peres (pp. 235-236), Bibi Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Hafez al-Asad (notably pp. 141-144), and numerous Palestinian negotiators.  Ross has a well honed understanding of the rivalries and different viewpoints among those Palestinian politicians and of how Arafat manipulated them and maneuvered in the limited political (and physical) space available to the Palestinians.  

His portraits of Netanyahu and Barak are particularly pointed.  He has no patience for Netanyahu’s “hubris” and his “insufferable” lecturing of the US negotiators on “how to deal with the Arabs” (p. 260) or for the haggling over minute percentages of West Bank land that would be turned over to Palestinian control, haggling that went on for three years with painfully few tangible results.  Barak’s election gives Ross “a renewed sense of hope.”  Although “an unknown quantity as a negotiator and a peacemaker,” Barak seemed to be “everything Bibi was not” (p. 495).  That hope was short lived. Barak delayed making promised redeployments on the West Bank (as noted above) and proved to be a singularly inept negotiator in relation to both Asad and Arafat.  Ross comments that Barak’s “instinct for the ambitious or grandiose move” often took on an “urgent, even manic, quality” (p. 521) and was contradicted by his penchant for irritating his US counterparts by trying to micromanaging negotiations.  He also, Ross argues, always “wanted us to be focused on his needs, not trying to find ways to accommodate the concerns of the Arab party to the negotiations” (p. 550).  In other words, Barak wanted Washington to be Israel’s surrogate in talking to Arab rulers, not the mediator between the two parties.  Unfortunately, Clinton – in particular – fell into that trap, especially with Asad but also with Arafat. 

The worst aspect of Barak’s personality, from Ross’s viewpoint, was that “he inevitably wavered” (p. 544) when he realized what he had to make major territorial withdrawals in order to achieve historic breakthroughs on the Syrian and Palestinian fronts.  He even placed Clinton in highly embarrassing positions.  He pressured Clinton to meet with Asad in Geneva in spring 2000, without agreeing to Asad’s bottom line – a meeting that was a “high-visibility failure” (p. 587) for US diplomacy.  He pressured Clinton to host the Camp David negotiations, without preparing the ground through off-the-record preparatory meetings with Palestinian counterparts and while refusing to reveal his bottom-line position to the US negotiators even as he expected them to act as his emissary (see Ross’s meeting with Barak in late June 2000, pp. 639-642).  In other words, many of Ross’s criticisms of Barak’s behavior – behavior that can be partly attributed to his mercurial personality and partly to his fear of making a final deal – are identical to Ross’s criticisms of Arafat’s behavior.  In the end, however, Ross gives the benefit of the doubt to Barak (crediting him with finally biting the bullet at Camp David) but not to Arafat.

Each reader will find different aspects of The Missing Peace compelling or disturbing.  Read as a primary source, it displays the inner workings of negotiations at a unique level of detail from one highly privileged perspective.  Read as a secondary source, it provides a valuable case study of the complexities of international diplomacy and negotiating processes.  Read as a treatise on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it displays the limitations in the author’s historical understanding of the conflict, of the political trends in the region, and of the profound asymmetries in power between Israelis and Palestinians.  Regrettably, that also makes it possible to read it as a propaganda tract.  Nonetheless, The Missing Peace is far more than just a bombastic attack on Arafat and well worth reading for its insights into the thinking of a well-placed negotiator during a critical decade in the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Ann M. Lesch is Professor of Political Science and Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, The American University in Cairo.