Home inFocus A New and Complicated Palestinian Landscape

A New and Complicated Palestinian Landscape

An interview with Ambassador Dennis Ross

Dennis Ross Fall 2007

On August 23, inFocus editor Jonathan Schanzer interviewed Ambassador Dennis Ross, counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. For more than a decade, Ambassador Ross played a leading role in America's Middle East peace efforts. He was the point man on the peace process in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, culminating in his role as special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton.

iF: Please describe your take on what happened in Gaza.

DR: There is no doubt in my mind that Hamas basically planned this. There is some debate on the Israeli side right now over whether [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal knew that this was going to happen. My feeling is that Hamas wanted more control over the political institutions in the Palestinian Authority. It’s not clear whether taking over Gaza fit that scheme or not. What is clear is that the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades in Gaza decided for some time that they were going to do this.Ross-press201210

There’s a narrative out there that Hamas was driven to this because [PA President] Mahmoud Abbas, Israel, and the U.S. were not living up to the Mecca deal. That would be fine except that the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades were planning this before the Mecca deal. The proof: Hamas tunneled into the PLO headquarters in Gaza. I have seen those headquarters. They were a fortress, as big as a city block. There was no way to tunnel into this unless it was done over a long period of time. It was at least six months of planning and execution. So it predated the Mecca deal.

Hamas is now establishing control over Gaza. They want to take over Palestinian life. They want to become the embodiment of the Palestinian cause. Fatah has not been extinguished within Gaza, but the security arms of Fatah were vanquished. All those associated with [Fatah’s Gaza Security Chief] Mohammed Dahlan were defeated within Gaza. Fatah could still be a potential force there. Some Fatah members cut a deal with Hamas. They are now Hamas. They changed stripes.

iF: Looking ahead, what does all of this mean for Hamas?

DR: Hamas always had an appeal before the takeover. They could always show that they weren’t corrupt. They could deliver services where the PA would not. To be successful, all they had to do was contrast themselves with the PA.

It’s not so simple for them now in Gaza. They can’t blame their failings, or their inability to deliver economically, on Fatah. They can blame the U.S., but we have seen a pretty significant drop in support for Hamas in polling in Gaza and the West Bank, as well.

One reason for their drop in support is that they violated a fundamental element of the Palestinian ethos. Part of the ethos is ‘we can never have a fitna [internal strife] and we can never have a civil war.’ Yet, Hamas did that.

Hamas, admittedly, has established a semblance of order in Gaza, but it has done so mainly through coercion. There is greater order, but economic life in Gaza is a disaster.

iF: Hamas will almost certainly have to work with Israel to get basic services. Once this happens, will another faction challenge Hamas?

DR: There is no way to effectively govern unless you are cooperating in some form with the Israelis. Hamas doesn’t want to do it. While I was there at one point, Hamas declared a boycott at the Keren Shalom crossing. Within two days they dropped their declared boycott because there were elements of the Gaza private sector that could not function without some relationship with the Israelis across the border. So they backed off. This suggests that they will make tactical adjustments. The larger question of whether they will cooperate with the Israelis remains to be seen.

iF: Will a hard-line version of Hamas emerge?

DR: Within Palestinian society there is always a group prepared to be the most pure, and the most extreme. There probably are already people like that who exist within Gaza. There are some signs that there are some al-Qaeda cells. Hizbullah has put people into Gaza for training purposes. We see some signs the Iranians are training in Gaza, as well. This suggests that there are factions that will emerge.

iF: What should Washington do about humanitarian assistance to Gaza?

DR: The world needs a consensus of what will be done towards Gaza. Humanitarian assistance should not be conditioned. And if you don’t allow there to be some commerce, there’s a high probability the private sector within Gaza will collapse.

Hamas wants to always present itself as the victim and we need to deny it excuses. Minimal commerce won’t allow them to flourish, could ensure at least subsistence in Gaza, but would deny Hamas excuses.

It’s fine to say, as a strategy, we are going to try to make the West Bank a model of success compared to Gaza. But you won’t find it easy to ignore Gaza. The Palestinians are going to insist on some level of investment in Gaza. The international community will not allow there to be a humanitarian disaster.

I wouldn’t allow there to be significant assistance or investment unless Hamas is prepared to play by an explicit set of rules of the game. That would include: no attacks out of Gaza into Israel, meaning stop all rocket attacks. If you don’t do it, you don’t qualify.

iF: Is it in America’s or Israel’s best interest to have two separate Palestinian states?

DR: I don’t think we should be working for a three state solution because the Palestinians will never accept that. We should be involved in an effort that says we are working with Palestinians to create a different future for them that will be defined by being a secular national movement, not an Islamist movement. Getting there will be a long process.

Your point is a de facto reality that is developing on the ground. This needs to be understood. It’s important to work in the West Bank to create one positive model. The Palestinians are going to have to decide how they are going to shape their own future. We can give them that possibility. It’s up to them to act on it.

iF: The Palestinians have repeatedly squandered opportunities for self-determination. Are they ready now?

DR: Two things are different. As long as Yasir Arafat was there, in my judgment, there was no chance of the Palestinians acting to seize the chance. He was someone that could live with the process, but he could not live with the conclusion. He couldn’t transform himself. He couldn’t give up grievance or struggle. He couldn’t give up the cause.

There’s something else that is different, which is the Hamas takeover of Gaza. What this has raised for Palestinians is the question, “what is your identity?” Of course, it’s hard to solve permanent status issues when the identity of the Palestinian state is at stake. Are the Palestinians going to be a secular-nationalist movement, an Islamist movement, or a house divided? In my recent conversations with Palestinians, I have been struck by the acute awareness of this, which is not something I have seen before.

iF: I know you are in touch with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. How do you feel about his leadership and ability to bring the PA back into a position of strength?

DR: It’s clear that his strength lies more in his intentions, rather than his ability to act on his intentions. He has not made decisive moves to remake, reform, or re-brand Fatah. He would say he has been inhibited from doing that. Still, whatever the reasons, he hasn’t done it.

By appointing Salaam Fayyad as prime minister, he has put someone into the PA who’s committed to change. It is important for the world to support Fayyad. This is one way to ensure Abbas sticks with Fayyad during what are bound to be difficult periods.

One of the important things Fayyad has done is bring together the Palestinian clerics and tell them they have to stop inciting violence in their Friday sermons. Fayyad also brought together the security heads and declared that the era of not carrying out orders is over. He’s trying to re-establish law and order in the cities of the West Bank. It’s interesting to see, which I saw myself, an entirely different armed presence in a place like Ramallah. He is now trying to do the same thing in other cities, based upon limited capabilities. Unfortunately, he does not have the means to prevent acts of terror against Israel.

iF: What can be done to support the new Abbas-Fayyad government?

DR: We should be going to the GCC states and asking for a half billion-dollar fund. The price of oil has gone up $50 in the last four years. It’s pure windfall. So, a half billion dollars for them is nothing. Yet, it would make a world of difference in putting people back to work and building Fayyad’s authority in the process.

Another point I would make is that there needs to be a preparation for the international meeting this fall. Today, I worry that the administration played up the Saudis being willing to come, and they played down the qualifier that it has to be a comprehensive meeting with the Syrians there, and a serious discussion of the permanent status issues.

You may well find in the end that the Saudis will say they aren’t coming because their conditions weren’t met for making it a serious meeting. What you don’t need is a symbolic meeting where the gaps become more pronounced and you add to the sense of cynicism about diplomacy. The Secretary of State must prepare the meeting, working out every detail in advance with all sides. No surprises, a clear agenda in advance, and mechanisms for follow-on afterwards. I know she wants a text on the principles of permanent status to be agreed upon and endorsed at the meeting. That won’t just materialize. It will take a grinding effort. I think we should be careful to condition expectations to not be too high.

iF: What is Israel’s best option in dealing with Gaza from a security perspective?

DR: Israel has a range of options, none of which look particularly inviting. There is no Israeli who is anxious to return to Gaza. Hamas is now in a position where it is building itself to resist the Israelis. The cost they can impose has gone up. They may get longer-range rockets to hit Israel. There comes a point where, if they hit a power plant or school in Ashkelon, all bets are off.

One thing to think about is that Israel has leverage. Without Israel, water and electricity grind to a halt in Gaza. Israel should announce to the world that they cannot be expected to provide these things to Gaza while Hamas attacks Israel. Put the world on notice, so the world knows this is something Israel can do.

The second option is what the Israeli are doing now: pinpoint attacks. Every time they see something, they act. That may be enough to disrupt Hamas. It is a containment option.

The third approach is basically that Israel doesn’t wait, picks its moment, and goes in to take care of the Hamas infrastructure. But no one should have any illusions. That would be a very expensive proposition.

To do this, they have to prepare their public and the global community, telling them that they are being hit daily. Israel has to say they got out of Gaza, and the attacks haven’t stopped.

iF: Thank you, Dennis.