Among American diplomatic interlocutors, few know the dialogue of the Middle East better than Dennis Ross. Now a counsellor at The Washington Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, he was a special co-ordinator under president Bill Clinton; director of policy and planning at the State Department under George W. Bush; and, until a year ago, special assistant to President Barack Obama for the Middle East and Iran. He will lecture Wednesday evening at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre. Just returned from Israel, he spoke with Globe and Mail reporter Michael Posner.
There is word that a ceasefire in Gaza may be imminent.
They were close last night. The fact that Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton is going there creates an incentive for everybody to stand by what they are doing. It doesn’t mean it will happen, but it will be a high cost to [Egyptian President Mohammed] Morsi if, having announced that a ceasefire was imminent, it then doesn’t happen. He has a high stake to look like he is the difference-maker.Her being there will help everyone play by the rules and enforce what’s been committed to
If the truce proceeds and holds, what will Israel have gained?
They will have re-established deterrence, because Hamas will have no incentive to try anything again, any time soon.
They have destroyed a good chunk of the Hamas arsenal. Militarily, they’ve been very successful. There were 10,000 rockets. They’ve taken out probably 90 per cent of the long-range systems, the Iranian-made Fajr-5, and their crews. Every time they’re fired, the crews expose themselves. But the Grad rockets, which can reach Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba, remain, and that’s problematic. And the Qassams, which terrorize Sderot and the surrounding area. What Israel really wants it likely won’t get, which is [to have] the Egyptians act in the Sinai to prevent arms from going into Gaza.
Will Hamas enforce the truce on fringe groups in Gaza, such as the Salafis and Islamic Jihad?
That’s the real question.
Hamas hasn’t been willing to do that the past several months. That really has to be the rub. What Clinton will be communicating to the Egyptians is that it has to bring its weight to bear not only on Hamas, but on the others as well. And Hamas has to know that ultimately Egypt’s interests are at stake.
What, in your view, precipitated this conflict?
Two things. First, the idea that a million of [Israel’s] citizens were having their lives disrupted and running into bomb shelters is not something Israel was prepared to accept. Second, Hamas was clearly trying to create a new normal, to redefine the rules of the game. We’ll shoot with impunity and you, Israel, live with it. But the lull between rockets fired into Israel was going down, Hamas was less inclined to stop them, and Hamas itself began to assume greater responsibility for the attacks. They were trying to push the Israelis off the northern Gazan border so they can build new tunnels to kidnap Israeli soldiers. Hamas calculated that Israel would not escalate before the Israeli elections, was preoccupied with Iran and would not want to jeopardize relations with Egypt. The best indication that Hamas thought Israel would not do anything was that [Hamas military chief] Ahmed Jaabari, Israel’s Osama bin Laden, was in the open [when they killed him]. No way he’s in the open if Hamas thinks Israel might strike.
Is eliminating Hamas’s long-range missiles in some sense pre-emptive, in case Israel attacks Iran? One less flank to worry about?
It’s an ancillary benefit. But there’s one other factor, which is that Hamas has distanced increasingly itself from Iran, and it’s over Syria. So I don’t think Israel assumes Hamas would react if it attacks Iran. But if you have other reasons anyway to take out the Hamas missiles, then this could be another factor.
Does Morsi emerge from this a big winner?If the truce holds, yes. In a lot of ways, this was a test for him. And if it holds, he passed it. He builds credibility and it makes him seem to be a major player in the region. He’s manoeuvred between the ideological and the economic, because the inherent emotional, psychological pressures to distance himself from, or break relations with, Israel would undercut his ability to deal with the economy. We were waiting to see which trumped which, and I think the priorities are pretty clear.
Who loses – the Iranians, the Turks?
I think they’re all secondary here, yes. For all the things that Morsi said about Israel, he did not call it a terrorist state as [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan did. That makes him look less relevant at a time when he’s trying to be a new focal point for the region. The Iranians lose for sure, too, because in the end, this isn’t a diversion from the Syrian conflict. The focus is going to shift back very quickly.
You’re predicting that Washington will soon begin direct negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue.
I am. The G5+1 [the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, which has been meeting with Iran), is a very useful umbrella. But it’s not the forum in which negotiations that produce anything workable are going to take place. It’s the emblem. If an agreement is reached, it will be formalized through them. But there have to be bilateral talks with the Iranians if there’s going to be a deal. There’s a convergence here of interest and need that increases the likelihood that negotiations will take place – private, to begin with. Not back-channel, but private. That’s where you’ll find out whether there’s a deal to be had. It’s driven largely by the sanctions. The Iranians will increasingly see with President Obama that there’s a way out with him, but he means what he says. I think they’ll find Washington is ready to discuss Iran’s having nuclear capability for civilian purposes, but profoundly determined that it can’t be converted [to military uses].
That would require a very tough inspection regimen.
Yes, and that’s where it may falter.
You’re also suggesting that Washington may get more involved in the Syrian conflict.
I think it’s inevitable. The consequences of letting Syria become a failed state are simply too grave. We effectively have a Shiite-Sunni civil war there now, which is why more needs to be done.
If [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad falls, Syria goes Muslim Brotherhood. So whether we move to lethal assistance or put Patriot missiles along the Jordanian and Turkish borders, I’m not sure, but we’ll do more. And the Russians themselves may be beginning to rethink their position. The more it becomes clear Washington is going to do more, the more the Russians have to decide how long to stick with Assad. But I don’t think his demise is imminent. He still controls the security services, which are Alawite and loyal.
How much at risk is Jordan?
I’m worried. The recent demonstrations were not just large. You had for the first time chants about the kingdom – going directly after the king [Abdullah]. I’ve been struck by the fact that the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia have not been providing as much financial support as they should. These demonstrations may change that because Jordan is a bulwark for them. The Saudis see two threats – Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood – so Jordan is a critical buffer.
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