April 4, 2019 | By Cécile Shea, Dennis Ross

Deep Dish: Amb. Dennis Ross on Trump's Golan Heights Decision


President Trump has signed an executive order to formally recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who led the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for 12 years and served in senior political positions under Presidents Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama, joined this week's Deep Dish podcast to explain what this means.

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Cécile Shea: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Cécile Shea, filling in for Brian Hansen. Today, we're talking about the United States' recent recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Joining me to discuss what happened, why, and what it means for the US, for Israel, and for Israel's neighbors, is ambassador Dennis Ross. Ambassador Ross held politically-appointed senior positions in the administrations of Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama. For 12 of those years, he was the lead US negotiator for the Arab-Israeli Peace Process. Welcome, Ambassador Ross.

Dennis Ross: Nice to be with you, thank you.

Cécile Shea: Not to make either of us feel old, but some of the younger listeners today probably have never even heard of the Golan Heights because it really hasn't been in the news very much for the last 15 years or so. Could we start, Dennis, with having you explain to us where the Golan Heights actually is and how Israel came to occupy that piece of territory?

Dennis Ross: Sure. The Golan Heights is in the northeastern part of what is Israel or the southwestern part of Syria. The Golan Heights were, in fact, a part of Syria. In the 1967 war, Israel was able to take the Golan Heights from the Syrians. To put that in a context, prior to that time from 1948 until 1967, there was an armistice agreement that was mostly observed in the [inaudible 00:01:39]. The Syrians were on the heights. The Israelis had [inaudible 00:01:42] what were the equivalent of villages down below. Every time the Israelis would cultivate what were known as these demilitarized zones, or they'd been worked out in an armistice understanding, actually by Ralph [Funch 00:01:55], who was an American but was a UN official who was the one who brokered these armistice understandings in 1948, early 1949. Every time the Israelis would cultivate in the DMZ, they would be shelled from the Heights.

Dennis Ross: Frequently they would be shelled with no notice, and for the Israelis living under this this was always a source of great insecurity. In 1967, the June 1967 war, the events that led to it were Nasser removing the United Nations emergency force from the Sinai desert, putting six divisions on Israels border. Other Arabs at the time all claiming this is going to reverse what happened in 1948 when Israel was established. The Israelis launched [inaudible 00:02:45] strike after three weeks of living on the edge and Israeli citizens literally digging trenches around their cities and large areas, cemeteries. They were able to defeat the Egyptians and take the Sinai desert. Defeat the Jordanians, what was the Jordanian army. The Arab Legions in what was the West Bank and Jerusalem and take that.

Dennis Ross: And the last part of that war, starting on June 9th, this is known as the Six-Day War, the last day and a half of that war the Israelis took the Golan Heights. So the Golan Heights have basically been in Israeli possession since 1967. The Golan Heights, just to put this in perspective, even though Israel has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the quietest border that Israel has, from the time of the ... After the 1973 war, until I would say the wars that erupted within Syria, that actually, for the most part did not involve Israel, the quietest border Israel had during that period was the border with Syria, and their presence on the Golan Heights.

Cécile Shea: John Seldon, a Facebook reader, asks, "Has Syria made any attempts to get the Golan back since '73?" And you know, that sound like a really straightforward question but it's actually kind of a complicated question isn't it?

Dennis Ross: It is complicated, although basically once you had the ceasefire arrangement ... Actually, once you had the disengagement agreement that was worked out in May of 1974, there were almost no violations of that disengagement agreement prior to 2011. From 1974 to 2011. Now, the Syrians, we came very close to reaching an agreement. We were extremely close in December 1999, January 2000, to reaching an agreement in which the Israelis would have returned the Golan Heights to the Syrians. Since 2011, there have been rockets fired into the Golan Heights, there has been the war. Sometimes sort of, I would say that you saw examples of forces that weren't fully under control not so much trying to attack the Golan Heights, but it was kind of a spillover effect from the conflict there.

Dennis Ross: Now, I think there's an irony. The Israelis can hold the Assad regime accountable [inaudible 00:05:18]. It's true that there was one episode where the [inaudible 00:05:23] Golan Heights, but that wasn't repeated and basically Bashar al-Assad has had so much to worry about since 2011, that's where his focus is.

Cécile Shea: All right, so you mentioned the border's been quite quiet. Who was living in the Golan when Israel took control of it, and who lives in the Golan now? Is it densely populated like Gaza and the West Bank, or is it something different?

Dennis Ross: [inaudible 00:05:50] it's a really interesting question. Most of the population in the Golan Heights at the time were Druze. Druze are a different sectarian group. There are many Druze who are in Israel and actually serve in the Israeli military. Are extremely committed to Israel and the States. The Druze who live in the Golan Heights have families in Syria and have always retained a kind of loyalty to Syria. There are several thousand of them that live in the Golan Heights. Over the years, the Israelis have settled in the Golan Heights, but the total population of Israeli settlers is about 21,000.

Dennis Ross: So the Golan Heights, if you were to go to them today, it's still relatively sparsely populated.

Cécile Shea: Yeah, and I used to enjoy visiting there and driving there, and looking across the border into Syria from there. It's quite an interesting part of the country. Is there any ... So let's step back a little bit. Back when the current president of Syria took over the country there was a certain amount of optimism that he might be a great reformer. That he would not be kind of a psychotic murderer the way his father and grandfather had been and perhaps Israel could finally have some kind of peace agreement with Syria in which case Syria would probably take back the Golan Heights. No one thinks that's gonna happen anymore as long as Bashar al-Assad is leading the country.

Cécile Shea: There seems to be absolutely no pressure on Israel internationally to pull out of the Golan. As you mentioned, or I think alluded to, the Syrian Druze who are there are quite assimilated, they're not looking, at this point, for Israel to pull out of the Golan. So, if there's not a lot of international pressure and really no attention on the Golan, why did President Trump, a week ago, tweet that ... Oh, we should probably go back first. In the early '80s Israel annexed the Golan Heights. So maybe my question is ... And the US did not recognize that annexation.

Cécile Shea: So my question for you is, why after all of these years of Israel having annexed the Golan Heights and the US just not really commenting on it too much either way, why now has President Trump decided to recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan?

Dennis Ross: Just, again, to put this in historical perspective, in December of 1981, Menachem Begin extended the Israeli law and administration to the Golan Heights. The United States at the time not only didn't accept it, we suspended a strategic cooperation agreement with Israel. We suspended the delivery of F-16 aircraft to Israel as a punishment for this. So the position of the US has been not to recognize the extension of Israeli law and administration to the Golan Heights. Which is basically annexing, even though they didn't use that term.

Dennis Ross: So the question becomes, why now? There's only one explanation for it, and it was for political reasons to help Prime Minister Netanyahu in advance of the election. There was no other reason. This issue was not controversial. If you asked any Arab leader, privately, if they think that Israel should continue to control the Golan Heights, the answer would have been "Yes", because Iran and the Shia militias, including Hezbollah, are embedding themselves in Syria, and therefore from the Arab standpoint, Israel being in control of the Golan Heights makes perfect sense.

Dennis Ross: But if you ask Arab leaders to recognize that you are going to give up what they perceive to be Arab territory by fiat, and without a negotiation, simply by making the decision unilaterally, you force them to take the position and they won't want to acquiesce in what as seen as turning over or surrendering Arab territory.

Cécile Shea: So you say that President Trump seems to have made this announcement for political reasons to help Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Israeli election which is coming in a couple of weeks. How will this help the Prime Minister?

Dennis Ross: Well, I think the way it probably is seen as helping Netanyahu is that here he's achieved something that no other prime minister has achieved. That you're getting American recognition of Israeli sovereignty there and the message is, truly, Israel will never have to turn this back. Maybe everyone felt, okay, we can never afford to turn it back. But with the US having adopted this position, it looks like Bibi Netanyahu has delivered something that no previous prime minister was able to deliver and it's a testimony to the relationship that he has with Trump.

Dennis Ross: So if he can hold it up as a diplomatic achievement, done right before the Israeli election, it's a reminder to the Israeli public, look how effective Netanyahu is on the world stage. As if that wasn't enough, he's going to visit Putin in Moscow tomorrow. So he's acting in a way designed to suggest, "Look, I can do things on the world stage that nobody else can. That's why you can't afford not to vote for me again and put me in as prime minister."

Cécile Shea: But the way the Israeli election system is designed, Netanyahu's not going to get a majority in this next election. He's going to have to form a coalition with several small parties, and that's a little complicated for him right now. He's probably a little worried about how he's going to be able to put this coalition together because he had a really difficult time the last election putting a coalition together. Does this somehow feed into his arithmetic of how he's going to find some small parties to cooperate with him in the government?

Dennis Ross: I think it does, and I think it does for the following reasons. The right wing small parties will take the recognition and acceptance of Israeli administration as a precedent for what they want to do in the West Bank. And Netanyahu, when they came back from Washington said, "When you fight a defensive war, when a territory's no longer occupied, you own it." And so, it was as if he was appealing to them already by saying, "Not only did I produce that but recognize that I also accept that we can go ahead and we can annex other territories because they were also acquired in a defensive war." So, I think that's why you're seeing what you're seeing.

Cécile Shea: Okay. So, just to make sure I understand what you're saying, Israel took action to annex, although perhaps they haven't used that word, in 1981, to annex the Golan. They've never done that with the West Bank or Gaza. The assumption has always been that the disposition of the West Bank and Gaza would be decided in negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which is something that you have dedicated a great deal of your own life to. So, if I understood you correctly, it appears that Netanyahu is hinting that he might be interested in annexing part of the West Bank and Gaza? That's what this message is?

Dennis Ross: That's how I interpret the statement he was making. Now, whether he really intends to do it or not, he was clearly signaling a smaller right wing party. The center, what's known now as the Blue White Party and Labor, they've made it clear they won't join a Netanyahu led government because the Attorney General has declared his intent to indict. According to the Israeli law, once the Attorney General declares that, the person who is the target of that is entitled to a hearing before an actual indictment can take place. But you have the center left parties basically saying they won't join with Netanyahu. The right parties are more interested in their ideology than what the Attorney General is going to do. So, Netanyahu needs to be sure that he can get those parties because without them he won't be able to form a government.

Cécile Shea: Right. So, he needs that ... so, usually the second largest party is the more liberal party. They have cooperated with him at times in the past. They've said they won't this time. So, he's really going to require several of the small far right parties to join him or he won't be able to form a government. So, that sounds like a lot of inside baseball, maybe Netanyahu's getting ready to annex, maybe not. Maybe he's just saying this. Why should we care? I mean, how does this affect the United States? How does it affect the stability in the Middle East?

Dennis Ross: Well, I guess I would say from two standpoints we should care. The first is that if, in fact, we end up with a narrow base, right wing government, with parties in it who are absolutely committed to annexation and understand that Netanyahu's under pressure from the Attorney General and they can threaten to pull out of the government ... He wants to be Prime Minister when he's dealing with the Attorney General, they begin the process of annexation. What that will do is, it will rule out any possibility of reaching an agreement later on. It'll even rule out the possibility of being able to separate Israelis from Palestinians. And that would produce one state for two people's, which will not be stable because you're basically taking two national identities, putting them in one space. And if you look at the Middle East, wherever you have more than one identity, whether it's national, sectarian, or tribal, that state tends to be at war with itself, not in a state of peace.

Dennis Ross: So, if we want to see that part of the region becomes more stable and not less so, you do not want to see a process of creeping annexation given the implications of that. That's from an American standpoint. I would say, for those who care a great deal about Israel, they don't want to see Israel become one state for two peoples because, basically, that's the end of what Israel was supposed to be. The essence of the Zionist mission was to create a Jewish democratic state, not a state that was an Arab Jewish state or not a state that was a Jewish state that dominated another people. So, there's a ... we could be very much at a kind of turning point in terms of what the longer term is going to produce. And we should hope that the administration at least sends a message, if Netanyahu's the one who's able to put together the government, that it won't accept a unilateral Israeli annexation steps in the West Bank.

Cécile Shea: And what happens if Netanyahu doesn't move, you know, he kind of makes some promises under the table but he doesn't actually make any moves to annex the West Bank and/or Gaza? Are there still impacts on the peace process? I mean, it must be very, very bad for Palestinian morale to be thinking that this might even be a possibility.

Dennis Ross: The one thing ... I see no prospect that the Israelis will annex Gaza. Nobody ... the right is not interested in Gaza. So, the issue is what they do in the West Bank. Overall there's disbelief on the part of both the Israeli public and the Palestinian public. Netanyahu has actually resisted the right wing up until now, in their efforts to legislate annexation. What I'm worried about is, in a setting where he has a very narrow base government that can be brought down by any one of the parties and where he appears vulnerable because of what the Attorney General's set in motion, that he will feel he has give into them unless the Trump administration gives him the argument to say, "Look, the Trump administration will oppose this and we can't afford that."

Dennis Ross: Palestinians right now are completely at a loss. They feel bereft. But it's not just vis-à-vis the Israelis, it's vis-à-vis their own leadership. Before the events last week where you had rockets being fired and a ceasefire [inaudible 00:17:44] by the Egyptians between Hamas and the Israelis, you had four days of very fierce demonstrations in Gaza against Hamas. You had a Palestinian who set himself on fire in protest. You had Gazans chanting, "We want to live." It was geared towards Hamas, it was not geared towards the Israelis. The same level of alienation exists towards the Palestinian authority and its President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. The Palestinians right now are feeling, as I said, the best word is bereft. Many younger Palestinians are saying, "Let's just have one state and have one person, one vote." Many would say, when they're asked what do they want, they'll say, "I want a job in Israel."

Cécile Shea: I've noticed in this country too there are an awful lot of younger people now talking about the one state solution. It seems like people, even in the U.S., are thinking that the two state solution is no longer viable. Do you think the two state solution is still viable?

Dennis Ross: I don't think we have an alternative to it because, as I was saying before, one state for peoples will inherently be unstable. It'll inherently be characterized by conflict. I once had a member of Fatah who was explaining to me, ultimately why he accepted [inaudible 00:18:56], and he said, "Because look, in one state either they will seek to dominate us or we will seek to dominate them." He said, "There's no alternative to it." And that's the reality. So, if you want a prescription for an endless conflict than talk about a one state outcome. The problem we face here is you can't produce a two state outcome any time soon. So, what I prefer is to preserve the option of separation. So, even if you can't produce two states any time soon at least you can ensure that you can separate Israelis and Palestinians.

Dennis Ross: If the Israelis keep building outside the settlement block, they have 105,000 now to [inaudible 00:19:33] along about 8% of the West Bank, if they keep doing that you're gonna reach a point where you won't be able to disentangle the two populations. And then the option of two states is lost, the option of separation is lost. And then you're stuck and there's one state, which as I said, is a prescription for endless conflict.

Cécile Shea: That brings up a question. We keep hearing there's going to be a Trump administration peace plan, we hear rumors about it and then the rumors get squashed. The most recent rumor was that there was going to be a series of very complicated land swaps and a certain amount of transfer of the Palestinian population. I guess the White House has now said that that's not true. What do you hear about what is going on with the Trump peace plan? And it seems that a lot of it was originally going to focus on having Saudi Arabia involved in pushing the Palestinians to the table. Do you think that's still possible given what has happened to the royal family in the last six months?

Dennis Ross: When they start with that one, first, I don't think it was ever possible. Quite independent of the Khashoggi affair and the events in Saudi Arabia, the reality is it was always an illusion to believe that the Saudis and other Arab leaders would somehow force the Palestinians to accept something they weren't prepared to accept. Now, when it wasn't impossible was the idea that you could get a group of Arab leaders to say if a peace plan were serious that it was serious. They wouldn't say the Palestinians had to accept it, they would say something like, "We have our questions about it, we have reservations about it but we do believe it's a serious basis for negotiation. Now, that they could do and that would create pressure on the Palestinians not to say no. But to get to that point this plan has to cross thresholds that would allow Arab leaders to say it's serious. If it doesn't provide for a state that looks credible and if it doesn't provide for [inaudible 00:21:39] state that is basically most if not all of Arab East Jerusalem, then no Arab leader's gonna stand up and say, "This is serious." So, the challenge is, will the content of the plan meet those two [inaudible 00:21:56] or those two standards? And I don't know the answer to that. And will it be done in a way where they'll be a process that makes it possible for the Arab leaders, who look at this in advance, to have some chance, to have some input into it? Not actually just be told about it, but to actually be given the text and a chance to comment on the language, and then work out exactly what's the word, what will be said in response. At this point, the kind of diplomacy that's necessary to produce what I'm describing has not yet taken place. Doesn't mean it can't, but I would say that the goal on decision doesn't make it easier because it tends to deny some of the political space that Arab leaders would need if they were gonna be responsive the way I'm describing it.

Dennis Ross: Not where they can publicly say the housing should accept it, but in the position where at least the Saudis, the Emirates are different than Indians, and the Moroccans come out and say, "We had questions, but this is a serious basis for negotiation." At this point I have to say I'm not optimistic we'll get there, but you know me, I worked on it for so long. If I didn't always have some degree of hope, I would've given up a long time ago, so I still am hopeful.

Cécile Shea: Yeah. I want to come back to that, but since you mentioned the Khashoggi case, you were very positive on Mohammad bin Salman when he first kind of rose to power. Are you having second thoughts about his influence or about what kind of man he actually is?

Dennis Ross: Well, it would be impossible for someone not to. Look, on the one hand, what he represents is a revolution from above in Saudi Arabia where he is making nationalism and modernization, the source of legitimacy, not wahhabism. We've had the fight wahhabism. That's where Al-Qaeda comes from, it's where ISIS comes from, it's the violent form of philosophy, Islam basically rejects the other, and believes in the use of violence to deal with the other. So he represented something very different. It's not just what he's done in terms of allowing women to drive, it's opening up the country socially. You have cinemas now, you have concerts now, you have dances now. All things that were outlawed effectively by the clerical establishment. Even now they are saying it's okay, alcohol can be sold and consumed in areas where foreigners are living. There's all sorts of things are changed.

Dennis Ross: Some women are there saying their significance is to be revealed. I mean, the social changes are significant, but what I worry about, and this goes back to the heavier question, if what you're trying to do is really open up the system, and I think he's doing it so that he gains a degree of popularity for doing hard things like privatizing, reducing [inaudible 00:24:55], which makes life harder for many economics. All that, I think, is promising, but if you become so authoritarian, you will inevitably adopt policies that becomes self-defeating. And I would say my biggest concern is not the aim of modernization, which I think is critical for the region as a whole since there's never been a successful model of modernization in large Arab states. But at the same time, the level of authoritarianism worries me because inevitably it leads to either steps that go beyond the pale or an unacceptable, like what was done with Khashoggi, or these two other missteps where you make judgments that ultimately are counterproductive to the very things you seek to achieve.

Cécile Shea: Yeah, that's a really nuanced and excellent answer in a world where there's sound bites and noise. So I really appreciate that you took the time to explain your position and the complexity of what is going on there because as you point out, it is disturbing. The Khashoggi incident and some other incidents that have come to light in the last few months are disturbing and it's an important part of the world. You mentioned that you have to be an optimist having put so much of your life into the peace process, and I look back ... I mean, you joined the Carter administration during Camp David, which was a time of almost miraculous optimism.

Cécile Shea: I mean, the miracle of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. And then we look back at the WHY process, which came so close, and then the Taliban negotiations, which, again, we came really, really close to being able to get an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and then ran out of time. Are you still optimistic? I mean, is it gonna be another 50 years of this? Are our grandchildren gonna be having this conversation on a podcast like this 50 years from now?

Dennis Ross: Yeah, I would like to say no. I'm not sure. I will say this, there's something changing in the region. When you look at the relationship, and yes, it's below the radar screen, but the relationship between the Sunni Arab countries in Israel. One could say, "Okay, it's just because the enemy, and my enemy is my friend," but there is something more going on. And the reason I say that is it's not the first time there was a convergence of threat perception between the Israeli and Arab states. People won't remember this, but Alexander Haig in 1981 said there's a strategically alignment because of the revolution in Iran, they see an enemy there, they got to that enemy, they both have the same attitude towards the Soviets and yet that didn't produce any real cooperation. Today there's very real cooperation. Yes, it's mostly below the radar, but not entirely. You know, there are 500 Israeli companies that are operating in the Gulf now.

Dennis Ross: The people who go there and have dual passports, and they're not carrying their Israeli passports, but the truth is I'm sure it's no great mystery as to who they are, and the fact is that goes on. There's a ... Now when you look at the polling throughout most of the Arab world, about 25 percent in almost every Arab country will say they should go ahead and they should be cooperating with the Israelis, even if there's isn't an agreement with the Palestinians. And 25 percent may not sound like a lot, but a couple of years ago it would've been zero. So something is happening in the region. The question is whether or not it can extend to the Palestinians who feel that they're the weakest player, which is true, who feel that they're a victim of injustice, which is true. And they feel that they shouldn't have to make any concessions, which unfortunately is not true.

Dennis Ross: And somehow they have never had effective leadership added for governance, nor for being able to take advantage of opportunities, and they're ... You know, right now you'll see many around who have a modern position for themselves as succession, I don't know how soon we'll see a change on the Palestine side. We see a real move towards the right in Israel because of the way threats from Iran, and ISIS, and what's around them? Hamas in Gaza. The fact that Israel has withdrawn twice unilaterally from Lebanon and from Gaza, and what they got each time was rockets, not security or stability. So the country has moved to the right even as Arab leaders in Arab states are looking more at Israel as a kind of natural partner. All that tells me that there's a lot of luck, a lot of potential to change. It could get worse before it gets better, but I still think over time it will get better.

Cécile Shea: Well, that answer makes my day. Thank you. That's good to hear that perhaps sooner, we hope the rather than later that those wonderful people, and I know you and I've spent a lot of time in that part of the world, once there is an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, that region is just going to take off. As you pointed out, Israel's already economically vibrant, but once those two societies can eventually work together and compliment each other's strengths, it's just going to be an amazing sight to behold, and I just hope that we can see it.

Dennis Ross: Me too.

Cécile Shea: Thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish. If you enjoyed the episode, please take a moment to tap share and send this to somebody you think would like it, and tell them to subscribe, as well. You can join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs, to ask follow-up questions about anything you've heard today, or submit questions for an upcoming guests or episode. As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them, and not to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio, our audio engineer is Andy Tourniqe. I'm Cécile Shea. We'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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