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Dennis Ross Special Coordinator Middle East IV

U.S. Department of State Ambassador Dennis Ross Special Coordinator to the Middle East Interview on CNN's "Late Edition" July 9, 2000

Mr. Blitzer: Joining us now from Washington to discuss the US role in this week's talks is Dennis Ross. He's President Clinton's Special Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiator. Ambassador Ross, welcome to Late Edition. You just heard the Israeli and the Palestinian perspective, but as we are talking right now, Prime Minister Barak's government appears to be on the verge of collapse. Can he realistically come forward, make the kinds of concessions that presumably would be needed for an agreement, with so many coalition partners abandoning him?

Ambassador Ross: Well, he's undoubtedly determined to press ahead. I think what you heard was Ephraim Sneh talk about a Prime Minister who had been elected by a very large mandate, a Prime Minister who was committed to acting on that mandate, a Prime Minister who has made it clear to the Israeli public that he will take any agreement he reaches to them, and he trusts his ability to negotiate a fair deal, he trusts his ability to be able to take that to the Israeli public, and when the Israeli public sees the deal, that they will support that.

Mr. Blitzer: You've been involved in these negotiations for so many years, going back to the Bush administration. You know Israeli politics. The fact that the Foreign Minister of Israel, David Levy, is now saying he's not going to come to Camp David because he doesn't trust the Prime Minister's positions. Explain to our audience around the world how serious of a political headache this is for Prime Minister Barak.

Ambassador Ross: Well, it's obviously not the circumstance in which he might want to be coming here, but the fact of the matter remains, you have a Prime Minister who's determined to pursue peace. He has believed that there are in fact opportunities to achieve peace, number one. He has felt that there's a certain inertia that has prevented decisions in the past. You see what he did in Lebanon. Others weren't prepared to do it. He took the lead, he made the decision this was the right thing to do, and he proceeded.

He also now feels that the Israeli public is in fact ripe for peace, and he believes there's an opportunity. There's a moment; it shouldn't be lost, and he's going to act on it. So whatever the circumstance is, he's going to trust the Israeli public with any deal that he is able to negotiate.

Mr. Blitzer: You would think realistically there can be a deal after several days, or perhaps weeks, of negotiations at Camp David? So many people are pessimistic right now, that the chances seem so gloomy.

Ambassador Ross: It's an enormously difficult thing to do, but we always knew that was going to be the case. When you deal with the core issues of permanent status, by definition you are going to have a very difficult task. Having said that, we have had very long conversations with both sides. They've had long conversations with each other.

If we didn't see the potential for reaching an agreement, we wouldn't be doing this. The President is doing this both because there's a potential, which shouldn't be lost, and also because he sees the alternative of not trying. Not to try, when there's a potential, would not have been responsible.

Mr. Blitzer: The President is scheduled on July 19th to leave for Okinawa in Japan, for the G-8 economic summit. Is that, in effect, the end of this process? Once he leaves, do the Israelis and the Palestinians leave Camp David as well?

Ambassador Ross: Well, I think we are certainly looking at this as the logical window in which we try to work with them to produce an agreement that deals with all the core issues of permanent status.

Mr. Blitzer: So that means you're hoping within one week to be able to wrap up all of these permanent status issues?

Ambassador Ross: We're certainly looking at that as the window in which we're going to try to produce an agreement with the parties that deals with all of the permanent status issues.

Mr. Blitzer: Well, you know, given the fact that they're such sensitive issues--the future of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees, the borders of a Palestinian state--that would suggest what you're saying is that you're pretty close to resolving those issues if you think you can wrap it up within a week.

Ambassador Ross: No, I wouldn't say that we feel that we're so close, but I would say: (a) we see a potential; (b) we recognize something else. The choices that are there are not going to change. The decisions that have to be made are not going to become easier over time. So what we are trying to do is, working on the basis of what has been distilled over time, see if in fact we can reach such an agreement.

I can't tell you if we're going to be able to reach the agreement or not, but I do know for sure, as the President said, this is not going to become easier over time, and if we don't act now, there is a very definite risk that you'll see a slide towards deterioration.

Mr. Blitzer: And you heard General Sneh say, the Deputy Israeli Defense Minister, that like all Defense Ministries, they're working on a worst-case potential contingency. If there is a collapse, a failure, there could be a deterioration, perhaps even war. Is the Clinton Administration seriously concerned about that kind of deterioration? And if it is, are you looking ahead to make contingencies yourself?

Ambassador Ross: Well, I think what we're looking at is, first, the opportunity. Recognizing there is an opportunity, an historic opportunity, to try to bring this conflict to an end. So we start with the premise of the opportunity. We've very much aware that, on the landscape, there is a potential for deterioration, especially if frustration rises.

What we're trying to do is get both sides to focus on what is to be gained, not what is to be lost. So our focus is much more on how you move ahead and reach an agreement, and much less on what are the consequences if you don't reach an agreement. I think there is a reality--you heard Saeb Erekat say in the last segment that what's important is that Israelis and Palestinians find a way to work things out. Ephraim Sneh was basically saying the same thing.

History and geography have destined the two sides to be neighbors. Now they can either live in peace as neighbors, or they can live in perpetual struggle. There has to be a way to find an outcome that allows them to live in peace together.

Mr. Blitzer: Ambassador Ross, you've been involved in these negotiations for so many years. Give us some historic perspective--and we don't have a whole lot of time. How much closer on these core issues--like Jerusalem, like a final Palestinian state and its borders, return of refugees--how much closer are they today than they were, let's say, five or ten years ago?

Ambassador Ross: You can't even compare the two, and the reason you can't even compare the two is that the permanent status issues themselves have only seriously been discussed for the last few months. Prior to that time, each side was very reluctant to get into those kinds of discussions because of the sensitivity of the issues.

One of the things that's happened in the last few months is the issues themselves had become somewhat demystified, so they can be discussed. That's the good news. The bad news is, there still are significant gaps that separate the two sides. But we made a judgment, the President made a judgment, the Secretary of State made a judgment, that in light of everything we had heard, we had taken this as far as we could at the negotiator level.

The negotiators have done a good job of trying to distill the issues and distill differences. In some places they've made headway, but the differences were quite clear. What was also clear is that they had taken it as far as they could and, as a result, you needed to bring the leaders together with the negotiators if you were going to be able to overcome the differences or have a shot to do so.

But if you try to compare where we are, from the historical perspective, we actually have a chance to reach an agreement on these kinds of issues, when in fact there never was such a chance in the past.

Mr. Blitzer: All right, Dennis Ross, the Chief US Middle East Negotiator, thanks for joining us again on the eve of these historic negotiations at Camp David. As someone who covered Camp David Number One in 1978, my recommendation is you bring some bug spray. There could be mosquitoes up there as well.

Ambassador Ross: That and other things, Wolf, thank you.

Mr. Blitzer: Thank you so much for joining us.

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