In 2002, our professor took us to meet Dennis Ross, who had been the Middle East envoy under US President Bill Clinton, and presided over the failed Camp David Summit in July 2000 between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. After the failure of the summit, both Clinton and Barak blamed Arafat for the failure.
This exclusive nature of this blame was undercut by the Taba Summit that took place in 2001, in which the Israelis and Palestinians came tantalisingly close to a peace agreement before the election of Ariel Sharon as the new Israeli prime minister. Then, the Second Intifada swept aside any hopes of an agreement. At the Taba Summit, the Palestinians were allowed to negotiate. At Camp David, Arafat had merely been presented with a deal, told that it was the best the Palestinians could ever expect, and expected to sign it then and there.
News of the Taba Summit had largely vanished with the rise of Sharon – who had overseen the massacre of unarmed civilians after Palestinian fighters had been made to exit the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon by Israel’s Phalangist allies – and the Al Qaida attack of September 11, 2001. Sharon was quick to denounce Arafat as “our bin Laden”, much as the current Israeli government is comparing Hamas to ISIS. The US, under the George W. Bush administration, was happy to back Sharon.
Ross had retired from the government, and was at a new think tank as a prominent commentator on West Asia. He explained to us that Arafat had never truly pursued peace, and the test of it was the ability to crack down on Palestinian extremists. He told us an eloquent story of how he had been in the office with Yitzhak Rabin – the Israeli prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords with Arafat – when news of a terrorist attack had come. Rabin, Ross told us, then said, “Arafat needs his Altalena.”
The Altalena was the name of a ship carrying military hardware worth millions donated by France for the Irgun – classified as a terrorist organisation by most including Jewish luminaries like Albert Einstein – due to arrive in Israel in June 1948, just after the new state had been created. David Ben Gurion, the Israeli prime minister, declared that the weapons would come to the Israeli Defence Forces or would be seized. The Irgun refused, and Ben Gurion ordered a raid on the ship.
Rabin understood the significance of this more than most, Ross said, because he had commanded the raid on the Altalena.
After he finished, we were allowed to ask questions, and I asked him how he could compare the Altalena affair with Arafat’s situation, since the Altalena happened after Israel was founded. Ben Gurion never moved against the Irgun before that, so if they wanted Arafat to act, why not give the Palestinians the state they wanted, and then judge whether they could do an Altalena?
I also asked whether it was only Arafat’s unwillingness to achieve peace that was a factor. Which Israeli PM had been serious about peace? Rabin, who said “No date is holy” when refusing to hand over control in the Oslo Accords? Netanyahu, who had instigated the murder of Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords? Barak, who had double the pace of settlement expansion on stolen Palestinian land? Or Sharon, who was condemned by even the Israeli investigation for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre?
Instead of replying, Ross left, much to the embarrassment of my professor and the confusion of the rest of us. My professor later explained that the Camp David fiasco had ended Ross’s career, and he personally blamed Arafat. All that might be true, but it had little to do with my query. Most of whose facts were from Israeli sources.
I mention this anecdote now because Ross is emblematic of the establishment position in the US. He served in very high profile roles in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and is seen as an important “centrist” voice in US Middle East policy circles. More importantly, Ross’s blindness to his assumptions – that the Israelis were seeking peace but had no partners – and his inability to reply to simple facts, is exactly the reason why the US finds itself embroiled in another stupid war, bleeding legitimacy, and unable to offer any reasonable way to ensure peace for the Palestinians or the Israelis.
The idiocy that the Israeli government knew exactly what it was doing was never so obvious as during the October 7 attack by Hamas, killing more than a thousand people, mostly civilians. It was, after all, Netanyahu who had supported Hamas to undercut the Palestinian Authority and destroy any negotiations. It was Netanyahu who has pushed forcefully for the Abraham Accords – agreements with Arab states without a Palestinian peace deal – which US president Donald Trump and now Joe Biden have supported. It was Netanyahu’s coalition members that accused its own intelligence chief – Ronan Bar of the Shin Bet – of confusing its citizens with its enemies when he tried to warn them that Jewish terrorism was creating a dangerous situation.
And yet, the US was so blind in its alliance that – according to The New York Times – its intelligence agencies had ceased to gather information from the Gaza Strip because they thought the Israelis had it all under control.
Now the same man, the same cabinet, that created these conditions in Israel is conducting an infinite war, which has consumed more than 10,000 Palestinian lives – again mostly of civilians. The US has offered unstinting financial, military, and diplomatic support. In return it has got nothing. No long-term plan, no real protection of civilians, not even a ‘thank you’ postcard from Netanyahu.
The US is Israel’s ally. It is axiomatic that it should support Israel, but a stupid ally is no benefit to anybody. America’s assumption that Israel wants peace when the only governments that have come to power in Israel for decades are those that explicitly resist peace, is not just contrary to the facts, but so bizarrely outlandish that it convinces almost nobody else.
The outcome is policies that help neither the US or Israel, and certainly not the Palestinians. But then, maybe the US does not even care.
When explicitly anti-Semitic politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene are the “strongest supporters” of Israel in the US, you begin to wonder if the vanity and blindness of people like Ross is the lesser evil, compared to those willing to fund the coffin of one Israeli and 10 Palestinians, and enjoy the show.
Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.