Dennis Ross flies home to Bay Area to honor mom

U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross should have been in the Arab country of Qatar on Sunday, attending the opening of a major economic summit.

Instead, he found himself in San Francisco at a Hadassah dinner.

"My mom doesn't get honored every day, so I'm here," the top-level diplomat quipped on Sunday night.

A native of Marin County's town of Belvedere, Ross returned to the Bay Area to speak at Hadassah's dinner celebrating the 80th anniversary of its San Francisco chapter.

Gloria and Lou Cherin, the diplomat's mother and stepfather, who now live in San Francisco, were the evening's honorees. The couple announced they were becoming "guardians" of the Zionist women's organization, meaning that their lifetime donations to Hadassah would amount to $250,000.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz and his new wife, the former Charlotte Mailliard Swig, were on hand as well.

Shultz, who now lives in the Bay Area, was the one who lured Ross in 1986 away from his job as executive director of a Soviet studies program at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford. For two years, Ross worked for the National Security Council during the Reagan administration.

Ross, now 48, moved on to the State Department and has now served under three presidents, becoming the nation's primary Middle East negotiator.

Shultz introduced Ross, calling him an "extraordinary mediator" who has integrity, intelligence, a cool head and "a kind of intense sensitivity to the nuances of human relationships."

Ross was the one, Shultz noted, who recognized the breakup of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War as an opening to start negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Shultz also called Ross the "mastermind" of the October 1991 Madrid conference, which effectively launched the Oslo peace process.

Speaking on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Ross offered several humorous asides. He started off by noting that he had outdone himself in terms of travel over the past four days.

On Thursday of last week, Ross was working in Washington, D.C. The next day, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in London. On Saturday, he joined Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Switzerland. And on Sunday, he flew into San Francisco.

"Even by my own standard of frenetic activity, this is a little much," said the visibly exhausted Ross, who planned to fly back to Washington on Monday morning.

Though speakers usually notice audience members falling asleep, he warned that, this time, "you may see the speaker nodding off."

Celebrating his brother Jeff's 43rd birthday, Ross said he was also thrilled that the San Francisco 49ers had won Sunday.

Ross told the audience that he may be the only person in the world who has spoken with Arafat about the 49ers.

In January while negotiating Israel's partial withdrawal from Hebron, Ross considered postponing one negotiating session to watch the playoff game between the 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. That was OK with Arafat. But in the end, Ross had the game videotaped, which turned out for the best because the 49ers lost anyway.

On a serious note, Ross reviewed the past quarter-century of Mideast peacemaking and outlined his hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

He immediately acknowledged the dismal state of affairs.

"This year, since the Hebron accord, we have not made progress," he said during the 20-minute speech.

Yet Ross said he was determined to help the Israelis and Palestinians break their deadlock.

"I think we can get out of it, though it will take a lot of work," Ross told the audience of 320 at the plush Sheraton-Palace Hotel.

Noting that this week marks the 20th anniversary of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem, Ross emphasized that steps forward in the Mideast always take longer than anyone expects.

He believes the Israelis and Palestinians will see breakthroughs again.

After a seven-month hiatus, direct and formal talks between the Israelis and Palestinians resumed on Oct. 6. So far, the meetings have been "useful," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

Ross, who still believes the Oslo Accords are the viable road to peace, promised to restore a sense of hope to the Israelis and Palestinians.

"I can tell you I have not lost mine," he said to a standing ovation.