Grassroots ties bolster peace talks, Mideast envoy says

The strategy of slowly building trust between Israelis and Palestinians through the Oslo Accords has failed, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross said this week during a Bay Area visit.

At one time, he said, both sides truly believed they would achieve peace.

"There was always an inner confidence. We have lost that."

Instead of abandoning the Oslo peace process, however, Ross asserted that the two sides must accelerate the timetable for final-status negotiations so that both will have a goal in sight.

"Sometimes you have to alter the course you're on," the top-level diplomat told about 100 Jewish and Palestinian Americans at the Clarion Hotel in Millbrae on Monday morning.

Ross had been scheduled to speak at a Saturday-night event sponsored by the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, a grassroots organization on the Peninsula.

But he was delayed in Switzerland while meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Ross arrived in the Bay Area the next day. To make up for Saturday's no-show, Ross delayed his return to Washington on Monday and met with the dialogue group and its supporters for an hour.

Ross, a Bay Area native, neither dropped any diplomatic bombshells nor lashed out at either side during his speech and the following question-and-answer session.

Instead, he heaped praise on the dialogue group, which has promoted the search for common ground between the two peoples for the past five years.

"What this group represents is what the peace process is all about," Ross said. "Peace has to connect people. It has to build bonds between people."

The diplomat repeatedly showed the group his human side and explained why he has worked unceasingly on the peace process.

"For me, this is a conflict with a human face. I know too many people who have experienced pain…It's not possible for me to treat this conflict in theoretical terms," he said.

In fact, he said, the lack of "people-to-people" connections is one of the Oslo peace process' shortcomings.

Ross announced that a committee assigned to create such programs between Israelis and Palestinians at the grassroots level will resume meeting at the end of this month.

Though an American dialogue group doesn't directly impact the peace process, Ross said, such a group does reinforce the importance of human bonds.

"I don't want it limited only to America. Frankly, where we need it most is in the area," he said, referring to the Mideast.

Asked if being a Jew is an obstacle to negotiating Mideast peace, Ross didn't hesitate to answer — again pointing out the human aspect of the work.

"The short answer is no," he said.

Does being Jewish block one's ability to build connections with Palestinians in the Bay Area, he asked the group rhetorically. If not, Ross continued, then why should his religion impair his ability as a Mideast negotiator?

In an effort to allay Palestinian-Americans' fears of bias, Ross noted that some Jews in a Chicago audience recently labeled him pro-Palestinian and a defender of Arafat. At the same time, some non-Jews have passed on false rumors that Ross attended college with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Don't let stereotypes or myths govern how you deal with the problem," Ross said.

Clearly dealing with a sympathetic audience, Ross also answered questions on topics such as a Palestinian state, Jewish settlements and Palestinian democracy.

He didn't say whether he supported a Palestinian state, noting that such an issue is part of the final-status negotiations. Jewish settlements are also left to final-status talks, he said, adding that the U.S. government is adamant that building settlements makes it more difficult to negotiate peace.

The Palestinian Authority has slipped on its road to democracy, Ross acknowledged, but he's optimistic about the long run. Ross also said he had faith that the Palestinians would fulfill their obligation to rewrite the Palestinian National Council's covenant.

During his speech, Ross called attention to the obvious status of the peace talks.

"We've had a difficult year," he said.

There has been no progress in the peace process since the Hebron agreement was signed in January, he said. On a positive note, Ross reminded the audience that a seven-month hiatus in direct, formal talks ended Oct. 6.

But the obstacles blocking mutual trust won't be overcome, he said, until both sides fulfill their obligations under the Oslo Accords, reaffirm the core understandings of the accords and empathize with each other's fears and feelings of vulnerability.

"It's not altruism that feeds empathy. It's self-interest," Ross said. "If it hurts your partner, it hurts or weakens you."