Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007 | 2:25 a.m.
Imagine being handed a problem that had defied solution for more than a half-century and, after devoting more than 12 years of your life to it, coming tantalizingly close to a settlement.
Then imagine being forced to turn over the problem to someone else who, rather than trying to build on your progress, simply ignored it for seven years, seemingly leaving a resolution more elusive than when you began.
Imagine that scenario and you can begin to understand the frustration of Dennis Ross, the former U.S. ambassador who served as point man on the Middle East peace process during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Ross, whose continued, if unofficial, preoccupation with the Mideast recently took him to Israel, where he visited with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was in Las Vegas last week to give a lecture at UNLV on diplomacy - something, he notes, that has been sorely lacking for the past seven years. That is, until recently.
A vocal critic of the second Bush administration, he has spent a good deal of that time chronicling what he sees as a series of missed opportunities in the foreign policy arena, particularly the failure to seek a settlement of the 60-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the consuming issue that has dominated Ross' working life since the 1990s.
But the picture changed last month, when after nearly a year of Middle East shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bush convened a meeting at Annapolis, Md., where both sides agreed to resume negotiations after a violent, seven-year hiatus.
Negotiators are due to meet in Jerusalem Wednesday for a first round of talks, and Ross is optimistic.
Annapolis, he said in an interview before his speech, is a welcome development. But the praise ends there. For a variety of reasons, reaching an agreement is perhaps more difficult now than ever, he said. The biggest hurdle, he said, is the overwhelming cynicism among both the Israelis and Palestinians, which he attributed in part to the Bush administration's wholesale abandonment of the peace process.
Prior to Annapolis, polls found that two-thirds of the people on each side of the issue supported the conference. Yet polls also showed an even higher percentage expressing doubt that anything would come of it.
Ross, citing an Israeli colleague, compares the peace process to a bicycle: As long as you're pedaling the center holds. Stop pedaling and things collapse.
The Bush administration, he said, not only stopped pedaling - it got off the bike. The reason is two-fold, he said. Upon taking office the administration had an "anything-but-Clinton" attitude, Ross said. More important, Bush saw the peace process as hopeless, he said, especially after its collapse with a deal in sight in late 2000.
"Just because you can't do an end-of-conflict deal doesn't mean you can walk away," Ross said he told incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"The measure of statecraft isn't always what you achieve. Sometimes it's what you prevent, contain, limit or defuse. Sometimes it's about transforming a situation that isn't acceptable into one that allows you to do more over time. By walking away, they made a strategic mistake."
What resulted, he said, was an uprising and full-blown war.
At the moment, Ross sees Annapolis as more stagecraft than statecraft. But the true measure, he said, will be how both sides follow through. Bush's goal of reaching an agreement by the end of 2008 is an "illusion," Ross said. Real progress will require more time and much smaller steps than those currently outlined in the "road map" plan.
Ross points to the outcome of the conference: Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to an "understanding" that did not define the obligations of either side.
"Nothing really emerged from Annapolis that didn't exist before Annapolis, at least between the Israelis and Palestinians," Ross said.
"The good news is that the international community made a statement of support. The good news is that most of the Arab world came. And that was kind of a statement against Iran and a statement for the peace process. That's all to the good, but having launched this now, you have to work in a way that makes something come from it."
The chemistry between the leaders and their shared passion for a settlement is unprecedented, he said. But the harsh realities on the ground have put both men in a weakened position and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the negotiations.
"It will be very difficult to get the two sides to make compromises on the core issues if they don't restore public belief - and that comes from the public looking at something on the ground that gives them a reason to take a second look," he said.
For the Israelis, he said, that would mean a significant freeze on settlement activity. For the Palestinians, it would mean a crackdown on incitement against Israel.
Change, he said, must be incremental - but aimed at changing the public context. "I would start where each side can do something and not push them on what they can't do," Ross said. "Then build momentum behind that and take it to the next step."
Why now? Ross said the Bush administration is hoping to capitalize on unease surrounding Shiite-dominated Iran, on the part of both Israelis and Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia.
"The convergence of that threat perception creates an opportunity," he said. A settlement, he said, would remove a key source of anger - and recruitment - among radical Islamists, and blunt Iran's influence.
Also, as Bush nears the end of his presidency, he is seeking to buff a foreign policy legacy that so far has been linked to the unpopular Iraq war, Ross said. And on a more practical level, Ross said Secretary of State Rice faced constant criticism from world leaders for the administration's hands-off approach.
"Go back and look at how the rest of world, and the Arab world in particular, looked at us in the 1990s," Ross said. "I'm not saying it was a perfect situation, but we got credit for caring." In contrast, the Bush administration, he said, "sent a message of indifference on an issue that (Arabs) think is a core grievance."
It's clear, seven years after watching a peace settlement collapse before his eyes, Ross still carries a heavy personal burden.
Toward the end of his UNLV speech, a man asked him why, given the history of the conflict, the United States should persist.
His voice rising slightly, Ross answered: "It's an age-old conflict. Does that mean you shouldn't try to solve it? No. We came very close in 2000 Now we have two leaders with chemistry, who take each other very seriously I think both publics want to resolve it. They may disbelieve, but they want it over."
A few minutes later, he returns to the failed settlement.
"It wasn't Clinton's failure," he told the audience. "It was mine."
Ross paused before finishing his thought. "But a critical part of statecraft is learning from your mistakes."