Dennis Ross, former ambassador and senior Middle East mediator throughout the first Bush and Clinton administrations, said yesterday that everywhere he goes he is asked the same question: “Are you optimistic about Middle East peace?”
Ross was the key player for the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis for 12 years, including the 1995 Interim Agreement and the Hebron Accord in 1997, in which Ross monitored talks leading to the redeployment of Israeli troops from the city of Hebron. He recently wrote a book on his experiences inside the negotiation efforts, titled “The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace.”
During his visit to the Michigan League yesterday as the keynote speaker for the fourth annual Israel Academic Conference, Ross answered that question, saying that he is in fact optimistic.
Ross said he believes that there is currently a potential for peace in the Middle East, but it is imperative that the potential is seized in time. At the top of Ross’s list of reasons to be optimistic is the death of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.
“Corruption was how he ruled,” Ross said about Arafat. “He never did anything that was constructive.”
Ross also acknowledged the current Bush administration’s determination to see a Palestinian state, and the Palestinians’ desire to see one as well.
“The Palestinian public is exhausted. They want a normal life,” Ross said.
As for the time frame, Ross insisted that jobs, freedom of movement and a political plan for Palestine needs to be achieved now, or any hope for peace in the Middle East would be gone.
The theme of the conference at which Ross spoke was “Israel: A Diverse Perspective.” Speakers included Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Jacob Dallal, women’s health specialist Wendy Keter and the most controversial of all speakers, Walid Shoebat, a self-proclaimed former Palestinian terrorist who said he once threw stones at Jews and laughed at the idea of the Holocaust being real. That changed in 1993 when Shoebat did a close study of the Tanach — the Jewish Bible — and in turn became a leading advocate for the Jewish people and set out to educate the world on Israel.
Shoebat’s presence at the conference triggered the protest that took place outside the League during the conference, said Tarek Dika, LSA senior and vice chair of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality. The demonstration was co-sponsored by SAFE and Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends.
“He has no academic credentials,” said Dika. “He has no place at an academic conference.” He added that Shoebat was openly racist.
LSA senior and SAFE member Ted McTaggart said that Shoebat had “insane ideas” and inviting him was a shameless insult to the Palestinian people.
SAFE members said another reason for the protest was the conference’s failure to address the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“It needs to be addressed somewhere,” McTaggart said about the occupation. He added that the goal of the protest was to create awareness.
“They are completely ignoring the realities of the occupation,” McTaggart said.
Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends said it had sent a letter two weeks prior to the conference to the co-chairs of the conference, Megan Martin and Naama Yaron and Hillel Staff Advisor Samara Kaplan. The letter was an invitation for a debate on the present state of relations between Israel and Palestine and what was required of America in the situation.
Protestors claimed that Martin, Yaron and Kaplan did not reply to the letter, and an open seat sat outside the League with a sign reading “Chair reserved for Pro-Israel debater.”
Yaron, an Education senior, said the demonstrators were free to come in the conference and discuss their viewpoints there.
Even though Yaron said the letter had indeed been sent, she added that it had not been received until after the protest had been decided upon and therefore she, along with others organizing the conference were not interested in replying at that point.
While introducing Shoebat, Yaron said that he was brought to the conference because of his unique experience, adding that a chance to learn from him was “priceless.”
Shoebat’s speech was centered on his experiences growing up in Bethlehem, from the ideas his family and community taught him about Jews to way he viewed the Bible. He said he did not interact with Jews often, but when he did, it was not in a friendly way. Shoebat quoted the Bible numerous times in his speech, saying that doing so was commonly frowned upon, but that to him it was not an issue.
Dallal spoke on the relationship between what actually happens on the field in a war and what comes out through the media.
“It’s important to try to get the initial version of the story out there,” Dallal said. He added that working actively with the press was essential and that it was important not to think of the press as an afterthought of the events, but as an integral part of what occurs in the war.