Dennis Ross: Hezbollah-type model in Gaza is a recipe for disaster, West Bank on brink of explosion

Drawing on this 34-year diplomatic career in successive US administrations, Ross shared his view of the "day after" in Gaza

In a wide-ranging interview with Al Majalla, former American diplomat Dennis Ross shares his thoughts on how to exit the Gaza war
Axel Rangel Garcia/Majalla
In a wide-ranging interview with Al Majalla, former American diplomat Dennis Ross shares his thoughts on how to exit the Gaza war

Dennis Ross: Hezbollah-type model in Gaza is a recipe for disaster, West Bank on brink of explosion

Political observers and analysts in the Middle East have probably spent more time listening to Ambassador Dennis Ross than any American diplomat in recent history. His views on the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Palestinian cause have been widely sought.

In a wide-ranging interview, Al Majalla had the privilege of speaking to Ross, who shared his thoughts on Israel’s war on Gaza. Drawing on this 34-year political and diplomatic career in successive US administrations — from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama — Ross shared his insights on the current war in Gaza as well as the “day after”.

He also addressed the extremist far-right ministers and decision-makers in the Israeli war cabinet who have clearly departed from the status quo, the future of the Israeli-Arab normalisation and the recent escalations between Israel and the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah.

Ross believes that leaving Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip will spell out disaster. As everyone is looking for a political blueprint for the intricate conflict in Gaza, the veteran American diplomat warns: “If you create in Gaza a Hezbollah-type model, then you will have a situation similar to Lebanon where you have a government that basically can't do anything that Hezbollah doesn't want,” he says.

“Lebanon was never a failed state. Hezbollah has turned it into a failed state. Now, more than 80% of the country's population is impoverished. That's the future that Hamas promises Palestinians in Gaza if it retains control.”

Read more: Yair Lapid to Al Majalla: A Palestinian state will be delayed significantly, but the idea not dead

In 1993, President Bill Clinton named Ross Middle East envoy. He helped the Israelis and Palestinians reach the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and brokered the Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron in 1997. He also facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty and worked to bring Israel and Syria together.

As someone who has been on the frontlines in the fight for Middle East peace between Palestinians and Israelis, Ross is highly critical of extremist elements on both sides of the equation; namely, those who don’t recognise the existence of the other.

He sees no place for Hamas in post-war Gaza, even if a ‘new Hamas’ emerges, because “Hamas takes this long view that we can treat all our public as if they're martyrs. They may not want to be martyrs, but we're going to treat them as martyrs. They believe that, like the Taliban, they will succeed over time even if it takes 20, 40 or 100 years.”

“I'm not looking for something that is an attempt to make Hamas more acceptable without changing who they are,” says Ross.

In the incumbent Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, there are members like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir who believe that there is no such thing as Palestinians and publicly call for a “Greater Israel”, whose borders seep into Syria and Jordan, in addition to the West Bank and Gaza – in a land free of Arabs.

Floating ideas of this kind by radical idealogues, according to Ross, is part of the toxic extremist politics in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“Smotritch and Ben-Gvir are creating the potential for an explosion in the West Bank,” warns Ross. “Prime Minister Netanyahu has to make a choice.”

Below is the full transcript of the interview.

It seems that the US has not pressured Israel to reach a peace settlement in Gaza. I mean, the situation in Gaza is miserable: death, disease, hunger, and displacement, and everyone is watching. But the US has a great — if not the biggest — sway over Israel to bring this war to an end.

The challenge here is that if the war ends today (Hamas leader Yahya), Sinwar will still be in power. And Hamas will be able to reconstitute itself. And then they'll do this again. So, yes, we want to see an end to the war and suffering and the hostages released. But if the end result leaves Hamas in control and in a position where it can rearm, then it will.

Read more: Egypt proposal to end Gaza war would see Hamas relinquish control to technocrat government

Israel had a quarantine on Hamas, and look what it did. It built a military-industrial base and a vast array of weapons. It didn't develop Gaza above ground. It developed a below-ground and developed military-industrial base and had nothing to do with building Gaza.

So, if you end the war now and Hamas can reconstitute itself, it will do this again. The suffering of the Palestinians will never end. So, what is the short-term answer for ending this? Let the leaders of Hamas leave if they care at all about the suffering of Palestinians.

You can have a different administration, but not one with Hamas still in control. This would create a Hezbollah-type model, where a government like the one in Lebanon can't do anything Hezbollah doesn't want. And we know what the consequences of that have been.

Lebanon was never a failed state. Hezbollah has turned it into a failed state. Now, more than 80% of the country's population is impoverished. That's the future that Hamas promises Palestinians in Gaza if it retains control, not to mention there'll be another conflict.

So, it's fine to say we need peace to end the suffering. But if Hamas remains in control, this will not end the suffering. Gaza will endure forever impoverishment, and this will spark another war at a different point.

How can the Biden administration deal with the decision and policymakers in the incumbent Israeli government, who espouse extremist far-right ideology? You have ministers out there who openly call for depopulating Gaza and refuse to give the Palestinians an inch, even an inch, of territories based on the 1967 borders.

I don't think it can. I think (Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel) Smotritch and (National Security Minister Itamar) Ben-Gvir, so long as they can veto what the Israeli government will do, it's very hard to change anything. I think the (Biden) administration has to be clear. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has to make a choice.

A pathway forward is one that works for Israel and creates the potential for a very different future — one where Israel does not have to be in Gaza and a much calmer situation in the West Bank. But as long as Smotritch and Ben Gvir are allowed to have a stranglehold on the government, it won’t work.

They aren’t releasing a penny to the PA (Palestinian Authority). These are monies that the Israelis collect for the PA, and he (Smotritch) says not a penny for the PA. The PA used to have 150,000 Palestinians working every day in Israel before 7 October. This constituted a third of the GDP in the West Bank. Now, they can't work in Israel.

So, all that lost money that the PA needs to be able to function is not coming. They are creating the potential for an explosion in the West Bank. We can avoid that scenario. The Netanyahu government will have to deal with it, and, at some point, he has to reign in Smotritch and Ben-Gvir. And if he doesn't, one can only assume the consequences.

Can Hamas be completely excluded from the post-war era? Israel insists on destroying Hamas, but there is a Palestinian viewpoint saying that Hamas should be involved in future talks for Palestinian unity. What if a new Hamas emerges from the war, which is willing to take part in future peace talks with Israel?

It is an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood ideology. And if there's no place for coexistence with the Israelis in it, then you're introducing them into a political framework on the Palestinian side.

I’m confident they will come to dominate because they will be determined and highly disciplined. They almost have a cult-like loyalty. They have a sense of mission. And they succeeded in booting the PA out of Gaza in 2007. The idea that they can be part of some internal Palestinian coalition because they represent a point of view may be true. But what's the assurance that they won't come to take over?

I have a deep concern that they want a foot in the door with the express purpose of taking over the Palestinian movement. And if they take over the Palestinian movement, that's the end of any possible resolution. They don't want a resolution. They don't want a two-state outcome. They want no Israel, and you can't wash the Israelis away.

If your purpose is to continue to fight them, well, then your real purpose is to continue to make Palestinians pay a terrible price. I'm afraid that Hamas takes this long view that they can treat the public as martyrs. They may not want to be martyrs.

They are of the long view that if the Taliban succeeded over time, we could also succeed over time, even if it takes 20, 40 or 100 years. You're taking that ideology and incorporating it into a Palestinian internal policy framework.

But in all fairness, Hamas did change its charter in 2017 and accepted a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.

I read it. And honestly, I interpret it as a PR move. This was to make them more acceptable internationally. I didn't see it as really transforming who they were. The idea of accepting the state in the 1967 lines was part of a phased strategy: 'Okay, that's our first phase, and then we'll work from there to eradicate Israel.’

I'm not looking for something that is an effort to make Hamas more acceptable without changing who they are. I need to see genuine signs that there is a recognition on the part of Hamas that it’s not going to treat the Palestinian people as cannon fodder and that they can all be martyred.

Benjamin Netanyahu, US envoy Dennis Ross, and Yasser Arafat after a meeting in 1997

Many Palestinians believe that it makes no sense to them at all that Israel — with backing mainly from the US — cannot dislodge Hamas, which they regard as a resistance faction, not an army. They believe that Israel is not after Hamas but wants to inflict massive destruction in the Gaza Strip to make it unliveable and uninhabitable after the war. What do you make of that?

Hamas has spent the last 16 or 17 years building an underground world in Gaza. And rooting that out is unbelievably difficult. Do you think that Israel wants to be sacrificing its soldiers? They now have lost close to 200 soldiers in the ground campaign, excluding those killed on 7 October. I can tell you, being in Israel, every single one of those deaths is felt in Israel — everybody feels the death of each individual.

Read more: Two past 'shocks' to Israel brought political change. What will this third shock bring?

I was in a taxi one day, and it was the top of the top-of-the-hour news, and the fallen soldiers were on the dashboard console. On the screen, the news came on and showed the case of a 22-year-old soldier who had been killed in Gaza.

I literally saw the shoulders of the cab driver just slump — he almost started crying. So, the idea that Israel could be doing this much more quickly ignores how difficult this is because of what Hamas was allowed to build up over time.

I'm not looking for something that is an effort to make Hamas more acceptable without changing who they are. I need to see genuine signs that there is a recognition on the part of Hamas that it's not going to treat the Palestinian people as cannon fodder and that they can all be martyred.

How can Israel avoid that pitfall of isolation in the Arab world? Today, if it wants to engage with the Arabs, the hostility is running really high because of its massive response in Gaza and the ensuing miserable humanitarian situation there.

I have what I call two different universes right now. We have a universe where the Israelis, feeling the trauma of 7 October, are focused only on their sense of collective loss and the fact that hostages are still being held.

And we know from those who've been released that they were abused; that keeps the Israelis focused on the trauma and what was lost and raises questions in their minds as to whether the Palestinians and Hamas are one and the same. And they're not seeing what's going on in Gaza in terms of death and destruction.

In much of the Arab world, they see only the death and destruction in Gaza, and they don't see the effects of 7 October and the atrocities that were committed. So, you have two parallel kinds of perceptions, making it very hard for them to reach out to each other.

At this point, for Israelis, the question is whether normalisation is something that's really possible. I think they're having their own doubts about it right now. For Arabs — who see the images of Gaza and feel repulsed by it and angry because of it — the idea of having normal relations with Israel also seems like something that cannot even be on the table.

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I will answer your question this way because I think there's, there needs to be a better understanding of the psychological gulf right now between Israelis and Arabs. In effect, you have two parallel traumas being experienced, and those undergoing trauma have found it very difficult to be able to think about reaching out to the other or feeling the other side's pain.

Ross meets Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

From my first-hand reporting in Israel, I've gotten the sense that the Israeli public actually is not aware of real Arab concerns, and it is some sort of taboo in Israeli politics as well to talk about these concerns, like, for instance, the future of Jerusalem. What's your view on that?

I think you're right. I will tell you something: I was not a fan of it in the past. But reading the transcripts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is interesting. This required people to listen to and hear the concerns of the other. I'm not saying the equivalent is what's required here. But there's going to be a need to create settings and forums where Israelis and Palestinians can talk to each other — both in private and in public.

I think the public on each side needs to see the exchanges. And there's a reason for it. Because their own set of fears consumes each public and thinks the other side is completely indifferent to it. They need to see people like them, raise questions to the other side, and then hear the response. Right now, each side talks only to themselves.

The US and the region are mainly concerned with the alarming and rising tensions on Israel's northern borders and South Lebanon. Do you think another deadly war between Israel and Hezbollah is inevitable? Can another war resolve anything?

The answer is no. It's not inevitable, and no, it can't resolve anything. We should avert this war, but I think (Hassan) Nasrallah needs to understand one thing: that Israel after 7 October is not the same Israel he thought he knew. So, it's not inevitable. But if he thinks he can act towards Israel the way he would be doing it before, then he's wrong, and he may make war inevitable.

Read more: A Hezbollah-Israel war has never been closer

The problem is that this is a war that they both lose. Lebanon will be devastated. And frankly, Hezbollah could be defeated to the point where it would become sufficiently vulnerable to others within Lebanon, and it has plenty of enemies in Lebanon. Now, it's much stronger than everybody else. But after a war with the Israelis, they will not be.

On the other hand, Israel will endure an unprecedented level of destruction. It can recover and rebuild, but it's a terrible price to pay. And you don't know what the end result will be. Maybe Hezbollah will be lost in Lebanon, maybe it won't be. So, the point is that that's a war that neither side should want to fight.

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