For thirteen years, Ross was at the center of the U.S. government's Arab-Israeli peace efforts, and his detailed diplomatic memoir is a major contribution to the historical record. In a Middle-East counterpart to David Halberstam's 1972 Best and the Brightest (an analysis of what went wrong in U.S. Vietnam policy), Ross inadvertently reveals how the "passion for peace" that motivated him and his colleagues overwhelmed careful analysis. This emotional commitment led the first Bush and then the two Clinton administrations to overlook the risks of catastrophic failure.
The seeds of the post-Oslo war sprouted from faith that after generations of Hobbesian conflict, a Kantian peace could be attained in a few years, based on mutual acceptance in a two-state framework. In the excitement of the diplomatic activity (which amounted to war by other means), Ross and his colleagues closed their eyes to the disconnect between myth and reality. Towards the end, Ross finally recognized the impact of Arafat's veto on people-to-people links, his incitement, the counterproductive role of the Arab states, and the absence of criteria to assess progress.
In his defense, Ross shows that Oslo and the approach to Syria were led by the Israeli government—particularly after the U.S. government helped defeat Yitzhak Shamir in 1992. Americans followed Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yossi Beilin in supporting Arafat's corrupt dictatorship and trail of broken promises. But this volume also exposes the limits of this approach. Ross and his colleagues were too close to the Labor elite and so missed its demise as "land for peace" became "land for terror." Similarly, on the Syrian track, as Assad clung to rejectionist myths, the Clinton administration imagined a kinder and gentler Alawite regime and abetted Rabin's (and Barak's) pursuit of a deal far beyond what Israeli society would accept. In March 2000, Hafez al-Assad stonewalled Clinton in Geneva (a meeting that Ross attributes to pressure from Barak), and the naïveté behind these efforts was fully revealed.
Weaving in and out of the intricacies of the different tracks, Ross's memoir presents Washington's view of the day-to-day and often hour-to-hour developments. But the core Palestinian plot soon becomes repetitive—a mix of Arafat's last-minute grandstanding, terror, U.S. pressure on Israel to "save the process," and political crises in Jerusalem and Washington (democracy is such a messy system).
For future impassioned peacemakers, Ross's outstanding account should serve as a cautionary tale. After focusing on symptoms (refugee claims, settlements, Jerusalem, etc.), he finally realized the cause—Arab rejectionism of Israel's existence—had not changed. But the diplomat in Ross won't let go and continues to promote the magical powers of the "process"—to be led by another enlightened U.S. administration. Yet, process without substance is untenable, and another round of good intentions will end again in the hell of suicide bombings.