For those of you who religiously read the New York Times Book Review every weekend, you may have noticed Ethan Bronner's review of a book called "The Missing Piece" by Dennis Ross. Ross was the U.S.'s primary envoy to the Middle East peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians through the 1st Bush and Clinton administrations, and he's now written a very detailed book about the process and his experiences. To me, he's also always been "Uncle Denny," my mom's younger brother.
The book is currently ranked #108 on Amazon's sales list, so I'm sure it doesn't need any help from me. I also haven't actually had a chance to read its 800+ pages yet. And although over the years I haven't always had a chance to talk to or see my uncle that regularly, I do know him and what he's been through well enough to be certain that what is in the book is likely one of the fairer, more balanced, more honest and more interesting looks at what has been one of the most frustrating continued unresolved situations in the modern world ... for all sides.
I have two short stories that intersect at least tangentially with what my uncle writes about. I moved to New York at the end of 1996. My uncle, his wife and my three younger cousins all lived down in the D.C. area, obviously, and since they were my only family on the East Coast, they invited me down for Thanksgiving. I hadn't been to their house before, and I remember being given "the tour," and when I walked into my uncle and aunt's bedroom, I noticed this enormous phone on the floor. It had all these lights and buttons; it was a private and secure line, separate from their regular house phone, on which my uncle could talk to, oh, I don't know, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or maybe even President Bill Clinton. I remember thinking how odd it was that serious international political issues were being occasionally discussed on this phone sitting on the floor of this very normal looking bedroom in suburban Washington D.C. Then during dinner, a phone rang (I'm not sure that it was THAT phone). My cousin went to answer it and returned to the table saying, "Dad, it's Bibi." As in Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the then Prime Minister of Israel. It was second nature to my three cousins; to me, it was a little bizarre.
My uncle is a brilliant guy. He's also pretty mellow, sometimes soft-spoken, but with a very dry wit. He often seems unflappable, which I'm sure is why he is known as such a skilled negotiator. He balances serious and funny conversation with aplomb, and there aren't many people with whom I've ever had conversations that are as interesting. I don't remember the specific details of most of my conversations with him, but I do remember one encounter that took place at the end of 1992 or beginning of 1993.
My uncle had worked off-and-on for the State Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Council since the Carter administration. When Bush the father was running for President the first time, my uncle -- who was far more diplomat than politician or bureaucrat and before all his involvement in the Middle east was actually a specialist on Soviet relations -- was hired to be Bush's foreign policy campaign advisor. He then worked in the Bush administration and for Bush's campaign against Clinton. However, after Clinton won, he was ultimately asked to stay on at the State Department because of his involvement in getting the Israelis and Palestinians to at least talk to each other.
My uncle's wife was from LA, and her parents lived there. At the time, I lived in LA as well, and sometime after the election (and maybe even after Clinton's inauguration), my uncle and his family came to visit, and I went to meet them at my aunt's parents' house. I remember asking him what his plans were, and he told me they had asked him to stay on and he was most likely going to do so. At this time, I know part of him was hoping to get away from working for the government and start doing more policy analysis and writing for a think tank. But on the other hand, he was very interested in doing his part to help find peace for the middle east, and at that point, he was very involved. He was also very optimistic about the prospects of actual peace between the parties.
I asked him how long he thought he would stay with the Clinton administration. He told me he thought somewhere between 6 months and a year. He said that he figured that time frame would be enough for him to either complete negotiations and actually have a some form of peace agreement or at the very least, they would be on the right course and he wouldn't be necessary anymore.
Sadly, we all know that by the beginning of 1994 there was not yet Middle East peace. But I've always remembered that conversation and thought how indicative it was of the whole process. My very smart uncle who knew more about the negotiations and the problems in the area than virtually anyone else in the world had this very optimistic view that there would actually be peace and a two state solution for Israel and Palestine. In fact, he thought it was so close that it could even be completed before Clinton had to run for reelection. But nothing concerning that situation has ever been what it has appeared.
I do plan to read "The Missing Peace" very soon. I'm looking forward to reading all the inside stories I actually haven't heard (and that would be most of them). Today in our post-9/11 world with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's easy to lose track of what's still going on in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. It may be the same part of the world, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer at the forefront of most Americans' minds. That's a mistake for many reason. More of a mistake would be not learning from the tremendous hope that ultimately became mostly failure and has simply led to more death and divisiveness both in the area and the greater world. So even though this longish post may simply be a plug for a relative, at least it's a plug for something substantial and something important.