Dennis Ross, the former senior American Middle East peace negotiator, says he thinks "there is a risk of war" between Israel
In an exclusive telephone interview with Ynetnews before next week's Conference on the Future of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, Ross said that "nobody has made any decision (about going to war), but the Syrians are positioning themselves for war."
The ex-State Department official criticized the Bush administration for being "tough rhetorically and soft practically" on Damascus, saying that "we have reached the worst of all worlds. The Syrians don't see what they have to lose by not changing their behavior and they don't see what they would gain by changing their behavior.
"Syria has rearmed Hizbullah
to the teeth – there should be a price to pay for that," Ross insisted, pointing out that the Bush administration had failed to implement its own Syria Accountability Act. He said the US and Europe should aim to "squeeze the Syrian economy" and use a policy of "sticks before carrots" in their dealings with Damascus.
As far as Israel's relations with Syria were concerned, Ross said that Jerusalem had "its own ways of communications" with Damascus, and that not talking with Syria only increased the chance of war while "if you talk, then that reduces the chance of war."
Ross also warned of the dangers to Israel following Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip. "I don't share the view (of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert)
that we have a new opportunity… there should be a new sense of urgency."
The competition between Fatah and Hamas
"is very important. If Hamas takes over then it (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) becomes a religious conflict. Israel has a huge stake in the nature of this conflict."
Fatah will only remain in charge of the West Bank if it changed, said Ross, noting that it had lost the Palestinian Authority elections because it had lost the confidence of the Palestinian people. "It has to end the image and reality of its corruption… It has to show it can deliver on a better life for Palestinians and achieve Palestinian national aspirations. If it doesn't, it will lose in the West Bank."
Ross said the onus was also on Fatah to deliver in terms of fighting terrorism. "If the security situation does not change, all the fine words will be for nothing. There has to be coordination between Israel and Fatah, but Fatah has to deliver."
The former diplomat said he thought the US and Tony Blair, the Quartet's new Middle East envoy, could help facilitate the strengthening of Palestinian institutions, but stressed "we're going to have see leadership from Fatah."
The Bush administration, he said, should be focused on "the 18 months they have left to ensure that Fatah is in a better situation vis-à-vis Hamas."
Ross also criticized the Bush administration for its passivity during Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. He said Washington should have made it a priority to have tried to coordinate the withdrawal with Fatah, so that it was not just a case of Israel leaving Gaza "and throwing the keys over the fence."
Ross, the author of the recently published "Statecraft: and How to Restore America's Standing in the World", also said that the West had to ratchet up the sanctions against Iran to stop its nuclear program.
"We have slow-motion diplomacy matched against their fast-paced nuclear development," he said, arguing that Europe was not applying enough economic pressure "to get the attention of the Iranian leadership".
While he doubted that economic sanctions would deter Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he said others in the Iranian leadership would take notice and work towards changing the country's policy.
The chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, Ross will be in Jerusalem next week for the Conference for the Future of the Jewish People, which the JPPPI has organized.
He said the aim of the conference was "to create a different type of conversation" between Israeli and Diaspora leaders and to identify the priorities that the Jewish world had to face. A third aim of the conference, he said, was to create an ongoing set of discussions to see how its recommendations could be implemented.