On November 12, Ambassador Dennis Ross spoke to the Seton Hall community at the seventh annual Dr. Marcia Robbins Wilf Lecture. Amb. Ross, who is currently a counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has over two decades of diplomatic experience, which includes serving under five U.S. presidents and working closely with the Middle East peace process.
His lecture, "The Peace Process and the Fate of Jerusalem's Jews, Christians and Muslims," was not only a testament to his extensive experience negotiating and brokering multiple deals regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also an apt way to commemorate the legacy of Sister Rose Thering, a former Seton Hall administrator who was dedicated to improving interreligious understanding.
The lecture was graciously sponsored by the Dr. Marcia Robbins Wilf Endowment, in conjunction with the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies. Amb. Ross began the lecture by asking audience members whether they believe there is a religious dimension to the Middle East peace process. Many hands in the room immediately shot up. Amb. Ross went on to explain that he would be approaching the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way he never had before: from a religious perspective.
He went on to describe why understanding the religious dimensions of the peace process is so important to grasping where it has succeeded and failed. To begin, he explained that the U.S. presidents who were most determined to help (and subsequently made the most strides in mediating the conflict) were motivated by a "religious imperative," citing Presidents Roosevelt, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. "Carter prayed upon the peace process," he added. However, implementing a religious approach to the peace process has been hindered by both the visibility of only radical religious figures (i.e. Hamas), and the erasure of collective memory distinctly linked to group religious identity.
Amb. Ross pointed to the example of Yasser Arafat insisting, during the Camp David negotiations, that a "temple didn't exist in Jerusalem." To Amb. Ross, Arafat's claim not only challenged the Israeli political position, but also "called to question the Jewish faith"—demonstrating Arafat's lack of seriousness towards the prospect of peace. Overall, Amb. Ross emphasized that in the Jewish faith, "to save a life is to save the world," which makes being a peace seeker the highest position a person can occupy. Further, he discussed how a similar incarnation of this concept is present in the Quranic tradition as well. Therefore, recognizing these similarities in religious objects are necessary to propelling the peace process—to "taking the sovereignty" out of things, and restoring that sovereignty to God.
In addition to discussing his perspective on taking a more religious approach in the Middle East peace process, Amb. Ross helped deconstruct the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is seen by many as particularly daunting and complex. When asked what makes the conflict "different" from other ethno-sectarian ones, he responded that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is different because it is "not abstract." People on both sides know people who have died as a result of the conflict.
The conflict is not something that occurs outside of the lives of the people it impacts, but rather is a part of their daily lives. He went on to point out that on both sides, there are not only "profound grievances" in reaction to each other's actions, but also "profound existential rights." He poignantly stated, "Nothing is more challenging than feeling like your identity is being threatened." The competition for self-determination that underlies the conflict makes members on both sides feel that the future of their identity is perpetually at stake. In addition to discussing the specifics of the conflict, Amb. Ross also offered some advice on negotiation in a pre-lecture discussion to Diplomacy students. He emphasized the necessity of weighing secrecy with transparency when negotiating, arguing that setting the groundwork and expectations for negotiations is necessary for creating sustainable policy.
When asked about the influence President Trump's Twitter use has had on diplomacy, he lamented social media's instantaneous nature taking away meaning and deliberation from negotiation. Some of the most profound lessons for students came through when asked what makes a good negotiator. Amb. Ross said that negotiators must possess the following attributes: a high level of curiosity, the capacity to be an active listener, the ability to ask questions in a way that reveal a desire to understand, and the willingness to learn everything there is to know about the "people you're working with and the political context." Most importantly, though, negotiators must have a capacity for empathy, and a grounding sense of humility. "Don't think you know it all," Amb. Ross warned. "Don't fall in love with your own assumptions, because negotiation will show you what you don't know."
This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of the Diplomatic Envoy, the student-run, monthly publication of the School of Diplomacy.
Categories: Nation and World