Storyworth: How did you bring peace to the Middle East – Chapter 1

| May 25, 2022 | 0 Comments

In the summer of 1997, I had just started my 17-year career at FleishmanHillard (FH). I was still very much learning the ropes of what it meant to be a “public affairs consultant.” One day, I got a call from Jim Rosapepe, who was at the time a Maryland state senator, but would, in time, become the U.S. Ambassador to Romania. He was also on the Board of the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL), a foreign exchange program that sent young (under 40 years old) politically active Americans around the world. They also welcomed similar young people from other countries. I had gone to the Future of Europe Conference in London under their auspices. It was a fabulous experience. I had hoped to do other programs with them, but, by 1997, I had aged out and never expected to hear from them again.

Jim had an intriguing request. He said they were trying something new and wanted me to be a part of it. They were developing a meeting that would bring together young political people from Israel and the Palestinian areas. The Israelis would come from the conservative Likud Party, them in power in Tel Aviv. The Palestinians would come from the Fatah Party, the party of Yassir Arafat, possibly the most hated man in Israel. Unlike typical ACYPL programs where participants go on tours and meetings with their counterparts in other countries, this program would be more “goal oriented.” The idea was to teach young Palestinians and Israelis how to communicate with one another without violence. This was a time when America was admired around the world for its ability to settle political disputes peacefully, both through a democratic process and constructive communications across differing parties. Yes, this was a long time ago.

Jim said, “This is a different kind of program and we’re going to need some ‘grownups’ involved.” The grownups would be Jay Footlik, President Bill Clinton’s chief liaison to the Jewish community, Frank Luntz, a pretty well-known Republican pollster and me. The other participants would be 8 representatives of Likud, 8 representatives of Fatah and 8 Americans, the three of us and 5 other more typical ACYPL participants, including a state representative, some Hill staff and other American young political leaders.

Despite the fact that I had only been on the job a few months, FH let me go. It was an extraordinary experience.

The meeting was at a beach resort in Paphos, Cyprus. The idea was to get the antagonists out of their own communities so the meeting was on nobody’s “home turf.” We were scheduled to meet for three days, during which time Jay, Frank and I were to train the Israeli and Palestinian participants in constructive political communications. Frankly, I’m not sure what the other Americans were there for.

Day One started poorly, got worse, then got amazingly better.

The Palestinians started a volleyball game on the beach. The argued constantly, and couldn’t even agree on what the rules of volleyball were. We’d hoped that the Israelis would join the game and we’d have a nice picture of the two groups coming together over sport. The Israelis never showed up and, given the arguments the Palestinians were having with themselves, we figured it was just as well.

Dinner was the next challenge. The Israelis refused to eat with the Palestinians because they had to keep kosher. Strike two.

After dinner, we convened together for the first time in a conference room where we all sat around a large square, Israelis on one side, Palestinians on the other. We all had headphones that gave us simultaneous translations, which was a huge facilitator.

As the oldest person in the room, I served as chair and brought the meeting to order. After explaining ground rules and outlining the agenda for the three day meeting, we did introductions. The leader of the Israeli delegation was named Uri. He was a bit older and mature than the rest of his group. I could see him as a future Israeli politician. The leader of the Palestinians was Samer, who was also pretty polished and possessed leadership qualities. The two most memorable members of the Palestinian group, however, were friends, Walid and Naser. I still hear occassionally from Walid through Instagram and he remains a close to Naser.

Naser was my favorite. While it’s probably politically incorrect to say it, he looked like a terrorist. You could easily imagine him in a baklava holding a sub machine gun on a hotel balcony. And, to be honest, he was a bit of a hothead. But it was all verbal and mostly reflected his sense of injustice with the way Palestinians were treated by the Israeli government. In reality, he was also fun loving guy and we became good friends.

Generally, I thought the Israelis were more buttoned down and cautious. The Palestinians seemed a little more rambunctious.

I opened the floor to the two heads of the delegations for opening remarks. Samer was very diplomatic and expressed optimism that bonds could be formed at this meeting that would help each side understand the other. At one point, he expressed the hope that generational change could lead to peace. He said, “Our leaders have failed us and it will be up to our generation to make peace.”

Uri did not respond in kind. He described the situation on the ground in pretty partisan terms and concluded with the statement that, “There will never be a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.”

At that point, the Palestinians ripped off their headphones and stormed out of the room. They declared the meeting useless and said that they would be leaving the next morning.

Well, that was quick. First time I’d ever chaired a meeting and it blew up in less than an hour.

We pleaded with the group to reconsider and eventually they did. They decided to stay. We would reconvene the next morning and begin the program.

Later in the evening, we invited both groups to go to a disco in Paphos and that’s where things got better.

One of the remarkable things about this gathering for me was the extent to which these two groups of people were indistinguishable physically from one another. Looking at them when they mingled together, you could not tell the Israelis from the Palestinians. In the early days of Israel, it was mostly European Jews who settled in the country. So called Ashkenazi Jews generally look European. Not so, today. It’s become kind of like Ireland where you can’t tell Catholics and Protestants apart by looking at them, yet they despise each other.

So, we were all at this disco and, remarkably, everyone was dancing together. It was like the disco became a demilitarized zone. I asked the bartender if he could tell the Israelis from the Palestinians. He couldn’t.

The next couple of days, we conducted the meeting without any eruptions. It was mostly a training exercise in political communications. There was an effort to come up with a statement that both sides could agree on, which involved quite a bit of shuttle diplomacy. In the end, we did reach agreement on the Paphos Statement. Frankly, I forget what it said and it felt a lot like we were playing “diplomats.” But it was frankly kind of fun.

We left Paphos and went back to Israel for a tour of both communities, which was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. We visited the Gaza Strip, which was like going into a war zone. The border was full of weapons. We had an escort from the American embassy, so we didn’t have too much trouble getting across. We drove by Yasser Arafat’s headquarters and had lunch at a restaurant on a beach. What I remember most was the abject poverty. Rundown buildings, unpaved streets, mostly sand everywhere. The driver of our van had a backpack that he kept close, which we assumed was full of guns. Our embassy escort was a Jewish woman who was clearly more favorable to the Palestinians than the Israelis. There were checkpoints everywhere where Israelis soldiers would harass Palestinians. Our van pulled up behind a donkey drawn cart with a Palestinian family on it. An Israeli soldier grabbed a wooden box out of the back of the cart and interrogated the Palestinians about it. Then he just threw on the ground and waved them on. I asked the escort what that was about. She said, “he just wanted the box, so he took it.”

In the West Bank, we visited a Palestinian refugee camp and an Israeli settlement called Ariel. The refugee camp was like Gaza, grinding poverty. The Palestinians gathered representatives of the various political parties to meeting with us in the evening in a very dark room. We went around the room to ask which party each person represented. Islamic Jihad, Hamas, PLO, etc., etc. Each of them sounded to me like a terrorist organization, but, for them, they are just parties. A couple mentioned that they’d spent time in Israeli jails. So, I asked how many had been in an Israeli jail. Literally every single one of them raised his or her hand.

The next day, we visited the Israeli settlement and the contrast was breathtaking. In the midst of all this Palestinian poverty was this enclave that was like a suburb of Los Angeles. Beautiful houses, paved streets, palm trees everywhere. It was stunning. Here’s picture from the web that depicts it as I remember it.

Ariel Settlement, West Bank

We met with the mayor of Ariel. I commented on the contrast between how the Israelis and Palestinians live in the West Bank. And I mentioned that Ariel looked like a suburb of Los Angeles and how could he reconcile the comfort of the Israelis with the suffering of the Palestinians throughout the West Bank. He responded by asking how Americans reconciled the comfort of those living in suburban LA with people who live in Watts? Touche’. While it’s different, I didn’t have the presence of mind or the skill to debate him. Frankly, it was a good point well-played.

Another amazing meeting took place in Jericho, which claims to be the oldest city in the world. We met with Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians on all the peace talks. He was a very charming man and it was a pretty big deal for us to be able to meet with him. Sadly, he died in 2020 of COVID at age 65.

Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to meet with Yassir Arafat, though my two co-chairs did. The day after the scheduled end of the trip, we were invited to the meeting. Since I had pushed my luck already with this new job, I couldn’t extend me stay. But Jay and Frank did. At the meeting, Arafat gave them a jewelry box as a gift. They fought bitterly over who would get to keep the gift. In the end, Jay packed it in his luggage. At the airport in Tel Aviv, the security was high and Israeli soldiers actually inspected luggage. They found the box and asked Jay where he got it. He said, “Yassir Arafat gave it to me.” Needless to say, their ability to get through security was delayed substantially.

The whole experience was extraordinary. It was only four years after the Oslo Accords, so there was real hope that the region was finally on a path to peace. Honestly, I came away with much more sympathy for the Palestinians. But I did believe the two sides were coming together and that there would be a Palestinian state on the West Bank before too long. How wrong I was.

If you’ve read this far, I’m impressed. Thank you. But I have to say I won’t be doing my usual final edit. Too long for even me to read again. So, please forgive the typos.


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