Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part III

Well, welcome to this third installment of these scribbles from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum — high up in the Alps, in Davos, Switzerland. Miss the first two installments? You will find them here and here.

One thing you will not find, at the meeting this year, is celebrities — I mean, celebrities on the Angelina Jolie/Sharon Stone level. There are hundreds of celebrities here, including pop-culture types like Peter Gabriel. But no cover-of-People-magazine people. I’ve heard that the Forum considered the flashiest celebrities too much of a distraction, and too hogging of media attention. I can’t say for sure. In any event, Davos-goers can savor the memory of whatever quality time they spent with Angelina or Sharon.

I’ll give you a memory: of Sharon standing around talking with Prime Minister John Howard and Sen. John McCain. I didn’t butt in, or dream of it. I will accept Sharon one on one or not at all.

‐Two Iraqis take the stage of the Congress Center, Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Adnan Pachachi. Al-Mahdi is a vice president of Iraq, and Pachachi is a parliamentarian and a longtime statesman. Now 83, he is often described as elegant and urbane, and a remnant of a better time in Arab politics. That he is.

This session is very sparsely attended, whether because of the early hour or an indifference to Iraq’s fate, I can’t say. Iraq is very “yesterday” for a lot of people. The moderator, Richard Haass, asks al-Mahdi whether Iraq’s current trauma was inevitable. Al-Mahdi says no: “An interim government from the first day would have been better,” and the country should never have been “put under occupation” — an “idiot decision.” There would still have been violence, but less.

He continues, “Some people say we are in a civil war. I don’t agree with that. I think that it is a war against civilization, a war that targets the whole society.” He reminds the audience that Iraq had for decades been “a one-party state, under one man”; and “we need time to accommodate all factions to the new realities.” Al-Mahdi contends that “today we have the most representative government in the whole history of Iraq.”

Haass asks Pachachi an interesting and key question: “When the average Iraqi gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror, do you think he sees himself as an Iraqi or first and foremost in sectarian terms?” Pachachi answers, “I believe that national consciousness is very strong in Iraq. But, unfortunately, it has received serious challenges recently.”

Then he makes a statement that I find remarkably persuasive and also moving. I will quote it almost verbatim, but with some paraphrase mixed in:

 

“We have inherited a terrible legacy: the culture of violence, the culture of corruption, and also the culture of dependence on government. When I returned [from exile] in 2003, Iraqis said to me, ‘Why isn’t there a government in place? We want the government to tell us what to do.’ I said, ‘I hope there will come a day when you tell the government what it should do.’

“Of course, twelve years or more of sanctions in Iraq destroyed the middle class and, in many ways, tore the social fabric. I believe most Iraqis have an allegiance to the Iraqi state as such. I think that what we have at present are sectarian parties that use religion and sectarian allegiances to reach power. But I would say, the vast majority of the Shiites and the vast majority of the Sunnis are not involved in acts of violence that are being perpetrated daily in Iraq. What is happening is that armed militias and armed groups, of both sects, are terrorizing the country, committing atrocities, in order to concentrate their power, and even sometimes to enrich themselves. But the vast majority of the people are not involved, and want to live peacefully and freely in a democratic society.”

But Pachachi issues this caution: “Until our national-security forces have an undivided loyalty to the Iraqi state, and not to militias, we’re going to have a problem.” The top priority, therefore, is “to reorganize Iraqi forces professionally, and to ensure their total and undivided allegiance to the state.”

Some time later, Vice President al-Mahdi says, “In 2003, we were fully optimistic, and now we are fully pessimistic” — but remember, “things can change.” And “I see no other alternative but to succeed.”

That is a bracing statement: “I see no other alternative but to succeed.”

Toward the end of the session, conversation turns to the recent execution of Saddam Hussein. Pachachi, that elegant secular liberal, says, “I am against the death penalty as a matter of principle. I think it’s a barbarous relic of the Dark Ages, this penalty.” And Saddam’s execution stirred up Shiite-Sunni hostilities.

But “people forget that [Saddam] was not a Sunni fundamentalist. He was interested in power for himself, and he oppressed the Shiites and the Sunnis — but probably more the Shiites — and also the Kurds.” So for the execution to be interpreted in Shiite-Sunni terms “was very unfortunate.” But “I believe this matter will be forgotten sooner or later, because we have so many problems facing Iraq at present.”

A final Pachachi statement: “I don’t think Iraq is condemned forever to live under fratricidal warfare. I believe that the majority of the Iraqi people, irrespective of confessional affiliations or religious beliefs, really want to stay as one people in one country, indivisible.”

Interesting how those American phrases resonate.

I will repeat, readers, what I have said before: and that is that I admire these people, the Iraqis who are trying to have a go at a decent state, and a decent future, and, in fact, there is no one on the world scene I admire more. These Iraqis are in bad odor now, but I don’t care: They are in an excruciatingly difficult position, and the pressure on them is almost unimaginable. Their success is important, not only for Iraq, but for the United States, the Middle East, and the world at large.

‐One of the pleasures of Davos is to hear an array of languages all around. There are 2,400 delegates, and not a few mother tongues. “But you can hear every language on the streets of New York!” you say. Well, not really — and not like here, where the mother tongues are huddled in a village.

I am rather impressed to hear a man sitting near me in a lounge make calls on his cellphone: He does French, Italian, and German in rapid succession. My guess is he has not exhausted his supply.

‐Above, I asserted that there are no celebrities — no People-magazine celebrities – at this year’s meeting. I’m afraid I forgot about Claudia Schiffer — who’s pretty People-worthy, isn’t she?

‐Sitting down for coffee with a small group of journalists is Shaukat Aziz, the prime minister of Pakistan. Before, he was finance minister, and, before that, a vice president of Citibank in New York. He is an old Davos hand. At the beginning of the session, he’s asked whether we will be on the record or off — and he says, wisely, “There is no such thing as ‘off the record.’ Otherwise, there would be no point in coming here.” He has come to be heard and quoted.

Aziz looks rather like Zubin Mehta, the Indian — the Parsi — conductor, and he speaks beautiful, beautiful English. It is also clear that he enjoys a somewhat teasing relationship with leading Pakistani journos.

He tells us that, in his three and a quarter days in Davos, he has 45 appointments — of which this is one. That gives you a taste of what Davos is like, certainly for high officials, and of what Davos is for.

Aziz speaks of Pakistan’s economic growth, spurred by the doctrine of “liberalization, privatization, and deregulation.” That is Aziz’s mantra, and his government’s mantra. He says, “Our economy is open, trade is free, investment is free” — everything is go go go. In the major cities, hotel rooms are occupied and traffic jams prevail. “There’s a buzz out there,” says Aziz, and that has not always been the case in Pakistan, obviously.

More than once, he mentions the rights of women, such as “the right to read better.” The government is doing its best, he says. And he talks of Pakistan’s warm relations with Iran, that nation that threatens to incinerate other nations, and to do so as soon as possible.

Did I say “threatens”? I should have said “promises.”

Most of the talk centers on the Afghan border, and the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, and terror. That border is 1,700 miles long: “huge and porous,” as Aziz says. Pakistan has 80,000 troops along the border, which can only do so much to reduce porousness. There are many checkpoints. Aziz is pleased that, at the biggest, they have installed a “biometric system.” This should help to identify who’s who. As Aziz puts it, “No one has written on his forehead ‘I am a Taliban.’”

He allows that Taliban leaders come and go, recruiting in the refugee camps of Pakistan. (There are millions of Afghan refugees.) “We chase them out, they come back.” Sometimes Pakistan succeeds in catching these terror men. “We’ve arrested a lot of Taliban and al-Qaeda.”

A big concern is the drug trade — “the nexus between drug-running and terrorism.” That is one dangerous nexus, says Aziz. A reporter asks whether he has evidence of this nexus. “We don’t have the receipts,” the PM says. “They don’t work that way.” This is maybe the most humorous and tart answer of the week.

Aziz claims that terrorism is down, and that the Paks are working hard against terror. He further says that the Palestinian issue is “the root cause of terror” and of “other destabilization.” Surely Aziz knows better. I write in my notes: “Yuck.”

I ask him whether a relationship between Pakistan and Israel is thinkable to him. He says, only when the Palestinian issue is resolved. In other words, a relationship could wait until forever. This makes me appreciate all the more the steps that Egypt and Jordan took, years ago.

Aziz does say, I must record, that Pakistan’s foreign minister met with his Israeli counterpart last year — and “we wanted to do it publicly,” no skulking around.

When I leave the room, I think of the question I should have asked, stupid me: “How does it make you feel to be a warm ally of the government that speaks of eliminating the United States, a country where you lived, worked, and earned?” This is journalistic esprit de l’escalier. I’ll save it for next time.

‐Out on the Promenade — the main drag of Davos — the BBC is set up, on a balcony. I see newsmen interviewing important figures. I think, “That is really journalism from on high.” And if you want a more balanced approach to the Middle East — try al-Jazeera.

‐Saeb Erekat is scheduled to have a conversation with a few of us. Now, who is Saeb Erekat? He is the longtime PLO spokesman, and he is chief negotiator. Erekat is the face of the PLO to the world (or at least the mouth): You get either him or Hanan Ashrawi, and it has been this way for eons.

I have sat with Erekat before, and I know his routine — I know the script. I hesitate to sit through it again. But I decide to do so, mainly for this reason: Erekat is holding this session with his Israeli opposite number, Ephraim Sneh. He is deputy defense minister, and the head of negotiations. That could be interesting.

By the way, Erekat is “Dr. Erekat” and Sneh is “Dr. Sneh” — and Erekat says something absolutely charming. He says, “Ephraim is a real doctor.” (I later learn that he is a gynecologist.) “I am a doctor of ‘blah blah blah’” — and as he says “blah blah blah,” he makes a gesture that signals words streaming from a mouth. (I later learn that Erekat has a Ph.D. in Peace Studies from Bradford University.)

The two of them make opening statements, and they are on the same page, really. They say that they are determined to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict very soon — “by the end of the decade,” Sneh says. There is no need for mediation, no need for third parties (except in a peripheral way); Palestinians and Israelis are ready for direct, bilateral talks; they are ready for the “endgame.”

“The political conditions are right,” says Sneh. Erekat agrees. Sneh talks about Palestinian and Israeli suffering; Erekat talks about the same. (I don’t know about you, but I have rarely heard PLO people talk about Israeli suffering.) Sneh describes the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as “a man of courage and peace.” He mentions that Palestinians and Israelis have had “a history of missing opportunities” — and “I hope that, this one, we will not miss.”

Sneh later says — arresting, queer statement — “We don’t have the luxury of pessimism.”

Erekat recounts the recent visit of Condoleezza Rice to Abbas. Rice asked him, “Can you engage in the endgame?” Abbas replied, “Absolutely.” According to Erekat, “Hamas is not an obstacle to negotiations” — for negotiations are the province of the president and the PLO. There is no mystery about what the endgame will be, says Erekat: Everyone knows that there will be a two-state solution along the ’67 borders. “We do not need to bite the apple for the first time; we do not need to reinvent the wheel.”

The PLO man further says that, in addition to a state, Palestinians “need democracy” — and “anyone who says that Arabs are not ready for democracy is a racist.”

Here is something amusing: A reporter asks Sneh a question, which he answers. He then says, “And I now am going to answer a question you did not ask.” Erekat exclaims, in mock exasperation, “Israelis!”

When it comes my turn, I ask roughly the following: “Dr. Erekat, I’ve been listening to you for years. We all have. And you always sound so reasonable and reassuring. With you, everything seems possible — we could have peace tomorrow. But it has been that way for ages and ages. Why is it any different now, in January ’07?”

And he gives a surprisingly good and even moving answer. (At least this is surprising to me.) He talks, again, about all that both sides have suffered. He talks about the desperation of the Palestinians. He says that the only answer is the peace process and compromise. Moreover — he repeats — “We know what to do.” The situation is fairly uncomplicated, in this telling: a two-state solution along the ’67 borders. And he says that both sides are hungry for peace — hungrier than ever.

He says that, when he goes through Israeli checkpoints, the soldiers, who recognize him from television, say, “Dr. Erekat, why can’t you bring us peace?” He says that Palestinians attack him for negotiating with the Israelis — and then scurry up to him to whisper, “Dr. Erekat, why can’t you bring us peace?”

And he relates a joke — a funny joke. I do not quite grasp Erekat’s point, but I can share the joke: An Israeli and a Palestinian are watching a movie together. Halfway through, the Israeli turns to the Palestinian and says, “I bet you $20 that, in one minute, that man will fall off his horse.” The Palestinian says okay. And, in a minute, the man falls off his horse. As the Palestinian is handing over his 20 bucks, the Israeli says, “I cannot in good conscience accept this money. You see, I have seen this movie.” The Palestinian answers, “I’ve seen the movie too — I just thought the man would have learned from his mistake.”

I guess Erekat is saying: This time we must, we will, get it right.

Shortly after, I ask both men — Erekat and Sneh — whether life is worse in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal. Of course it is — Gaza is a killing field. And both men confirm it. Erekat claims that Gaza is an example of “unilateralism failed.” He says, “The peace process didn’t fail. What failed was unilateralism, and it failed big-time.” (Erekat’s English is extremely idiomatic.) He further says that South Lebanon is another example of unilateralism failed.

It occurs to me that Saeb Erekat and Natan Sharansky may well agree.

Finally, Erekat makes this highly interesting statement: “I don’t care about the Palestinian cause anymore; I care about Palestinian society” — the very survival and hopefulness of the people.

As I said, I was reluctant to experience this PLO mouthpiece one more time. But if he means what he says — who cannot wish him well? And if Ephraim Sneh, the chief Israeli negotiator, regards Erekat as a partner . . .

Anyway, we will stay tuned, as always.

‐Let me end this installment of these Davos scribbles on a cynical note. I talk about a two-state solution with my friend Eric Leake (who lives with his family in the nearby town of Küblis). He says, “Yeah, two states — one for Fatah, one for Hamas.”

Cynical, maybe, but shrewd and hilarious!

Catch you tomorrow, Davos-ing Impromptus-ites.

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