Politics & Policy

Sharm El Sheikh Journal, Part II

Welcome to Part II of this journal — these jottings from the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, held in this resort town of the Sinai Peninsula. Many people come here to scuba-dive. The Red Sea is full of pretty fish to look at. But I’m not sure the World Economic Forum crowd — the Davos crowd — is doing much scuba-diving. I know I’m not. Maybe some gentle snorkeling . . .

For Part I of this journal, go here.

And where were we? In any case, the prime minister of Pakistan has the microphone. He is Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, although that name — those names — can be transliterated 100 different ways. He belongs to Benazir Bhutto’s Peoples party (not “People’s” party). Gilani has been in office about six weeks. When he began, he pledged a First Hundred Days.

Amazing how FDR’s idea, or stunt, has echoed down the decades.

Gilani is a new prime minister, but he has long experience in Pakistani politics, and that includes five years in jail. Pakistani politics is not for the fainthearted. Neither is Pakistan. Curiously, Gilani is very soft and gentle in manner. There may be steel underneath — but it does not necessarily show.

He gives a little tour of the Pakistani scene (turbulent as it is). Among his remarks: There can be “no compromise with terrorists.” But there are some in the badlands — borderlands — who are willing to disarm and join the mainstream. Those, you can talk to. And Gilani says what President Musharraf has long said: Pakistan is capturing or killing hundreds of terrorists. And this will go on.

He also utters a phrase that sticks with me: “Afghanistan has been the victim of unfortunate circumstances.” I’ll say. Gilani seems a pro at this kind of understatement.

(At the same time, Afghanistan has been the beneficiary of fortunate circumstances, in that American security required Afghans’ liberation.)

Gilani says, “We have paid a heavy price for democracy in Pakistan. Because of terrorists and extremists, we have lost a great leader, Benazir Bhutto.” On Islam, he trots out the usual line: This is a religion of peace, and a few extremists have blackened the name of Islam.

And, as you know, the fact that something’s a usual line doesn’t mean it’s not true.

What about the walkout of a coalition partner, the PML-N party, led by ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif? This is over the issue of the judges whom Musharraf booted. Gilani says there is no disagreement on ends — the restoration of the judges. Only “modalities” — the how.

Finally, Gilani utters another phrase I like very much. He is asked a question about the future — about whether Pakistani politics will be stable or unstable. It is perfectly natural to ask such questions. But Gilani says, “Politics is a day-to-day affair.” Therefore, you can’t be too certain about the future.

“Politics is a day-to-day affair.” Indeed. And that is perhaps especially true in Pakistan.

‐Next at the microphone is Tzipi Livni, foreign minister of Israel, and vice-prime minister, too. She is touted as the next PM, should Olmert take a tumble. And Livni looks to me a little young to be prime minister. She was born in 1958 (and seems younger). I ask myself: Would I think the same if she were a man? A good question (if I say so myself).

Or maybe I think that an Israeli prime minister — female — should look like Golda.

She is bright, canny, and exceptionally composed. She gives an impressive performance in front of a generally hostile audience. She makes no speech, gives no opening statement. She simply answers questions. This is one of the best Daniel-in-the-lions’-den performances I have ever witnessed.

Some people harangue her, some people shout at her. She just sits calmly, looking them in the face, and occasionally taking notes. She shows remarkable sympathy and compassion, in addition to cool. One man shouts some statement at her, despite the fact that the moderator says no: It is not the man’s turn. But he keeps going. And Livni calmly and, again, compassionately deals with him.

I will give a taste of her remarks. She is asked, “Sure, Israel has celebrated its 60th anniversary, but what about the Palestinians? They have nothing to celebrate, do they?” She says — and I paraphrase — They could have. Before 1947, there was great conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. So the United Nations mandated two independent states: a Jewish one and an Arab one, side by side. Many people think that the creation of Israel led to the current conflict. But this conflict existed before. The idea was to end it by creating two different states, in answer to two different national aspirations.

But the Arabs, unfortunately, did not accept partition. They did not accept their state. They decided they needed to make war against the Jews, to eliminate them. They call the creation of Israel the “naqba,” the disaster. And yes, these six decades have been a disaster for them. But they could be celebrating the 60th anniversary of their state, right along with us.

Yet I am not suggesting that it is too late — it is certainly not too late. They can have their state now. And that is the purpose of our ongoing negotiations.

Livni is also asked about Gaza, and the intense hatred of Gazans — and others — for Israel. What is Israel going to do about that?

Until 2005, the excuse was, “We hate Israel because they are occupying us.” So we took the step of pulling out. We dismantled our settlements, and went back to the line of 1967. Now, you may not like the settlers. But they are human beings. Most of them were born there. And, believe you me, it wasn’t easy to uproot these people and drag them off. But we did it, for the sake of peace. And Gaza could have been the beginning of the new Palestinian state. But no.

In any case, those looking for excuses for hatred will always find them.

More Livni:

When Hamas won election, they took over the Gaza Strip by force. And now Gaza is an impediment to a true Palestinian state. No one wants another terror state in the region. Hamas is a movement based on hatred, on an extremist ideology, and they deny Israel’s right to exist. That is not a movement to live in peace beside.

The foreign minister is asked, “But aren’t you choking Gaza to death?” Part of her response: When Israelis went to supply fuel to Gaza, two of them were killed, by Palestinian extremists.

And I tell you: Do not think that Arab questioners are the ones most hostile to Livni. This prize may well go to Americans and Brits, who harangue her about Israeli seizure of “Palestinians lands.” How amazing it would be to see an Egyptian official, or a Palestinian official, or a Syrian or Iranian official, treated so toughly, at one of these forums.

Livni is a great believer, or seems to be, in the Arab-Israeli peace process — Annapolis and all its predecessors (and all its successors). (When she mentions the “roadmap,” I think, “I’d almost forgotten about that.”) Livni says, We can always find excuses — excuses to break off talks. Palestinians have any number of excuses. And we Israelis could say, “Well, we are under attack, so we can’t talk now. We have funerals to attend.” There will always be excuses. But, for the sake of both peoples, we must keep going — we must reach an agreement.

Furthermore, I hope the international community will respect us enough to let us do it in our own way. This agreement is not for others to dictate; it is for Palestinians and Israelis. We’re the ones who have to live here.

Needless to say, I don’t agree with Livni on everything, and neither would you. One question I hope to ask her one day is, “Do you regret the pullout from Gaza? Has it caused more harm than good?” I’m not sure of the answer myself. But I feel sure that, if Livni got to be PM, she would be an exceptionally good spokesman for Israel on the world stage. Whether that would make a difference . . .


‐Outside the conference center, many flags are flying — probably the flags of all the attendees. That includes the Israeli flag — which is a remarkable sight to see in an Arab country. I go to take a picture of it, but I wonder what the soldiers (armed) would say. I keep my BlackBerry sheathed.

I have a memory of being in Austria, at a golf course. Around the clubhouse, there are flags of lots of countries, flying. But the lady I’m with — a distinguished art historian — notes that there is no American flag. She is disgusted by this, saying, “Typical.” And here’s one nice thing about this story: She is an American, but an immigrant (from Australia). That will not surprise you, I know.

‐In journals past from this Middle East conference, I have noted the stewardesses — representatives of Egypt Air or Royal Jordanian, who serve as ushers or helpers. And “stewardesses” is the word: You would not call young women dressed like this “flight attendants.” The uniforms are spiffy and old-school, like the ones seen on American airlines decades ago. I must say, however, that the Jordanian unis are spiffier than the Egyptian ones.

Not that I’m complaining . . .

‐One nice thing about the Egypt Air desk, in the Sharm El Sheikh conference center? There are baskets of chocolates, and these chocolates are shaped like pyramids or pharaohs. Whether Swiss or not: They are good chocolates.

‐Every time I come to the Middle East, I say, “Arab hospitality is not a cliché.” In fact, I say it so much, my phrase threatens to become a cliché. And the food, of course, is superb. I don’t believe I have ever eaten better food than in Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. The fish, the meats, the rice, the breads, the salads — the sweets.

It so happens that, before coming to Egypt this time, I have spent about a week in France and about a week in Italy. You think the eating there was any good? But the Middle East: It can hold its own, believe me.

‐One more light item, before we call it a day, or an installment? Okay. We can return to war and peace tomorrow. As I’ve told you in years past, it’s striking to see pull-tabs on cans of soda (or “pop,” I would say, as a Michigander). Pull-tabs disappeared from the U.S. — what, 20 years ago? And I discover that I don’t know what to do with the tabs, once you’ve pulled them. Didn’t we use to put them in the pop itself? And didn’t our mothers tell us not to? I forget.

And here’s another item about pop cans: You know how the tops of them can be pretty dirty, even disgusting? So that you don’t want to drink from them? Well, in the Rome airport the other day (or was it the Florence one?), I saw cans of pop with little covers on them — little paper covers. You peel them off, and there are the tops, clean and silvery and shiny.

Mothers would be pleased.


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