The Honourable Paul Findley pays his respects to Washington DC’s so called top ‘trouble shooter’ Robert Strauss - who died recently at the age of 95. Strauss was - for decades - the man to see in Washington for anybody who wanted to get something done. He was a lawyer, an ambassador and Democratic National Chairman, who helped revive the Democratic Party in the 1970s.
My 1979 relationship with Robert Strauss, President Carter’s special emissary to the Middle East, who died last month, was cordial and, for a time, close. He was a charming politician and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee with a reputation for effecting compromise.
My all-Republican staff was so enamoured with him they went the extra mile in a friendly gesture. They prepared an elaborate breakfast at their homes early one morning , then served it to Strauss - and me - in my office on Capitol Hill. Strauss was impressed, but his charm did not persuade President Jimmy Carter on the question of talking directly with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
Strauss told me he strongly opposed the prevailing policy that kept US officials from talking with PLO leaders. He said he would have immediately opened direct discussions with Arafat if President Carter had approved. He added, “I know I could work out in direct talks most of the difficulties we have with the PLO.”
I am sure President Carter today regrets insisting on the no-talk rule, just as I regret voting for aid to Israel while I was in Congress. The Palestinian issue was so important I should have voted no every time and explained why. The no-talk rule was evidence of the extraordinary influence Israel’s US lobby long exercised throughout Congress and the executive branch. By then, Israel had begun to violate treaties by establishing Israeli settlements within Palestinian territory it had seized by force of arms. Hardly anyone in Washington complained.
In recent years Carter has been critical of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians and has distinguished himself as a statesman in many endeavours. He is one of my heroes.
In 1979, as an acquaintance of Arafat, I sensed that Strauss, a Jew, was the ideal personality that might negotiate a deal satisfactory to both Palestine and Israel. If his recommendations on Middle East issues became policy, his religious affiliation would be an asset in attaining Israeli approval.
At the time, I was a self-appointed bridge of information between the US State Department and Arafat. I was transmitting messages, not involved in policy.
In November 1978, I had a two-hour meeting in Damascus with Arafat. During the discussion, he authorised me to report to the White House the PLO terms under which a new Palestine would live at peace with Israel.
As Arafat dictated, I wrote down his words, then read them back slowly three times to make sure they accurately reported his position. I kept asking, “Are you sure this is what you wish to say?” This is the text he approved:
“The PLO will accept a Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza, with connecting corridor, and in that circumstance will renounce any and all violent means to enlarge the territory of that state. I would reserve the right, of course, to use non-violent, that is diplomatic and democratic means, to bring about the eventual unification of all of Palestine. We will give de facto recognition to the State of Israel. We will live at peace with all our neighbours. November 30, 1978.”
To me, his statement was historic, a major advance from positions the PLO had taken on previous public occasions. It impressed me as a solid basis for good-faith negotiations. If accepted by Israel, it could lead to peace without further violence. I believed that any objective observer would view it as a big step in the right direction.
Returning to Washington, I reported Arafat’s peace terms during an appointment at the White House with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser. I knew him from several joint peace initiatives during the Vietnam War. He listened politely to my report without comment on it. He gave no sign that he considered Arafat’s pledge significant. It elicited no response from the White House. It was dismissed as worthless by Israeli officials.
When I encountered Israel’s Labour Party leader Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president, a few days later, he declared that Arafat, during an interview on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press,’ disputed details of the pledge I had reported. I had watched carefully the same televised interview. I knew Peres was wrong. A few days later the PLO official in Paris told reporters my interpretation of Arafat’s pledge was correct.
Later, a State Department official who requested anonymity began communicating indirectly with Arafat via me. This indirect communication caused Arafat on two occasions to comply with the official’s request. His cooperation was never acknowledged in any way.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance occasionally called me for an update on Arafat’s views and one Sunday afternoon asked me to come to his office for an update.
Could Strauss have made a difference if given presidential approval? My answer: he probably could have done better than anyone else.
After more than three decades of Israel’s so-called negotiations about Palestine, stalemate continues. Only during the brief administration of Moshe Sharett as prime minister has Israel’s government shown any sign of goodwill toward Palestinians. All the others have used these protracted talks as a cover while Israeli conseruction of more illegal settlements occurred. During those years, only the administration of Jimmy Carter demonstrated US goodwill toward Palestinians.
Among my Arafat souvenirs is a handsome sandalwood statue of a Palestinian woman bearing a jug. The PLO leader autographed the statue base and asked me to deliver it to Strauss. When I called to arrange delivery, Strauss sent word that he regretfully must decline the gift. His decision did not upset me.