Sidewalk recall of history in the making
Thursday, September 22, 2011
EASIER SAID THAN DONE: I had to walk through the international district around the United Nations headquarters this week.
I was headed to a briefing session about an overseas crisis I follow closely (more of that in next week’s column) but I ran into an intense police lockdown that dwarfed any of the combined NYPD, FBI, UN Security and US Secret Service agents’ operations I’ve ever experienced through decades of UN coverage.
The paramilitary clamp-and-sweep was an inevitable backdrop to the story that’s already dominating this year’s opening of the General Assembly … the ritualistic September event that brings together the world's Heads of State and of Government, and which always snarls traffic for New Yorkers, challenges even the best diplomatic protocol organizers, and just occasionally generates some real international news.
My day's business had brought me to just across a fully-barricaded street from the Millennium UN Plaza Hotel, and it was there that the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (above left) was emplaced, receiving visiting international dignitaries, as TV crews struggled to capture every arrival and departure.
Abbas has of course been zealously - with the determination perhaps of a soon-to-retire leader - recruiting support in order to get Palestine acknowledged in tomorrow’s General Assembly session as a state in own right at the UN, while partisan media outlets have been blasting and counterblasting over his plans, and even while President Barack Obama was firmly opposing those plans (though he politely avoided the word “veto”).
There are rich historical resonances here. There’s been a familiar chorus this week of media commentators supporting Israel’s line that the UN is, and always has been, entirely the wrong forum for any steps toward establishing Palestinian statehood (that ineed, conversely, negotiations with Israel are the only way ... even though such talks have effectively been kicked into totally dead ground months ago now). But the fact remains that the UN has inescapably proven to be an arena for considerable – even if essentially symbolic – shifts in the course of the long-running Arab-Israeli dispute.
THESE SAME NEW YORK streets were staked out in similar fashion (if not as clogged with heavy weaponry) on one previous Fall day, back in 1974. Film crews, photographers and simple notebook-bearing observers from the mostly unelectronic media of the time were all hoping for a glimpse of Abbas’ predecessor, the late Yassir Arafat (above right) who in an epoch-changing development was due to address the GA’s Plenary Session. Also in wait, naturally, were crowds of anti-Arafat protestors. But the Palestinian delegation (and the US State Department, not sursprisingly) invoked a simple counter-ploy.
Arafat’s convoy of cars and police escort vehicles raced in classic manner from JFK Airport to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with their lights flashing and horns often blaring … but meanwhile Arafat himself was spirited into well inside the UN grounds - by helicopter.
Accompanying him then (and my main insider source for how that day's events transpired) was Nabil Shaf, a junior but trusted adviser from Arafat’s Al Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Shaf recalls today that “we were verging on the euphoric”, even as – consistent with the arguments of both then and now – the Israelis proclaimed “no resolution of the General Assembly can mask the murderous nature of the PLO”.
The Palestinian excitement that Shaf recalls had been slow to develop. He was then a teacher at the American University in Beirut and was given the task of prepping the New York visit only because more senior PLO apparatchiks had all declined the job. They still saw the UN as providers merely of “international dole” - its help for displaced refugees - rather than of full-fledged support for their claims to self-determination and statehood. “No-one accepted to go,” says Shaf, “because of the low esteem in which going to the UN was held in the psyche of the Palestinians - until then”.
Within the UN’s portals Shaf turned out to be an adept media manager, as well as a clever diplomatic fixer. “One of the tricks we were able to manage”, he explains, was to delay Arafat’s speech on the schedule until noon, so it gained full coverage, live throughout the Middle East in primetime evening hours - and was then immediately followed by the General Assembly taking its lunch-break. That meant the Israelis’ response came only in the afternoon, by which time (in those days before the advent of a 24-hour news cycle) it was midnight in the region, and coverage was delayed until next morning. Arafat ended up having the airwaves virtually to himself for a day.
QUOTED ENDLESSLY WAS the well-crafted line “I bear an olive branch in one hand and a freedom-fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive-branch drop from my hand” – for which Shaf was partly responsible, with (he acknowledges) some final polishing provided by the late Mahmoud Darwish, a PLO activist, but better known as one of Palestine’s most revered poets.
The line remained a metaphor, although Arafat had hoped at one point to realize it literally. He had wanted to carry both props. And indeed, for many observers memory has often played faulty; the holster belted to his khaki outfit has sometimes been said to have held a gun, but Shaf and the others on the team persuaded their leader not to contest the UN ban on firearms in the chamber. Incidentally that familiar khaki uniform was unusually well-pressed for this occasion (in fact brand-new, according to Shaf) ... and most remarkably of all, the famous face was unusually clean-shaven.
So a man known throughout the world as terrorist spoke from an elevated global podium. And history has moved on.
I inevitably think of Nelson Mandela, and how his explosives training in Ethiopia is nowadays so conveniently glossed over … and of the lesser figure of Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland who (this column’s longer-term readers will recall) used to run around the war-ravaged streets of Derry with an ArmaLite rifle in the days when I ran carrying a notebook. History has definitely moved on. McGuinness only last week announced his candidacy for the Irish Presidency - and very seriously it is being taken, too.
BOTH TOMORROW's effort by Abbas and 1974’s speech from Arafat might stir a deeper historical memory among peace-seekers in the diplomatic district. That memory dates way back, to even before the UN took root on these streets.
It was in November 1947 (when the world body was still camping in Flushing Meadow, Queens) that the General Assembly passed Resolution 181 (II), on what it called the “Future Government of Palestine”. That proposal, generally referred to as the Partition of Palestine Plan, envisaged and mapped out in some detail both “a Jewish State” and “an Arab State”.
It’s piquant, at the least, to consider how much this plan pre-figured the 21st century coinage of a “two-state solution”, which gathered currency - and, dare I say, much fashionable approval - with George W Bush’s Annapolis Conference of 2007, only to become more recently degraded to the level of an impossible pipe-dream.
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