Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, passed away on Dec. 13 at the age of 69. He has been hailed by several Jewish newspapers as a friend of Israel, although he was not prominently involved in American-Israeli relations. Indeed, in a column in the Washington Post two years ago, he wrote something we don’t often hear from presidential envoys and State Department officials. Holbrooke wrote that President Truman should be admired for having recognized Israel as a state on May 14, 1948, and that the State Department’s attempts to undermine President Truman’s decision was not something Holbrooke was proud of.
There are people whom you meet once and know you will never forget. I met Richard Holbrooke once, in Doha, Qatar, in April 2005 — a meeting I will never forget.
It took place at a high-profile get-together called the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. Organized by the Qatar government and the Brookings Institution, the conference was packed with more than 150 scholars and leaders from all sides who, for two full days, diligently discussed the needs and means for achieving democracy, reforms and renaissance in the Muslim world. Oddly enough, there was hardly a Muslim speaker who did not tie the implementation of such reforms to “progress toward settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
From the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan, to Rami Khouri, former editor of The Daily Star in Lebanon, almost every speaker ended his or her speech with a reminder that the Muslim world is not ready to accept reform for its own sake; reform is, in fact, a concession to America, which will be granted if, and only if, it “resolves the Palestinian problem.”
None of the speakers spelled out what “solution” meant to him or her; it was probably part of an unspoken agreement to avoid controversial issues for fear of spoiling the friendly atmosphere of renaissance and collaboration that the conference engendered. It was only in private conversations that I discovered that, to most of them, “solution” was unquestionably the same one proposed by Helen Thomas.
Richard Holbrooke spoke at the last session of the conference, addressing a large audience of Arab dignitaries, scholars and pundits. After repeating the great things that America can do for the Muslim world — science, education, freedom, entrepreneurship and more — and after saying all the right things that a seasoned diplomat would say on occasions like this one, he added one innocent remark that fell like a bombshell: “By now,” he said, “two and a half generations of Arabs have been brought up on textbooks that do not show Israel.” The audience was stunned. I can still hear the pin-dropping silence as he calmly went on: “Such continued denial of reality, at the grass-roots level, is a major hindrance to any peaceful settlement of the conflict.” (I am quoting from memory.)
I watched Holbrooke’s colleagues from the Brookings Institution to see how they reacted to a broken silence. Their faces were blank.
There were a couple of Palestinian women sitting next to me, and their faces looked like they had been caught cheating on an exam. One of them raised her hand and started saying something about checkpoints and occupation (settlements were not in fashion then), but, in Holbrooke’s presence, she sounded more like someone complaining about the video cameras that caught her stealing.
Holbrooke answered her politely and comfortably: “Your textbooks do not show Israel on the map, and that does not help the peace process.”
There was no need for further elaboration. The elephant that everyone was pretending did not exist suddenly appeared in the room. Two days of hard deliberations, with Arabs pretending that “progress in the peace process” does not really mean the elimination of Israel, and Americans pretending they have no reason to doubt it, had ended with a refreshing spark of honesty.
At the end of the Q-and-A session, I walked up to Holbrooke and told him how much I admired his presentation and the way he handled the question. He looked at me with some astonishment and said, “This is obviously one of the main obstacles to peace.” He said it as if stating in public what everyone knows to be true, even in a place like Doha, is as natural as breathing oxygen.
This was the meeting I will never forget.
Richard Holbrooke will be recorded in the history of the Jewish People as one of the few State Department officials who had the courage to proclaim Truman a hero for overruling his own Department of State.
He will also be remembered for teaching his colleagues how honesty can be an instrument, not a hindrance to effective diplomacy.
Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.