He was the “third man” who always appeared in pictures over three consecutive decades of US presidents with Arab interlocutors. And he was the “fourth man” who appeared next to US presidents as they convened in closed rooms with Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
Gamal Helal served as senior diplomatic interpreter and senior advisor at the US State Department from the late 1980s until he retired in 2010 and worked with former US presidents Ronald Regan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama in their meetings with Arab leaders.
Born in Egypt in 1954, where he lived until his early 20s before heading to the US in pursuit of learning and maybe better opportunities, Helal was just finding his way around the US when late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat announced his intention to go to Israel in pursuit of a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1977.
For Helal, born and brought up in the heyday of Egypt’s championing of pan-Arabism, there was disbelief when Sadat went to Jerusalem on 19 November 1977.
Some 15 years down the road, Helal was in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington to translate during the signing ceremony of the Oslo Accords when then US president Clinton hosted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres to shake hands on what was promised as the beginning of the end of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle that had started in the early decades of the 20th century.
This was indeed a big day, as Helal recalled during an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly during a visit to Cairo earlier this week. It was the first time that Arafat had visited Washington, since as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), he had not earlier been allowed to visit the US, since the US authorities had labeled it an extremist organisation.
“There we were with Arafat, who had not been allowed to attend a UN Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York in 1988 because he had been denied entry to the US, which meant the meeting had to convene at the UN headquarters in Geneva, being welcomed by none other than the US president at the White House itself,” Helal recalled.
On the eve of the signing, Helal went with a delegation from the White House and the US State Department to meet with Arafat, who was staying in the house of an American of Palestinian origin, to go through the preparations for the signing.
“On that day I had to press upon Arafat that there was no way he would be able to keep his pistol in his holster as he usually did, because it was simply impossible to allow anyone into the White House with a gun. I had to press upon him that he could not even keep the cover of his pistol in his pocket, even if it was empty, because nobody is allowed into the White House with a gun. Eventually he came round,” Helal recalled.
According to Helal, Arafat insisted on wearing his trademark khaki military suit, despite appeals for him to wear another outfit because this one was seen to be associated with the creed of the PLO to “regain all of historic Palestine and bring back all the refugees through military struggle.”
From then on, Helal was also present for a very long and at times very concentrated period of US mediation between the Palestinians and Israelis. Right from the beginning, Helal argues, there were many ambiguities in the text of the Accords, and these made the conclusive pursuit of a peaceful settlement to the struggle quite unlikely.
“It is what we call ‘constructive ambiguity’, which means that you try to agree on some things, but keep pushing back the discussion of essential things for a later stage without even having an idea of what the parties will do with these more complex and fundamental issues —like the issue of Jerusalem or the return of the Palestinian refugees, for example,” Helal said.
He added that inevitably, in an issue as shrouded in layers of conflicting ideologies as the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, “this ‘constructive ambiguity’ ended up being destructive because the negotiators would sit and talk for hours, over and over again on the same things, and they would not approach the most sensitive issues. Whatever they agreed on would also often mean different things to the different parties.”
As a result, the subsequent three decades of negotiations were often marked by assumptions by one side or the other that were not agreed in fact. This, he said, included whether or not Israel was in fact willing to agree on the establishment of a Palestinian state and whether it would in fact agree to allow the return of the Palestinians to territories conquered in the 1967 War.
According to Helal, who was in the room when most of the US-mediated high-level talks between the Palestinians and Israelis took place, the Israelis never committed to a Palestinian state or to the return of the refugees to land that is now part of Israel.
He said that he did not think these things were agreed by any of the Israeli officials who negotiated with the Palestinians, and not just current Likud Party Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Even leader of the Israeli Labour Party, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, was not, according to Helal, minded to agree to a Palestinian state.
With US Cheney and Crown prince Abdullah of the KSA
“I think they had serious doubts about whether a Palestinian state would be a responsible state. Look at the current situation whereby [PLO leader and Palestinian president Mahmoud] Abbas cannot go to Gaza or cannot have an agreement with Hamas that has been ruling Gaza,” Helal said.
There was also the preoccupation of Israeli officials about the willingness of the wider Israeli public to accept a Palestinian state, he said.
“They would be sitting at the negotiating table, always thinking about the opinion polls back in Israel and how a deal including an agreement on a Palestinian state would impact their ratings and what it would mean in case of elections,” he added.
This “hesitation” on the part of Israeli officials was part of the reason why the often heavily engaged US mediation failed to secure an answer to the Palestinian question or to the other tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the Syrian track.
During the 2000 talks at Camp David when Clinton hosted both Arafat and Barak in the hope of striking a deal at the last moment of the second term of his presidency, Barak hesitated, Helal said.
At the meeting that Clinton hosted in Geneva on the Syrian track when the US president met with the Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad and Clinton was expecting a call from Israel from Israeli prime minister Barak, Helal recalled that “Barak had promised to bring in his ideas on peace with Syria for Clinton on the morning of the day of the meeting — but he never did.”
But Helal is also willing to frankly and with no hesitation blame the Palestinian leadership for “a misguided approach on the issue.” “I think that there are essential questions that one should ask when thinking about the Palestinian question. The first question is whether or not there are Palestinian rights that have been ignored through this struggle? And the answer is yes,” Helal said.
“The following question is whether or not this struggle has been duly perceived, on the Palestinian side, as a political problem and has been dealt with in the right way? I would say that the answer is no, definitely not.
“I don’t think, to be honest, that there has been a clear and cohesive Palestinian vision on the Palestinian problem and how to handle it. And I am not here just talking about the conflict [between Fatah and Hamas], but also about the whole perception since the PLO was established in the mid-1960s,” Helal argued.
“In fact, I don’t think that it was possible to have a cohesive view within the PLO, which was always a mix of many conflicting opinions. The PLO was never politically homogenous, from what I can see,” he added.
“Even when the Palestinians decided to abandon the founding cause of the PLO, which was to regain all of historic Palestine, and they decided to settle for what was later qualified as the two-state solution, they did not stop to think about how they could re-route their approach in managing the problem and trying to have it solved,” Helal said.
“For example, the Palestinians were always talking about the right of return of the refugees, and they continued to talk about this when they agreed to a two-state solution. Now, if you agree to having an Israeli state, by what logic would you want to have Palestinian refugees go back to the state of Israel,” he asked.
According to Helal, the interpreter to five US presidents, three of whom were directly involved in the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, the issue of UN Security Resolution 242, adopted in the wake of the 1967 defeat of the Arab armies by Israel and the Israeli occupation of all of historic Palestine, was the basis of an unrealistic solution that made the Palestinians expect something “that would never happen — to get back all the territories that Israel went to war over in 1967. Though Sinai and the Golan Heights are a different story,” he said.
Helal argues that the Palestinians should have adopted “a more realistic and pragmatic view” based on the consecutive talks they had been having with the Israelis after the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 and especially in the wake of the signing of the Oslo Accords and the launch of direct Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. They should have started re-working their strategy on this basis.
“I was never in a negotiating room with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators when I thought that this Resolution 242 could happen, and I think that the Palestinians must have seen this as well,” he said.
“There was a need for the Palestinians to match their understanding of the situation with new positions, rather than to stay bogged down in the same mindset that was clearly defeated in 1967 — the one about regaining all of historic Palestine and acting as if Israel was not there or that it would go away,” he said.
According to Helal, Sadat was one political leader who managed to adjust his positions and political choices to the political reality on the ground. He also understood Israeli public opinion and managed through his “historic visit to Israel, which was really a big breakthrough, to secure a body of supporters within the Israeli population, and this made it possible for a peace deal that allowed Egypt to regain all of Sinai,” he said.
“But the Palestinians, unlike Sadat, took quite a long while to see that a war cannot resolve their problem and that the only way to resolve it was to have direct negotiations with the Israelis, just as Sadat did despite the furor that he was confronted with upon his visit and after the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty” in 1979.
“This is why I think that Sadat was very smart; he managed to achieve a big military breakthrough by the crossing [of the Suez Canal in the 1973 War], but he then saw the breach and understood its full political significance and decided to capitalise on the military achievement he had secured to maximise his political gains through negotiations,” Helal said.
Helal with Arafat and Clinton
“The Palestinians were the victims of the idea of a boycott, which has not solved anything, and the evidence for what I say is the situation in which the Palestinians find themselves in today. What the Palestinians could have got back in 2000 during the Clinton-sponsored talks is not even on the table for discussion today,” he said.
Helal says with no hesitation that a “boycott is something that only those who are helpless would bank on.” It would be naïve to argue that a boycott was the reason that prompted an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1990s, he added.
“It was rather economic pressure from countries with large economic interests in South Africa, essentially the US and leading western states, that prompted change in the apartheid regime,” he suggested.
This, Helal argued, was why the Palestinians “were absolutely wrong” to criticise the UAE and Bahrain for their agreements with Israel signed on 15 September at the White House in a ceremony hosted by US President Donald Trump.
Apart from the “perfectly legitimate right of sovereign states to pursue their own interests after having succumbed for decades to what has proved to be invalid rhetoric about an Arab boycott,” by establishing economic ties with Israel, the Arab countries, “be it the UAE and Bahrain who signed earlier this month or maybe Oman, Sudan, and Morocco who will be signing later, before or after the US presidential elections,” will be able to get Israel to work towards a settlement.
For him, the shape of this possible settlement and the gains it will bring the Palestinians depend a great deal on what the Palestinians will do and how they will make their decisions. He argued that one thing that the Palestinians have to keep in mind while deciding their next moves is that the Arab League, which decided to expel Egypt and to remove its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis after the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, has declined a Palestinian request for a resolution to oppose the decision of the UAE and Bahrain or any other Arab state to pursue normalisation with Israel.
“I clearly remember back then when Sadat said that if moving the headquarters of the Arab League out of Cairo to Tunis would help resolve the Palestinian question, ‘I would carry it on my own shoulders all the way to Tunis.’ This was a very significant message about the insignificance of the decision to move the Arab League,” he said.
Contrary to the idea then adopted by some Arab states leading the movement to impose a boycott on Egypt, they failed to render Egypt insignificant. “Actually, through its peace deal with Israel, Egypt positioned itself as a cornerstone for peace and stability in the Middle East, and it has since been perceived as such,” he added.
“Wars have not done much to help the Palestinian question, and the 1967 War is only one example,” Helal said. He added that he is convinced that diplomatic negotiations “have done the Arabs a lot more favours than any of the wars they have had with Israel.”
It might be sooner, and it might be later, but there would come a point when the Arab peoples would realise that realism has to be the key in decision-making, he said. And he argued that this was not just about the Palestinian question, but other things as well.
Helal recalled being the senior US diplomatic interpreter that attended with former US secretary of state James Baker the Geneva talks with Tarek Aziz, Iraqi deputy prime minister in the wake of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990, almost on the eve of the war to liberate Kuwait.
“At that meeting, Baker told Aziz in no uncertain terms that they had to withdraw from Kuwait and that if they didn’t the US would use its military might to free Kuwait and would strike Iraq ‘back into the stone age’. At the time these words were not taken seriously enough by Iraq, and the consequences have been grave,” he said.
“Again, it was a matter of missing the point on the Arab side. The Iraqi regime at the time did not see that the US would not allow instability in the Middle East, not because of the oil supplies, as the US was never dependent on the Middle East for its oil supplies, but because stability in this region was of strategic significance for the US,” he said.
According to Helal, the recent decisions of the UAE and Bahrain to establish diplomatic relations with Israel from the perspective of the US are of added value to the stability of the region.
“But it is not a Sadat moment happening again. The only thing that could perhaps be close to a Sadat moment would be for the Saudis to decide to sign a deal with Israel. Historic moments don’t happen every day,” Helal concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly