Terrorism is not a new curse. There was a time when the most fearsome terrorist of the day was "Carlos" Sanchez, better remembered by his flashier nom de guerre, The Jackal. The swaggering Carlos bombed and shot his way across Europe and the Middle East in the 1970s and '80s, applauded by a political fringe that romanticized his vague ideology as the stuff of revolution. Carlos is now an alcohol-wasted shadow of his ferocious self, imprisoned in a French jail since 1994 on a murder charge. He is sufficiently unthreatening for a team of Canadian and American film-makers to have mustered the courage and $20 million to make a movie about his violent life. It is called Jackal.
Twenty million dollars comes in handy when art must imitate life. Special effects can blow up cars in orgiastic glory without anyone actually getting hurt. But the film-makers were not prepared for the terror of the real thing: four gruesome suicide bombings in Israel since Feb. 25, with the Islamic extremist group Hamas threatening more to come. Jackal's producers aborted filming in Israel last week and flew to Cyprus to scout a safer location.
As in the movies, there was plenty of illusion on show last week in the Middle East diplomacy conducted at a Red Sea sandbox resort called Sharm el-Sheikh. Twenty-seven presidents, kings, princes and prime ministers did convene on extremely short notice for the so-called Summit of the Peacemakers, queueing to land their jets-of-pride on the tiny Egyptian desert airstrip. And it was significant that several Arab states, historically indifferent to Israeli suffering, condemned the recent terror attacks. But there was little substance to match the theatre. "The meeting is the message," a Canadian official said on the eve of the summit, attempting to explain why less-influential countries, like Canada, had not even seen an advance copy of the communiqué to be issued in their name. And behind the jovial back-thumping and smiles, there were very evident strains in the solidarity.
The key dispute was over how to treat the government of Iran, which was not invited. The United States and Israel blame Iran for subsidizing a network of Hamas terrorists. "Terrorism is not anonymous," an angry-looking Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres told the conference. "It has a name, an address, a bank account. It is spearheaded by a country: Iran. Tehran has become the capital of terror." But neither Peres nor U.S. President Bill Clinton was able to persuade their allies to put their money where their mouths were and break trade ties with Iran. "An embargo, or rejection, would only help the extremists," French President Jacques Chirac said in explaining why he opposed global sanctions against Tehran.
In fact, many experts say Syria, not Iran, is the main sponsor of international terrorism. Syria refused to attend - but escaped censure by the leaders, ever fearful of jeopardizing peace talks. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said that Canada "has no list" of rogue nations. And he balked at identifying Iran, which buys $260 million worth of Canadian wheat annually, as a sponsor of terrorism. "I don't know, I've not been there for a long time," was Chrétien's explanation for why Ottawa would not single out Tehran as a sinner. Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who accompanied Chrétien to the red dunes of Sharm el-Sheikh, was more forthcoming. On the flight home, he told reporters that Ottawa would probably support any proposed UN sanctions against Iran - though that is an unlikely prospect at best - but Ottawa did not intend to make empty, sanctimonious gestures on its own. "If we go it alone, we don't have the clout," said Axworthy simply. Later, the United States and Israel announced a follow-up conference in Washington on March 28, which they hoped would again look at the question of Iran.
Peres was more successful in wresting tangible counterterrorist measures by dealing directly with Clinton. The president gave Peres a lift home from Egypt in Air Force One, and stayed in Israel for another day, long enough to offer the Israelis $134 million in sophisticated bomb-detection equipment. Clinton also promised the Israelis a deeper look into U.S. intelligence on illicit arms shipments into Palestinian-controlled territories. Meanwhile, the publicity blitz continued. The two leaders dashed about Israel for a series of events for the cameras: Clinton sat in on an Israeli cabinet meeting, offered condolences to the families of terrorist victims, and laid a wreath at the tomb of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. All that gave a needed boost to Peres, who must persuade voters not to repudiate the peace process he represents in elections set for May 29.
Indeed, many Israelis continue to suspect Peres of being soft in his dealings with Palestinians. It is an accusation that has trailed the 70-year-old politician throughout his career, denying him the public affection he craves and the prime ministership he has never won in an election. "In a way, he is a tragic figure," says his biographer and friend Matti Golan. "Peres should be the undisputed leader of the nation at this time, but he has this credibility problem and it bothers him. He's always asking, 'Why don't they like me? Why don't they trust me?' "
Golan argues that the real Peres does not match his image. "Most of his life, he was a hawk, a hardliner," Golan said last week. In fact, Peres was the man who headed arms procurement in the desperate early days of the Jewish state, even negotiating with Germany to buy military hardware. He is the father of the Israeli nuclear program, and was defence minister when Israeli special forces raided a hijacked plane at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976 to free civilian hostages from Palestinian terrorists. But it is the lofty language of his crusade for a "new" Middle East, a wishful time and place where Arabs and Jews live peacefully together, that leads more suspicious Israelis to dismiss him as naïve.
Even in the dark hours of the current crisis, Peres will not abandon his political faith. "Yesterday's enemies are gathered here today as partners for a better tomorrow. There will be a new Middle East," he insisted in his emotional speech to the leaders grouped around the felt table in Sharm el-Sheikh. "Those opinions get him genuine affection in the West," notes Golan. "But he's too sophisticated for many Israelis. He keeps his cool, and behaves in a less human way than Rabin, who used to scream and shout when things went wrong. Peres has difficulty showing his emotions, so Israelis don't trust him."
Again, the gap between image and reality is wide. The Israeli prime minister's eloquence at the summit was twinned with harsh actions at home. The Israeli clampdown on the Gaza Strip and Palestinian towns in the West Bank continued last week. More than two million Palestinians were still barred from commuting into Israel to work. Farmers' tomatoes and cucumbers continued to rot. Fishermen were only slowly allowed back out to sea. UN officials warned of a "rapid deterioration in Palestinian living conditions" if the blockade was not lifted, but Clinton suggested that Palestinians blame Hamas, not Israel, for their plight. As Palestinian despair grew, so did the mostly Arab voices condemning Israel's choice of collective punishment. "How can we in all good conscience say that those who died in Tel Aviv are victims of terrorism, and that the Palestinian children dying as a result of Israeli closure and measures are not?" asked Suheil Lakkar, a Syrian professor of Islamic history at the University of Damascus.
That was a theme hammered home by many of the Arab leaders at Sharm el-Sheikh. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened the summit with a warning to Israel against overdoing its crackdown, a theme returned to time and again by the 13 other Arab representatives. "Collective punishment, closure and every type of violence against innocent people will in turn generate more violence," warned Prince Saud al Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister. There was more than a touch of shamelessness to those lectures. Arab governments have a mixed record at best in their own treatment of Palestinians. And Mubarak himself has hardly followed due legal process in his internal war against Islamic militants over the past three years. When extremists tried to cripple Egypt's tourist trade by shooting at buses and Nile River cruise boats, Mubarak responded by brutally hunting down hundreds of Islamic fundamentalists and jailing thousands more for their sympathies. Egyptian human-rights critics have called his actions "state terror." But at Sharm el-Sheikh, Clinton praised Mubarak's response to Islamic extremism.
In doing so, the President underscored the growing desire in the West for stability in a turbulent world - even at the expense of human rights. Earlier this month, the U.S. state department accused Israel and the Palestinian Authority of violating human rights in the Gaza Strip - and that was for transgressions before the recent crisis. But now, Western leaders are encouraging both Peres and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to get even tougher on Hamas. Chrétien's speech in Sharm el-Sheikh included a reference to fighting terrorism "in a way that is consistent with international standards of human rights and law - something that is very important to us." But Axworthy, who has been a strong human-rights advocate throughout his career, would not condemn Israel's decision to fight Hamas by punishing an entire population. "The core essence of a nation-state is protecting its citizens," he said on the flight home from Egypt. "I don't think there is a set standard in that area." It was a contradiction in keeping with the nagging sense that, at Sharm el-Sheikh, all was not quite as it seemed.
Maclean's March 25, 1996