How three days in Beirut locked Israelis and Palestinians in a fatal embrace
Gareth Smyth talks to Yossi Alpher about his latest book, Death Tango, focused on the 2002 Arab Summit
Death Tango: Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat and Three Fateful Days in March
Yossi Alpher (www.yossialpher.com)
Rowman & Littlefield, February 2022
Blood cannot wash out blood, as the Farsi proverb says. Can we recall a time before the deluge when it all might have been different? At the turn of the century, Mohammad Khatami talked of a dialogue between civilizations. There was an Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 under fire but with few lives lost and little subsequent retribution. Under new president Bashar al-Assad, Syria was entering the “Damascus spring.”
How did it all go wrong?
It’s a well-worn question, but the answers from former intelligence operative and analyst Yossi Alpher are among the better ones. Alpher has walked a long path since early 1979 when, on one of his first days in the Mossad, he was asked for advice on whether Israel should kill Ruhollah Khomeini as the ayatollah readied his return to Iran.
Death Tango is Alpher’s latest in a string of penetrating books on the region. If you have any interest in the Middle East and you’re not reading it, then you’re simply not paying attention.
Not for the first time, Alpher frames the present by looking back. Death Tango focuses on the March 27–29, 2002, Beirut summit of the Arab League, three days that helped carve a “slippery slope,” in Alpher’s phrase, that has become ever steeper and more slippery.
Sometimes time speeds up. Recall John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World on the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. Sometimes events reverberate for a long, long time. That’s what happened, writes Alpher, with those three fateful days in Beirut.
The 2002 Arab Summit followed the Oslo agreements of 1993–95 between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, and George Bush’s January 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech. Afterward came the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq; and in 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded Khatami as Iran’s president. The Arab Summit took place 18 months after the second Palestinian intifada began in late September 2000, a campaign that by July 2005 saw 509 Israelis killed in suicide attacks.
The significant upshot of the summit was the endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative. For the first time, the Arab states as a whole offered to “normalize” relations with Israel in return for a viable, neighboring Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. Two states, side by side.
Alpher cogently defended a “two-state solution” in his 2016 No End of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine, arguing that Israel, given Jewish/non-Jewish demographics across 1947 Israel and the occupied territories, could not otherwise remain both a democracy and a Jewish state. A single Israeli-ruled entity, Alpher wrote, would lapse into a form of apartheid, a state encompassing Israeli-Palestine, or “mandate Palestine,” where some people had rights and some didn’t.
As 2022 proceeds, this looks even more likely. So what happened to the alternative of two states, side by side?
Alpher took himself back to 2002 via a series of discussions with Arabs, Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, diplomats, soldiers, scholars—some who were at the Beirut summit and some who weren’t. Alpher tells me in an interview that he revised the book after he thought he’d finished it, adding a chapter on Israel’s “normalization” agreements in 2021 with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Whereas the Arab Peace Initiative was premised on a Palestinian state, the two Gulf Arab countries have dropped the Palestinians—and Alpher thinks Saudi Arabia will follow suit when 85-year-old King Salman passes.
This outcome might look good for the Israelis, he notes, but beyond the short term it’s not so simple.
“The Arabs’ condition for peace [in the API] was that we and the Palestinians first reach an agreement . . . [on] a two-state solution, and only then would they give us normalization,” Alpher says. “So, they [the Gulf states] reversed it.”
And this, whatever the Gulf Arabs’ intentions, will encourage the slippery slide toward apartheid.
“We are normalizing with the surrounding Arab world because the Arabs, in places like the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan, are fed up with the Palestinians and with extremist demands like the right of return [for descendants of those who left in 1947–48, as Israel was created]. We’re not heading in the direction of renewing talks about a two-state solution, we’re heading toward a single entity led by the extremists on both sides who are happy to be oblivious of the mess they’re making. . . .
“I’d like to sit down with a UAE leader and ask . . . ‘Are you aware of what Israel-Palestine will look like 30–40 years from now, and is that OK with you?’ . . . They’re not democracies, so it seems they can coexist with an Israel like this.”
So how did all this come about? Was the 2002 Beirut summit a missed chance for a just peace, or did it rather confirm a slide that was already unstoppable?
Looking back, Alpher believes the latter, but like any real intelligence analyst he isn’t 100 percent sure. “I think the book is saying there was no opportunity,” he muses. “But those three days were a symbolic major turning point.”
Fast rewind. Beirut, March 27–29, 2002. A summit held in the rebuilt Phoenicia Hotel in view of the still blown-out Holiday Inn and infamous Murr Tower. The setting was dramatic if nothing else.
Muammar Qaddafi, “Brotherly Leader” of Libya, didn’t go because the Lebanese wanted him to explain the disappearance in Libya in 1978 of Musa al-Sadr, the Shia political-religious leader. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak also stayed away.
Five months into the second intifada, Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Authority, was besieged by Israeli tanks in his Ramallah compound. Arafat’s scheduled appearance in Beirut by video fell through when the link mysteriously dropped, a “technical fault” widely attributed to Lebanese allies of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who was in Beirut as a conditional backer of the peace initiative drafted by Saudi Arabia.
Arab attendees had differing priorities. Alpher devotes a chapter in Death Tango to interviewing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman over his role in helping the Saudis draft the API. For the Saudi monarchy, the initiative was in part a way to redeem itself for any real or perceived role in the 9/11 attacks.
The Lebanese, keen to demonstrate their country had recovered from the 1975–90 war and was open for investment, were to varying degrees allied with Syria, whose president wanted to show Damascus’s leadership in the Arab world and highlight the Israeli occupation of the Golan.
Alpher begins the book not in Beirut but 180 kilometers to the south in Israel, with a detailed account of the suicide bombing on March 27 of the Park Hotel in Netanya, where a group of Israelis had gathered for a meal marking Passover eve, the day the Arab Summit opened.
The explosion was deafening. Ball bearings and metal shrapnel flew in all directions. Human beings and furniture were transported by the blast across the banquet hall. People were shredded. Body parts were severed. Blood flowed. Ears were ringing. Smoke and dust enveloped the dining hall and the lobby. . . . After a second or two, the screaming and moaning started.
This was, Alpher writes, the “most devastating suicide bombing” in Israel’s history, killing 30, maiming far more. Its effect on Israeli public sentiment, given its occurrence on Passover eve, was “traumatic.” And it came, Alpher stresses, just as the Arabs were offering peace from Beirut.
“I’m struck by the fact that the summit participants in Beirut—and I was able to speak to more than one of them—are somehow aware of this terrible suicide bombing and it just flies right by them,” Alpher observes. “They have nothing to say about it. These are the different perceptions, the different worlds.”
Asked about suicide bombings at a summit press briefing, Assad said “we should deal with the action before the reaction and we must denounce the Israeli violence.” The Syrian leader and other Arabs felt Palestinian suicide bombings showed the desperation of oppressed people. Lebanese memories were still fresh of the Israeli shelling of the Qana United Nations post in 1996 that killed 106 sheltering civilians; burly Fijian UN troops delicately carried out charred, disfigured children.
A wider gap in perception, Alpher notes in Death Tango, lies in a Palestinian Arab view of Israel as “a foreign implant” rather than a “legitimate Jewish national movement.” But—once one puts aside some Palestinian claims that there was never a Jewish temple in Haram al-Sharif, or Jewish claims that Palestine never existed—not everyone sees the two as incompatible.
Leading Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi argued in The Hundred Years War on Palestine, published in 2020, that seeing a “colonial-national movement” in the Israel created in 1947–48—when Jews were around 30 percent of the population, up from 10 percent at the beginning of British rule in 1920—does not require denying that Israelis have established a “thriving national entity” (Khalidi’s phrases).
And neither does it preclude recognition of Israel along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative (API) launched in March 2002.
I remind Alpher of a short video released in the run-up to the summit by Mustaqbal Television in Beirut, owned by then prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The video set images of smoke and death in Palestinian refugee camps and Israeli shopping malls against Bruce Springsteen’s version of the 1969 Temptations song “War” (“What is it good for?”) and then splashed the message “Arabs Want Peace.”
Alpher has seen the clip. “You see the two sides murdering one another, and then there’s a call for peace—but based on what?” he asks. “The Arab Peace Initiative is a call for peace, but it wasn’t tailored to Israel’s mentality or perceptions, and that didn’t seem to bother the people who put it together.”
So were there genuine peacemakers in 2002, and who were they?
One of many narratives running through Death Tango is the role of Ariel Sharon, who was Israeli prime minister at the time of the summit, having taken office in March 2001. While Sharon was forever linked in Arab minds with the 1982 massacre of thousands of Palestinians by Israel-allied militia in the Sabra-Shatilla camps in Beirut, Alpher sees Sharon’s pullout from Gaza in summer 2005 as part of his “rapid metamorphosis” from “settlement-building hero” to “unilateral dismantler of settlements.”
Hence, Alpher recalls, Sharon seriously expected he might attend the Beirut summit. “Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal,” Alpher writes, “can be understood only against the backdrop of the events of March 27, 28, 29, 2002.” As the United States—still then the linchpin of the region—dithered, Sharon “needed to act.”
And is that yet another “if only”?
However well Alpher unfolds the ins and outs of those three days in Beirut, the unsettling power of Death Tango rests largely in the way he shows the dance still going on. If the two-state option has retreated almost entirely from view, what stands in its place?
“For the last ten years I have felt very strongly that we and the Palestinians are on a very dangerous slippery slope towards a binational entity, a very violent and conflicted one,” Alpher says. “There may be a spectrum, at one end of which is a binational democratic state, where everybody is truly equal, and at the other end is an apartheid state. Where we end up, I truly don’t know.
“If you want to see a major recent expression of this, it was in May , what we call ‘Operation Guardian of the Walls,’ the latest war with Gaza, which unlike the previous rounds with Hamas in Gaza, involved Palestinians everywhere—the mixed cities in Israel . . . the Temple Mount, incidents among Palestinians in Jordan, in Lebanon, and on the streets on London and San Francisco. This is the way the slippery slope is beginning to look.”
The task facing “extremists on both sides”—Alpher’s words—has become easier since those three days in March 2002 when Sheikh Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, saluted the Park Hotel bombing as the instant death knell of the Arab Peace Initiative.
As illustrated by Khalidi in The Hundred Years War on Palestine, the whole US-supervised Oslo process, beginning 1993 and barely alive even by 2002, sidelined Palestinian civil society in favor of security cooperation between Israel and the Arafat leadership. And since 2002, American interest groups have pumped more and more energy into Jewish settlements and into labeling any critics as “anti-Semitic.”
Yossi Alpher concedes that those Israelis holding his or similar views are in the minority. Most prefer not to think they are on a slippery slope. While he’s hardly optimistic, Alpher has an eye to the future, devoting time to writing partly because he wants to fashion a legacy for the young, including his five grandchildren.
“I’m trying to paint a picture of where we are today, where we’re going, and how we got there. If you are devoted to a two-state solution because it’s the right thing to do, you’re going to be upset by this book. Sorry if it spoils your appetite.”
Gareth Smyth was based in Beirut 1996-2003, and covered the 2002 summit as the Lebanon correspondent of the Financial Times
Extract from Gareth Smyth’s diary at the 2002 Arab summit: other material available at ft.com
Gareth Smyth’s diary at the 2002 Arab summit: other material available at ft.com
Thursday 29 March, 2002
It was clear that something was wrong on Tuesday evening when Egyptian television announced that president Hosni Mubarak would not be coming. And when on Wednesday morning, Jordan said that King Abdullah would not attend, the rumour mill went into overdrive.
This, remember, was supposed to be the summit where the Arab League presented a unified plan for peace with Israel. Could this happen with key figures missing? “You are watching another Arab disaster,” a member of Hizbollah told me on Wednesday morning.
But it got worse. Days earlier, conference organisers said that if Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, were prevented from attending the summit, there would be a video hook-up so he could address delegates from Rumallah.
What better propaganda for the Arab cause could be imagined? An Arab leader, blockaded in his office by Israel tanks, speaking to his brother Arabs and the world by satellite link.
‘Twas not to be. Arafat did address the world, courtesy of al Jazeera and CNN, but the Lebanese authorities blocked his transmission to the conference on “technical” grounds – leaving Ghassan Salameh, the minister of culture and conference spokesman, to tell an incredulous press that Arafat had gone live on Jazeera rather than wait his turn scheduled by conference organisers.
Last night, Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, was trying to repair matters after the Palestinian delegation walked out in disgust. But it was too late. This was already the conference of disunity.
Earlier in the day, Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had presented an emotional appeal for peace to Israeli and world public opinion. Arafat had backed the initiative, calling on the Israelis to support the “peace of the brave”.
But the first serious clue to an explanation of the tensions behind the surface was the summit’s opening speech from the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, which at one point directly stated the fear of Arab hardliners that the Saudi peace plan had been devised as a way to end the intifada.
“The big threat lies in our acceptance of international pressure to replace the intifada simply with the end of violence, and not with stopping occupation and recovering rights,” he said.
And then came Bashar al Assad, Syrian president and a close ally of Mr Lahoud, told the summit that “the more we want peace the more we support the intifada”, and called Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians “the new holocaust”.
In retrospect, perhaps the Saudis could have handled their plan better. Announcing it to the New York Times (on February 22), seen as a pro-Israeli paper, hardly impressed those like Syria who believe Israel is more likely to respond to pressure than a peace plan.
It took a week before the Syrian (government-run) media even commented on the plan, and when it did it, it was negative. When president Assad went to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, many reported the surface appearance that Syria now “supported” the Saudi plan, but the Syrian media’s description of what they thought the plan contained made it clear they did not really see it as a message of peace to Israel and the world.
At the weekend, and during the foreign ministers sessions in Beirut on Monday, it was clear that disagreements remained over the final communique – not huge disagreement perhaps, but significant indications of tensions underneath the surface.
Hosni Mubarak is far too seasoned an operator not to realise that something was wrong, and opted not to be part of the disaster. King Abdullah would not be the only leader present who had ties with his neighbour, Israel.
And Lebanon? Well, this was supposed to be the summit where is showed the world it had recovered from war and was ready to attract new investment.
Instead, it blocked Yassir Arafat, an Arab leader who has never lived the life of luxury, a man whose critics would concede has shared suffering with his people. As he sat in the opulent ballroom of Beirut’s Phoenicia Hotel, Emile Lahoud peppered his speech with reference to “resistance”. Two miles to the south, in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatilla, it must have sounded very, very hollow.