December 18, 2008
I flew to Paris with Jeffrey and met with other Elders at Le Bristol, an excellent hotel. Since Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel had to attend a funeral in S. Africa, Mary Robinson & I shared the chairmanship. We reviewed our previous experiences in Sudan (Darfur), Cyprus, and S. Africa (Zimbabwe), and my substitution for the Elders in the April Middle East trip. We had major observances of the "Every Human has Rights" commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including a speech by me and a later ceremony with French President Sarkozy. We discussed my next visit to Lebanon and Syria and, in January, to China. We decided that the Elders would assume some very important additional responsibilities in the Middle East, to be announced later. The Elders also accepted my proposal for a major new effort to protect the rights of women, also to be announced later.
During my last afternoon in Paris I addressed an assembly of distinguished participants in the Global Zero effort to reduce nuclear arsenals. A delegation will be going from Paris to Russia, including Queen Noor and Sir Richard Branson, both of whom had attended our Elders' meeting. The next morning we flew to Beirut where, during one of my previous visits, I had watched shelling of the airport from the roof of the president's palace. This time, of course, everything was quiet. Working with Bob Pastor, Hrair Balian, and David Carroll, we learned about the political situation and offered our services as monitors of the planned election to be held in late May or early June.
This was something like a presidential visit in that we had long conversations with top officials, cabinet members and delegations of the many political parties. It was sobering to observe how many leaders had inherited their mantles from fathers, sons, or brothers who have been assassinated. Hezbollah refrained from meeting with us but expressed approval of our election monitoring. The big issue was that Syria and Lebanon were moving toward mutual diplomatic recognition and exchange of ambassadors after decades of Syria's assumption that there was no boundary between the two.
We spent one day visiting the UNIFIL area south of the Litani River. We flew by helicopter along the coast past Tyre and Sidon, then landed at Naqoura just north of the Israeli border. We then traveled along the "blue line" between Israel and Lebanon and viewed the distant Sea of Galilee from the helicopter while proceeding eastward toward Mount Hermon. Italian general Graziano was our host, and we landed at various key posts to visit the troops from different nations. At one site near the border, two different Israeli tanks came about 70 yards from us to observe our group. A surprise for me was that Shebaa Farms was just a bare hillside on the SW slope of the mountain, with no permanent occupants, no real cultivation, and only some sheep herders who went back and forth between the Israeli occupied area and north into Lebanon to obtain water. Israelis are also occupying the northern (Lebanese) 2/3 of a small village named Garjaa. The general showed us a graph of the many flights of Israeli planes over all parts of Lebanon, averaging about a dozen each day. Neither Hezbollah nor the Lebanese Armed Forces have any anti-aircraft weapons for defense.
We delivered a letter offering our observer services to Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud, who is well qualified and enthusiastic about conducting the planned election in late May or early June. We enjoyed banquets and long discussions with President Sleiman and Prime Minister Siniora in Beirut, and flew down to dine with Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri in his home near Sidon. The big question is whether Hesbollah, Amal, and its Christian allies will be able to gain a majority in the next parliament.
The next morning (Saturday) we drove from Beirut to Damascus, where we were met by U.S. Charge' Maura Connelly and Deputy Minister Faisal Mikdad, and then had extensive discussions with Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Moualem and President Bashar al Assad. We discussed a wide range of issues that have evolved since our April visit including re-opening the closed American School & cultural center, approval of construction of a new embassy, release of the Democracy Declaration prisoners, diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon, Shebaa Farms, Golan Heights negotiations, and relations between Syria and other Arab nations. There is an obvious eagerness for restoration of friendly relations and resolution of all differences with a new administration in Washington, and a willingness to help with Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. They described details of the indirect Israeli-Syrian peace talks mediated by Turkey and an eagerness to reach the final direct negotiations with U.S. participation. I then had a wide-ranging press conference.
That evening we went to the old town (my first visit was in 1983) and toured the Omayad Mosque and the home and church of Ananias (who ministered to Paul during his blindness). The shop keepers along the way welcomed me back and presented some lovely inlaid boxes, which I could not refuse.
On Sunday we drove about 40 miles northward and met President Assad in Maalula, which Rosalynn and I had visited in 1987. The villagers still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, and we enjoyed the morning services in the ancient church. Assad and I then walked several hundred yards along a path in a deep ravine through the rocky mountain to Mar Taqla Church, mostly carved into the mountainside. Both churches date from the 4th century. Understandably, there is a heavy emphasis here and in Damascus on the life of Saint Paul, and on the compatibility among Christianity, Islam, and Judaism throughout Syria.
In the afternoon Bob, Hrair, and I met with Khaled Mashaal and his fellow Hamas politburo members, all of whom are scientists, medical doctors, or engineers – none trained in religion. It was the anniversary of Hamas' founding, and they were watching Prime Minister Haniya's speech in Gaza to an enormous crowd. We discussed items on my agenda that included an extension of the ceasefire in Gaza, life there under the Israeli sanctions, the Arab peace initiative, reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the future of Palestinian leadership and elections in the West Bank and Gaza, and formulas for prisoner exchange to obtain the release of Corporal Shalit. Like the Syrians, they are patient, relatively satisfied with the status quo, and putting all their eggs in Obama's basket. We had to caution them about expecting too much of an immediate change in U.S. Middle East policy.
I returned home the next morning, while Pastor and Balian went on to scheduled meetings in Israel and Palestine.