Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

November 22, 2009

Matlock and Meshaal

Filed under: American attitudes,Hamas,Helena's travels,Palestinian politics — Helena Cobban @ 11:55 pm

One of the pleasures of co-leading CNI’s recently completed, 17-day study tour of the Arab-Israeli region was the fact that the other co-leader was Amb. Jack Matlock, who’d been Pres. Reagan’s last ambassador to the Soviet Union.  Matlock’s wife, Rebecca, was also a pleasure to have in the group. In addition to taking photos for us, she was just a constant font of kindness and good humor.

When we had our Nov. 4 meeting in Damascus with the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, there was a fascinating exchange between Jack Matlock and Khaled Meshaal in which Meshaal revealed (yet again) both his sense of humor– and the sense of relaxed self-confidence that comes with being able to express that in a large group– and his awareness of the need, as a political and potential national leader, not to have that sense of humor misunderstood.

Matlock initiated the exchange in question, at some point soon after the opening pleasantries had been exchanged.  He gave a fairly lengthy and very thoughtful presentation in which he reviewed some of the experiences he had had in the late 1980s, as Reagan’s ambassador to Moscow, at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev was starting to introduce some really serious reforms within the Soviet Union, and meantime the citizens of the three Baltic nations, which had been subsumed within the Soviet Union for many years, were starting to become eager to exercise their independence.

He explained the nuance of the position adopted (at, I think his urging) toward these developments by the Reagan administration.  He was careful to note that, though the US had long supported the abstract right of the three Baltic nations to national independence, the fact that none of them in fact exercized any independent authority on the ground meant that Washington could not, under international law, actually provide any challenge to Soviet control over the three Baltic countries.

“In diplomatic practice, governments do not recognize the right of other states to exist,” he said to Meshaal, as he said to many others of the people we met with on the tour. “They recognize the fact of their existence, as evidenced in the fact of their control over certain territory. And the Baltic countries did not exercize any such control.”

He noted that President Reagan had great sympathy toward the desire of the three Baltic peoples for self-rule.  But he noted, too, that Reagan-era officials were clear when dealing with representatives of the Baltic states that if their people should engage in any provocative act that might invite a Soviet crackdown, then there was nothing Washington could do to intervene to save them.

However, he then went on to describe a confrontation in which the Soviets undertook what he described as a provocation, in Lithuania… and the Lithuanian nationalists responded not with violence but by peacefully massing in front of their parliament building to defend it– and then Gorbachev, crucially, decided that if he was to save the democratic reform process he was undertaking at home, then he could not use his army to use use force to crush the Lithuanian independence movement.

Matlock’s intention, of urging Meshaal and Hamas to use only non-violent means to confront Israeli power, was clear.  He was also clear, in that discussion and elsewhere, that during Reagan’s negotiations with Gorbachev, the American intention was never to aim at the breakup of the Soviet Union…  However, the effect of US policy and of the decisions Gorbachev made with respect to the three Baltic nations was in fact that, starting with their secession, was that the Soviet Union did indeed break up…

Meshaal listened carefully and courteously, just as, I know, he has earlier listened to numerous other well-intentioned westerners– myself included– urging on him the virtues and values of nonviolence.

When Matlock finished, Meshaal took a moment to reply.  (The whole exchange was conducted with interpretation.)  Then he made quite clear that his first response would be “just a joke”– not to be taken seriously.

“So can you assure me,” he said, “that if we negotiate with Israel in the same way that you negotiated with the Soviet Union, that we’d get the same result– that just as the Soviet Union then broke up, so would Israel?”

The joke did indeed reveal a pretty sophisticated understanding of what Matlock had been talking about; and it elicited chuckles from many of those present.

But I noted the care with which Meshaal had made clear beforehand that what he was about to say was indeed “only a joke.”  He did not want to be misunderstood.  And throughout much of the rest of our discussion, he was positioning himself to be someone who could negotiate in good faith with Israel, if need be.  (Though he still held to Hamas’s longstanding position that it will allow Mahmoud Abbas and his team to do the actual negotiating, provided they bring back the results of any negotiation to a pan-Palestinian referendum.)

Later in the same meeting, indeed, he spelled out– as noted here— that in the context of the Palestinians winning what Hamas considers a satisfactory “two-state-based” final peace agreement with Israel, then it would be open to considering having open relations with Israel.

… Anyway, many of us in the delegation thought this exchange was interesting and notable.  Our videographer, Dominic Musacchio, captured it in the video record he made of the meeting– and he showed his first cut of this portion of the video at our gala dinner, Tuesday night.

I can’t wait till he has the final cut of that exchange ready to share more widely! Hurry up, Dominic!



  1. The reality is that the current regime in Israel reacts, regularly, to non-violent protests with savage force.

    It is necessary to understand that the right wing coalition in Israel is built around a fascist party which is in the unusual position of being, in relative terms and compared to its allies, a moderate force.

    There is no mystery about the fact that Netanyahu, and his allies in the diaspora, do not want peace, have no intention of seeking compromise, and will (see today’s air raids) seize any opportunity to substitute warring for ‘jawing.’

    Comment by bevin — November 23, 2009 @ 3:06 am | Reply

  2. Dear Helena,

    Did anyone in your party ask Khalid Meshaal about Hamas’ human rights abuses? Here are links to reports from HRW and Amnesty documenting their torture and execution of Palestinians belonging to rival groups.

    Comment by Joe in Australia — November 23, 2009 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  3. Hmm. The HRW link didn’t work. Let’s try again. Here it is.

    Comment by Joe in Australia — November 23, 2009 @ 10:23 pm | Reply

  4. 17-day study tour of the Arab-Israeli region

    Helena you think you got it all right in your study? listen or read what your friend talking about you and your follow who are Highly impressive and Highly trained for the Disastrous recovery and nation buildings well done the master with sooooooo long Bio and complicated one Paul Bremer III well done he is very smart US…..
    Take his advice and come down from you horses guys….shame on you all what you done to Iraq and Iraqis shame on you….

    The whole system was appalling. We experienced real difficulty in dealing with the American military and civilian organisations who, partly through arrogance and partly through bureaucracy, dictate that there is only one way: the American way. As far as the Iraqis were concerned, here was a nation who could put people on the moon but who could not, or would not, fix the electricity supply. You need to have money in order to make things happen, to buy protection from the looters, to smooth out tribal problems and to have immediate and visible effect and we did not have that. Despite our so-called ‘special relationship’ I reckon that we were treated no differently to the Portugese.

    They need to reintroduce dialogue as a tool of command because, although it is easy to speak to Americans face-to-face and understand each other completely, dealing with them corporately is akin to dealing with a group of Martians.

    Comment by Salah — November 23, 2009 @ 11:17 pm | Reply

  5. […] the meeting we had with Hamas head Khaled Meshaal in Damascus on November 4. It culminates with the joke Meshaal made during his exchange with our delegation’s co-leader, Amb. Jack Matlock, who ad […]

    Pingback by Matlock and Meshaal: the video « Fair Policy, Fair Discussion — November 25, 2009 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

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