Mission to Stockholm : How Stanley Sheinbaum, an American Jew, Found Himself With His Arm Around the PLO's Yasser Arafat

Times Staff Writer

Stanley Sheinbaum was finally feeling better. He had been in his sickbed in the Regency Hotel for a week. But the news had just flashed on television that President Reagan was ordering the State Department to open a formal dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Sounding breathless, Sheinbaum pronounced himself greatly relieved.

The day before, with much different emotions, he had watched PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's televised speech at the special session of the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva. It seemed then, Sheinbaum would later say, that his work along with four other American Jews to produce the so-called Stockholm Declaration would "come to naught."

Called a Naive Dupe

And for his trouble, he had already earned the wrath of some Jews, who were calling him a naive dupe of PLO manipulation and his mission another example of "Jewish self-laceration." In Los Angeles on Tuesday morning, City Council candidate Steve Saltzman, backed by two rabbis, had demanded Sheinbaum's resignation as a University of California regent.

How Sheinbaum, the 68-year-old Los Angeles activist, economist and publisher, found himself in this particular maelstrom--and, not coincidentally, in his sick bed--is a dramatic tale of shuttle diplomacy and high-pressure intrigue. It is also a typical lesson in Sheinbaum near the center of the storm, a spot that seems to have a hold on him.

He understands the criticism of his meeting with the PLO and the furor over a photograph showing him with his arm around Arafat. But, he says, "I feel very Jewish about going. I have no guilt feelings about that at all.

"I think I did something that I would have done for any people if I had the opportunity," he said. And in this particular instance, "I did it for Israel."

It began last April with a series of seemingly unrelated phone calls.

Sheinbaum and Rita Hauser, an international lawyer active in Republican politics and the American chairman of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, were talking by phone about the Palestinian uprising in the territories occupied by Israel.

Sheinbaum is a member of the center, headquartered in Israel, which was created by Jewish intellectuals and "luminaries" to encourage a peaceful settlement of the Israeli/Arab conflict. Among its founders were France's former premier, Pierre Mendes-France; former Israeli prime minister Abba Eban; and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, an American who is former vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

"We agreed the center had to do something," Sheinbaum recalled of that first phone conversation, "and we decided to have a meeting to discuss it."

Next Call From Buenos Aires

The next call came from writer/publisher Jacobo Timmerman in Buenos Aires. Timmerman, who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Argentine junta and was a former resident and critic of Israel, was coming to New York and wanted to know if Sheinbaum could meet him there. They made a date to have lunch the same day Sheinbaum was to meet Hauser and Drora Kass, the center's executive director in America.

The third call was from another friend, Ulf Hjertonsson, second in command at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. Was Sheinbaum coming east anytime soon? Hjertonsson and another Swedish friend, Pierre Schori, )undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, had something to discuss with him.

Sheinbaum arranged to fly to Washington after his New York meetings for a private session with Hjertonsson and Schori, followed by a dinner at the embassy. He had no idea that he, Timmerman and the Swedes all had the same thing on their minds.

"At lunch, Jacobo, my old buddy, was up the wall about the intifada and the apparent (Israeli) brutality," Sheinbaum recalled. Timmerman pleaded: "Stan, you've got to do something to bring American Jewish pressure on Israel to negotiate with the PLO."

In Washington that night, Hjertonsson told him that the Swedish prime minister, Ingmar Carlsson, and foreign minister, Sten Andersson, were determined to do whatever possible to break the logjam in the Middle East.

The coincidence jarred Sheinbaum. "I felt kismet was at work," he said.

Sheinbaum and the Swedes agreed that a clear, unambiguous statement from the PLO was needed to satisfy the United States' three requirements for negotiation: renunciation of terrorism, acceptance of U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 and affirmation of Israel's right to exist.

He proposed that they put together a group of leading American Jews not necessarily tied to major Jewish organizations. The group would eventually meet with the PLO and Swedes to work out an acceptable statement.

For starters, Hauser and Kass seemed ideal. Hauser, with a background in foreign policy, was well connected, counting among her contacts Secretary of State George P. Shultz and his assistant secretary for the Near East and South Asia, Richard Murphy. Kass had close connections, including family, in Israel and "an extraordinary commitment" to it.

The Swedes insisted on tight confidentiality--they refused to discuss much on the phone, necessitating frequent shuttling between New York and Washington--and so it was decided to limit the group to those three Americans at first.

Sheinbaum felt awed, flattered and challenged at the role the Swedes were casting him in. It was "a mindblower."

Why him?

Behind-the-Scenes Broker

Sheinbaum fumbles trying to answer the question. In addition to being a UC regent, he is a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, publisher of the scholarly New Perspectives Quarterly and an organizer of the Americas Watch Committee of Southern California. He supports progressive Jewish organizations and is both a behind-the-scenes broker and upfront player in the world of liberal Democratic politics.

Maybe people trust him, knowing both his talents and his shortcomings, he mumbles. Maybe it's because he's dealt with many levels of American life--"in business, sweatshops (where he worked as a child) as an academic, a soldier, a regent, a printer."

He laughs but is quite serious about the subject. "For whatever reason," he concludes, "I have become somebody who spends his time at this sort of thing. . . . It's where I want to be."

The evolving plan involved constant meetings and strategy sessions. In late summer, Sheinbaum made a sidetrip from Italy to Paris to meet with the Swedes. They asked what the Americans could bring to a Stockholm meeting to encourage the PLO.

On the flight home, Sheinbaum says it occurred to him that they needed to bring a signal that an unequivocal statement by the PLO would get a response from the United States. That signal, Sheinbaum said, could only come from President Reagan, and so he set about on what he calls "track two"--trying to get an assurance in advance from the President.

"I came that close," he said, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.

On the Columbus Day holiday, he met Richard Murphy, the assistant secretary of state, at the State Department and told him, without mentioning the Swedish connection, what the American Jews were attempting to do.

"I wanted him to call me off if something could upset an apple cart," Sheinbaum said. "He did not tell me to go ahead, but he made no attempt to stop me."

Through a mutual friend of Reagan's, he set up a secret meeting at the Beverly Hilton Hotel with the President's national security adviser, Colin Powell, and White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein. Both were in California with Reagan on a campaign sweep.

"They did not feel it was necessary" to meet with Reagan, Sheinbaum recalled. "They said if there were an unequivocal statement to be made, it was clear the U.S. would respond."

Invitation to a Meeting

Finally, a two-page, single-spaced letter marked "confidential" arrived. It was an invitation from the Swedish foreign minister to a meeting Nov. 21 in Stockholm. At the same time, the Palestine National Council, meeting in Algiers, was declaring an independent Palestinian state and issuing a statement that it later contended fulfilled U.S. requirements.

It became increasingly clear, Sheinbaum said, that in Stockholm "our only purpose was to clarify what was said" in Algiers.

Sheinbaum, Hauser and Kass arrived in Stockholm with a draft document they had prepared and were checked into the Grand Hotel. There, Sheinbaum said with a chuckle, they found "heavy security and Esther Williams in the lobby." They stayed on the same floor with the four-member PLO delegation led by PLO co-founder Khalid al-Hassan.

Foreign Minister Andersson led them off in the morning, made some suggestions and left. With all parties working in English, Sheinbaum said, the group hammered out a statement and signed it.

The document sought to clarify certain positions that came out of the Algiers meeting and declared that the PLO had "accepted the existence of Israel as a state in the region."

A Working Draft

The Swedish diplomats took the working draft to the State Department on Nov. 25 and presented it to Secretary of State George Shultz. He said it contained positive and interesting points but reiterated U.S. conditions for negotiation. The next day, Shultz denied Arafat a visa to enter the United States to address the United Nations.

Sheinbaum, fatigued, was on a plane heading back to Los Angeles. He blacked out twice on the final leg and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Omaha, where he was briefly hospitalized.

"It was a Catholic hospital and a Muslim doctor," he noted.

He went home to Brentwood to rest up, thinking, he said, there were several weeks to recuperate and to enlarge the American delegation for the meeting with Arafat. "We had a lot of lists" of potential delegates, he said, but because of concerns for confidentiality, they had not yet approached anyone. Already they had weeded out several people whom they feared "would feel they had to call Israel first."

In the end, it all happened fast. With the special U.N. session set for Dec. 13 in Geneva to hear Arafat, the Swedes sent word on Dec. 2, a Friday, that a meeting with the PLO chairman Arafat was set for the following Tuesday. With little time, and having to go through a "nightmare" of explanations with everyone they approached, Sheinbaum, Hauser and Kass managed to expand the delegation by only two: Menachem Rosensaft, founder of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, and Abraham Udovitch, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Princeton.

The Americans arrived in Stockholm Dec. 5, this time finding plenty of press on hand. The meeting was held Dec. 6 at the well-secured and secluded palace where Arafat and his delegation were staying.

"The Chairman," as Sheinbaum often refers to Arafat, did not wear his gun and holster to the meetings. "I'd told myself that if he did, either it or the meeting would go," Sheinbaum said.

The meeting started at lunch and dragged on until 8 p.m., with Arafat asking initially, "Why am I here?" He was told, Sheinbaum said, that the bottom line was, "We are Jews with a commitment to Israel."

Sheinbaum found Arafat to be "good with the pleasantries," with an easygoing, informal manner in negotiations. "I see him as a man who metaphorically has been a fugitive all his life," he said. "He has become adept at leaving openings for himself"--a skill that does not always serve him well in dealing with the West.

The Palestinians insisted they had already satisfied American demands in Algiers; the Americans spelled out U.S. conditions and political realities.

The session ended with a press conference at which the American delegation announced that the PLO's recognition of Israel was explicit and urged the United States to begin talking. Sheinbaum said that the Americans represented only themselves and had not come "to negotiate but to perform a catalytic service, to obtain clarification."

And then came the group photo. They were in a lineup, and there for the world to see stood Stanley Sheinbaum with his arm around Yasser Arafat.

"You're in a negotiating session. There's a lot of affability, a mutual goal," Sheinbaum said of the photo. "There was a good feeling. Was I asking him to be my best friend? No. It was a human situation. I knew there'd be trouble, but what was I going to do, offend the guy as I was going out the door? We still wanted to hear from him at Geneva."

Sheinbaum describes himself as "long at odds" with the Jewish community over Israel, primarily over what was once called "the refugee problem." As he saw it, the situation only worsened over the years, with Israel "making all the wrong moves."

"I was brought up in a community of Jews in a broader society (in New York). Being a Jew meant certain moral principles, some political, some personal," Sheinbaum says. "The political ones had a democratic component.

"In Israel already rights are being denied," he said. "What came through from my family and my religious training was a sense about Jewish people and Judaism that is part of my navigational system."

It was this navigational system that led him to Stockholm, he says. To some other American Jews, the system was off course.

'Major Manipulation'

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles, called the Stockholm meeting "naive" and said the meetings were a "major manipulation" by the PLO.

"The Simon Wiesenthal Center has not called for Sheinbaum's resignation (from the Board of Regents)," he added. "But as far as reflecting on whether it was appropriate for Sheinbaum to stand next to Yasser Arafat and put his arm around his shoulders with a big smile, I have to tell you when I saw that picture, my emotions went out to the children of Leon Klinghoffer."

Harvey B. Schechter, the Anti-Defamation League's Western states director, also questioned Sheinbaum's credibility, saying if he was going to "make pronouncements which are really playing Russian roulette with the lives of 3 1/2 million Israeli men, women and children," he ought to pick up and move from the comfort of Brentwood to Israel.

And writer David Horowitz, a former editor of Ramparts magazine when Sheinbaum was a board member, said, "The PLO has been trying to destroy the Jewish state for 40 years and people like Sheinbaum are bending over backward, crawling, just to get a crumb from this guy. (Sheinbaum's mission) is another example of the "depressing history of Jewish self-laceration."

Sheinbaum said he can understand those who do not want to deal with Arafat: "He's killed people. But they deal with Begin and Shamir," he added, noting the Israeli leaders' early membership in the Irgun (the underground Jewish militia formed when Israel was still Palestine) and adding that many world leaders have violent revolutionary pasts that fade "once they assumed the trapping of state and became respected members of the diplomatic community.

"Jomo Kenyatta! He was called 'an incredible monster; he kills children,' " Sheinbaum said. "And then he became the ideological leader, the elder statesman of Africa. All I'm saying with Arafat is: Perspective is needed."

'Greatly Relieved'

Despite collapsing for the second time in as many weeks from "sheer fatigue, the worst virus I ever had and a few Swedish pills," Sheinbaum described himself as "greatly relieved" by the U.S. decision to begin a dialogue with the PLO. He credited the Stockholm Declaration as "a major step" leading to the U.S. action.

"There's a pride in having been involved, in having played a key role. Whether it would be happening without (the Stockholm meeting), who knows? . . . There is no alternative now but for the enemies who hate each other to sit down face to face."

He was neither apologetic nor boastful. "I feel something very positive happened," he said. "I'm not emotional about it. I had a task to do. I dealt with the people involved. I feel very workmanlike about it."

Times staff writers Robin Wright and Paul Ciotti contributed to this story.

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