Fourteen years ago, late on a Saturday afternoon, I went with my 5-year-old son to visit the Kuwaiti ambassador at his home near the United Nations. I knew that (Zehdi Labib) Terzi, the representative of the PLO, was likely to be there, but I thought it was important for me to talk with him because even then, the Palestinians were ready to recognize Israel.
The meeting blew up into a big fiasco--U.S. officials were not supposed to talk to the PLO--and led to my resignation.
That month, I was in a routine rotation as president of the Security Council. The U.N. Committee on Palestinian Rights was bringing a resolution to the Security Council by (PLO leader Yasser) Arafat that did much of what the current agreement is doing. It didn’t renounce violence, but it did agree to accept all U.N. resolutions on the Middle East, which in effect was the PLO way of recognizing Israel’s right to exist. This was something we had been trying to get them to do for years, only the timing was bad for the Carter Administration.
I asked the Arab ambassadors to get the PLO to postpone the resolution. They called me back and said the PLO wanted to talk with me directly. They were meeting that Saturday afternoon for lunch at the Kuwaiti ambassador’s home. When I got there at 5, the PLO representative was still there. The Kuwaiti ambassador had a 6-year-old son, and he and my son played while we had tea and talked. I thought the PLO was looking for a way to escape the violence that had entrapped them and was destroying their organization and people.
I deny that my meeting was secret--the State Department knew about it in advance and no one objected. I had given the Israeli ambassador a full report on what was going on. He reported it to Moshe Dayan, who was the Israeli foreign minister. There were lots of meetings going on with American officials and Palestinian officials in Lebanon and Austria and all over the place. But the policy was to say this was a chance meeting and no official business was discussed, which is how the State Department tried to handle my meeting.
One of the reasons I resigned was the way things were played in the New York tabloids. The Post headline was, “Jews Demand Firing Young.” For me as a black leader to be in the midst of controversy would have exacerbated black-Jewish relations in New York.
At the moment I was resigning, (Carter domestic policy adviser) Stuart Eisenstadt was on the phone with Moshe Dayan and they had agreed on Israeli language asking Carter not to accept my resignation. They were trying to get it cleared by (Israeli Premier Menachem) Begin, but Begin that day went to the hospital with one of his heart attacks. If they had gotten the approval from Begin, I probably would have stayed on.
There was never any question in my mind that I was on the side of peace. In Congress, I had a 100% voting record in support of Israel. The climate here was irrational and you couldn’t get any reasonable discussion and hope to be reelected, so the closer Jimmy Carter got to (the 1980) election, the less you could talk about it.
Unfortunately, the Jewish community in America tended to identify with the right-wing element in Israeli politics. The people I related to were Dayan and Shimon Peres. I had been to Israel back in 1966 and had a long meeting with (David) Ben Gurion (the founder and first prime minister of Israel) in his kibbutz. My positions on Israel were formulated out of the original Israeli vision of coexistence with Palestinians.
We’ve always put this terrorist label on the PLO, and there is no question that they have been involved in terrorism, but the PLO and the Palestinians are the best-educated people in the Middle East. Many Palestinian students were educated in Christian missionary schools. I always tried to find the men and women of reason that you could move toward a settlement with, and that’s what the Norwegian foreign minister did very, very well.
If there is one lesson that should be learned out of all this, it is that we should never again, for any reason, allow our diplomatic initiatives to be limited by a no-talk policy with anybody. It’s absolutely necessary for the United States of America to be able to talk with anybody, on any occasion, anywhere.
What I was doing was helping my country to make peace in an area that had been plagued by violence and bloodshed for a quarter of a century. When I see hundreds of Marines killed in Lebanon, busloads of Israeli children blown up and Lebanese villages leveled, my heart is heavy because I know it didn’t have to be this way, that we missed many good chances for peace, and that Saturday afternoon in New York was one.