COLUMNS

LIFE AND DEATH POLITICS

In the Middle East, political survival takes on an entirely different meaning

Peter Mansbridge June 13 2005
COLUMNS

LIFE AND DEATH POLITICS

In the Middle East, political survival takes on an entirely different meaning

Peter Mansbridge June 13 2005

LIFE AND DEATH POLITICS

COLUMNS

Mansbridge on the Record

In the Middle East, political survival takes on an entirely different meaning

CANADIANS ARE NOW staggeringly familiar with how their political leaders react under the pressure of a minority Parliament. Some politicians get angry, some go cold, others cut deals, some even leave their party. There’s nothing like the fear of losing your job to focus the mind. But when you observe the life of a political leader from the Middle East, you realize what real pressure is—the possibility of losing your life for what you believe is just and right.

A few days ago, I spent about half an hour sitting across from the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, during his halfday visit to Ottawa. We were in the living room at Rideau Gate, Canada’s official guesthouse for visiting dignitaries. The Abbas contingent was on hand, from his official photographer—the same man who followed Yasser Arafat through many of his years at the helm of Palestinian dreams—to his political and legal advisers, including the young Canadian Diana Buttu, who has become one of the new leader’s most trusted aides. (In fact, during our brief session, Abbas made it clear that he wanted Buttu, a Queen’s University law school grad who grew up in Toronto and had planned to spend extra time in Canada to see her family, to instead carry on with his trip that had started in Washington and was, after Ottawa, suddenly adding on several countries in North Africa.)

And there was the security: the street outside, just a stone’s throw from 24 Sussex Drive and Rideau Hall, was blocked off by the RCMP who were in place in significant numbers. Inside, the

a I asked Rabin what he feared most, and he replied, ‘The lack of patience by some people.* Two years later, he was gunned down.

room had been checked out by the Mounties and by Abbas’s own security detail, but at least during our discussion the one bodyguard who remained in the room stayed far in the background, and there were no weapons evident. What clearly wasn’t far away, though, was the fear that always surrounds Abbas—that he, like his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, could be a target of assassination for his attempts to find a negotiated settlement to their historic dispute. Abbas told me that despite their remaining and significant differences, he and Sharon share “sort of a chemistry” that has real promise.

It crossed my mind while talking with Abbas that we were sitting in the same room, perhaps even in the same chairs, where I’d questioned another man determined to bring lasting peace to the Middle East, Yitzhak Rabin. That interview was in November 1993, just two months after the Israeli prime minister’s Bill Clinton-inspired historic handshake with Arafat on the White House lawn. Rabin was determined that the deal the two old foes had signed would make a difference, telling me there was no need for “archives of agreements” that were never implemented.

With his security people off-camera and sitting quietly in the background, I asked Rabin what he feared most, and he responded by saying “the lack of patience by some people” on both sides of the great divide. Two years later, almost to the day, he was gunned down by an Israeli distraught over what he saw as the concessions Rabin was willing to give in order to attain peace.

When you’re a leader in the Middle East, survival has a more literal meaning. And it has nothing to do with non-confidence motions. Í71

Peter Mansbridge is Chief Correspondent of CBC Television News and Anchor of The National.

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