How we Met: Uzi Mahnaimi & Bassam Abu-Sharif

How we Met: Uzi Mahnaimi & Bassam Abu-Sharif image

Independent - 18th June 1995

Uzi Mahnaimi, 42, was born in Tel Aviv. Formerly in Israeli military intelligence, for whom he recruited new agents, he left the army in 1987 to join the staff of Israel's biggest- selling newspaper, Yediouth Ahronot. Married with two children, he now works as a freelance journalist in London. Bassam Abu-Sharif, 49, was until recently Yasser Arafat's chief press spokesman. Once the victim of a Mossad bomb, he was one of the architects of the 1993 Arab-Israeli rappro- chement. Married with two children, he lives in Amman. With Uzi Mahnaimi, he has just pub- lished the book Tried by Fire.

UZI MAHNAIMI: I first met Bassam in 1988, one year after I'd started working as Middle East editor for Yediouth Ahronot, the biggest-selling Israeli newspaper, and one year after he'd joined Yasser Arafat as his special adviser. I was simply looking for better sources within the Palestinian Libera- tion Organisation, and I thought that Bassam might be willing to talk to me. I think he thought that through me he might be able to exercise some influence within the Israeli hierarchy. And I thought that through Bassam I might be able to get printed in the newspaper what I thought should be done on the political front. Let me make it clear that I was never that sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but I felt that a solution to the conflict had to be found. Meeting him influenced my journalism very much because now I had a first-hand source, and the front page of my paper was often full of exclusive stories. At that time it was quite complicated because there was an Israeli law which forbade any contact with PLO members, unless it was at a press conference, but a mutual friend, Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, arranged a meeting at the Rue St Jacques restaurant in London. It was very strange when Bassam walked in, because at that time, before the Rabin-Arafat reconciliation, it was extremely rare even for an Israeli journalist to meet anyone from the PLO, let alone someone so high up within it. When we first met, I felt quite tense, and I was aware that there was an element of danger for both sides. We were in an open public space, and I knew that I was in some danger of attack by PLO hardliners, because some Palestinians might have known that I had been a major in Israeli intelligence. And when Bassam arrived he was accompanied by two bodyguards, and I learnt afterwards that Special Branch officers had been sitting around watching us. I was very amused because Bassam had several double scotches as an aperitif, and then ordered a bottle of Chateau Margaux costing pounds 120. Fortunately, the Sunday Times was paying.

It was quite a thrill for me to be able to meet Bassam and talk with him; for three hours we talked about politics and what should be done. I liked him very much from the start. He's very charismatic, charming and talkative. We had a good chemistry and I thought at the time that it would be nice to have a glass of beer with him some time and just chat to him without all the heavy politics. After meeting him, I knew much more about the Palestinians and it helped me to explain to my readers that they are also human beings, that they have rights, and that if we can be reconciled with them and help them solve their problems, then we can solve many of our own problems, too. I had a tough fight with my editor, who didn't see why our readers should be exposed to the Arab view, and we lost a bit of circulation for a while. But I believe that through Bassam and other sources I succeeded in putting the Palestinian cause on the front pages on a daily basis, and I think that helped persuade the Israeli government to pursue peace seriously.

It took time for Bassam and me to become friends, because he was travelling a lot and it wasn't easy to get through to him over the phone, largely because there were no direct telephone lines between Israel and the Arab world. He used to send me faxes at work, to the newsroom. At first the editors were really astonished to see PLO headed paper coming through on the fax machine, and the first time they didn't want to touch it. It was pretty explosive stuff. The security services began to be worried about what was going on; no other Israeli journalist had such contact with a member of the PLO. They were worried that he would try and use me to sell his stuff, which of course he did do; my task was to sit there and sift through it and try to work out what I could rely on and what I couldn't. But this was 1988-1992, and those were the crucial years in which the PLO was on the brink of recognising the state of Israel - Bassam was the man who pushed most strong ly for this revolutionary thing to happen.

We both love life. We like women, we like drink, we like good restaurants and we like to spend money, more than we have. There's not much I don't like about him, except that he is often late. He's very hard-working but he never comes on time, and sometimes he doesn't show up at all. I sometimes feel uncomfortable looking at his disfigured hands and scarred face, because it was a Mossad parcel bomb that did that. I have no doubt that there were Palestinians during those years who did deserve not only a parcel bomb, but even worse high-explosive "gifts", but I don't think that Bassam was the right target - he was simply head of the newspaper of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. I am not an Arab-lover - basically they were bastards - but the Palestinians have their rights. My relationship with Bassam is based on the fact that I like him as a man, not as an Arab or a Palestinian - I just like him. And I have a better relationship with him than with many Israelis.

BASSAM ABU-SHARIF: I met Uzi through our mutual friend, Marie Colvin. At the time, the Intifada was at its height, and Marie told me that she had this Israeli friend, a good journalist, who would like to meet me. She said that he was in favour of a Palestinian state, which I thought was amazing considering that he worked for this right-wing newspaper. Marie Colvin invited us to this restaurant in London, where we met for the first time. I think Uzi was quite tense. It was the first time he had met a Palestinian leader, and at that time, it was against the law for Israelis to do that. Also, he was aware of the possible security risk. But I wasn't nervous at all; and I had two security guards with me. So I tried to make him feel calm, because I could see that he was nervous. He was wearing a suit, and I said to him: "I thought all Israeli journalists wore battle-dress." I knew that he had been in the army, and that he had been an intelligence officer. What I had in my mind was to make him relax and give him the correct impression about the Palestinians - which is that we are people who are serious about peace.

At the end of that lunch I handed him my visiting card, and on the back I had written just one word: "peace". And the fact that he kept in touch with me afterwards is proof that he knew I was sincere. Then he dared to start writing about Pales-tinians in a different way, using the word "Palestinian", not "terrorist", and that created problems for him, but he continued. All the time, he'd update me on the developments from the Israeli side, while I used to tell him what was going on in the top echelons of the PLO. I didn't feed him with PLO propaganda, I just sent him my ideas about how to establish peace in the region. I loved to think of my faxes marked "From the office of the PLO - President's Office" going into the office of this right-wing Israeli newspaper. I believe our co- operation played a key role in changing Israeli public opinion. Many of my friends told me I shouldn't be having anything to do with an Israeli journalist. But we proved them wrong. Uzi managed to report through his newspaper what I was saying, and that reached Israeli public opinion, especially the extreme right, which helped bring people closer to the idea of a peaceful reconciliation. And he was the first to dare do that. I think he was very brave. If I hadn't made contact with him, the peace process would probably have taken a lot longer.

We don't always talk about politics - we talk about music and writing. We like life. We like children, we like drink, good food, beautiful women, spending money. We have common taste in many things, and probably because we like life we hate war, a war that was imposed on us. There's nothing I don't like about Uzi. I feel that my friendship with him is better than my friendship with people I have known for 25 years. Sometimes I call him and tell him that I'm coming to London, and I don't even tell my own son, who's at school here. And when I came this time, it was Uzi who fetched me from the airport. Uzi doesn't like me being late, but sometimes I'm late on purpose for security reasons.

I find Uzi very clever, very calm, very mild. When we became friends, some of my friends didn't like it at all. But they changed. They met him when he came to Tunis - he came to my house, he met my family and my friends. And then he went with me and had breakfast with Arafat at his house, and everyone relaxed.

I am a victim of Israeli terrorism; in 1972 I was blown up by a parcel bomb sent by Mossad. Contrary to the expectations of many, that didn't turn me into a hater. In fact, the feeling was a feeling of pity. I felt very, very deeply about the pain inflicted on both sides through violence, call it terrorism or whatever, and it helped me to think about trying to find a political solution, so that we could all avoid all this pain, so that Arab and Israeli children could enjoy life in the normal way. I started to feel that it was a stupid game of killing and bloodshed. I think that Uzi might have felt more pain about my lost fingers and thumb than I did.

He asked the man who was in charge of Mossad at the time of the explosion: "Why Bassam? Why did you try to kill him? He's never held a gun." And the guy said that they had wanted me dead because I was the most outspoken Palestinian - they wanted to kill my words.

I'm very pragmatic. What happened happened. What's important is the future. I hope not only that I will be friends with Uzi all my life, but that our children will be friends. !