Grand Illusions

With Rumsfeld and Powell gone, and Cheney’s power diminished, this is Condoleezza Rice’s moment. Can she salvage America’s standing in the Middle East—and defuse the threat of a nuclear Iran? Behind the curtain in Washington and Jerusalem with the secretary of state

When he came into office in January 2001, George W. Bush resolutely turned his back on the ostentatious shuttle diplomacy in which his predecessor, Bill Clinton, had been so passionately engaged. While it is possible to imagine that the Bush administration has now decided to embrace the diplomatic strategies of the Clinton era, I saw no indication of any such philosophical about-face.

What I witnessed in Jerusalem and Ramallah was a show put on for the television cameras, starring Condoleezza Rice. Thanks largely to circumstance, and to her talents on the public stage, Rice has succeeded where Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, pulling in opposite directions during Bush’s first term, failed. She has assembled an alliance of Arab states working to help the United States contain Iran, stabilize Iraq, and keep Syria out of Lebanon. Her success becomes even more paradoxical when one realizes that she is not a classic believer in process diplomacy—in fact, she loathes it. Rice is the product of a structuralist academic background and has a deep personal belief in the primacy of “underlying historical forces,” a conviction in direct conflict with the optics of her current role as the public face of America’s new coalition-building effort in the Middle East.

Practically, Rice is torn between her strong belief in the necessity and the inevitability of democratic change in the Middle East and the fact that America’s coalition depends in large part on the goodwill of Saudi Arabia, which insists that the United States downplay its desire for change. Rice is torn between her long-term commitment to democracy and the actual short-term results of democracy. She is trying to have things both ways, a fact that she understands, because she is not stupid. At the same time, she believes she can have things both ways, because she believes that history is on her side.

While it is Rice who understandably captivates reporters and cameramen, in her retinue, largely unobserved, is a man who has witnessed every high-level attempt at negotiating a solution to the Arab-Israeli problem for the past 16 years. In a blue shirt, yellow tie, and slightly boxy gray suit, Gamal Helal does his best to look like an ordinary bureaucrat, but there is something essentially bohemian in his nature that even the State Department will never be able to erase. He has the soulful eyes of a young poet, and he gazes in a calm, unhurried way through a pair of expensive rimless eyeglasses.

Helal, a Coptic Christian who was born in Egypt in 1954, moved to the United States in the mid-1970s and studied cross-cultural communication at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. He joined the State Department in the mid-1980s and became a senior diplomatic interpreter in 1993. Helal was so good at his job that he was named a senior policy adviser to the special Middle East coordinator, Dennis Ross. After Bush dismantled the Office of the Special Middle East Coordinator, Helal continued his work as an interpreter and an adviser.

When I ask him what it is like to translate conversations between Rice and the Palestinian president, he says, “President Abbas is somebody who did not go through formal education in English. So he understands things, but you are dealing here with a different level of English. He prefers to speak Arabic. He quietly will ask me if what he understood in English was correct or not. Because every nuance makes a huge difference.”

What Arab leaders hear when presidents and secretaries of state speak, and vice versa, is the core of Helal’s professional life. “I don’t believe that logic is universal,” he says thoughtfully. “I happen to believe that logic is local. You believe in things that make sense to you and are logical to you because of your education, your background, your upbringing, what you believed in.” English words may exist in Arabic-language dictionaries, but the universe of concepts that determines their meaning is different. “When we say we will ‘look into’ an issue, OK, that could mean many things,” he says. “It could mean, ‘Forget it, it’s never going to happen.’ But there is a difference between ‘We will look into it’ or ‘We will reconsider it.’” Likewise, the Arabic inshallah—“God willing”—which in general usage can be the equivalent of “We’ll look into it,” can also mean that the speaker will rely on God’s will to make something happen. “It depends on so many variables, and you will not be able to get the right message unless you are familiar with everything—the body language, with the way the phrase is being said,” he explains. “Because words without meanings are meaningless.”

In Helal’s telling, the Oslo negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians fell short not because the participants did not try hard enough, or because the timing was off. Rather, the progress in the ’90s toward a Palestinian state and an Israeli state living side by side in peace was ultimately a dance of illusions in which each party might have approached the other’s positions forever without any real likelihood of a deal. “I think Arafat, in his own mind, had a blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement,” Helal says. “And I don’t think he believed for a second that the Israelis were willing to pay that bill.”

The Bush administration’s answer to the collapse of the Camp David negotiations was to let the two sides shoot it out until one side won or both sides got tired. Yet even if one accepts the unpleasant idea that the only thing to do with the conflict is to manage the violence, it seems clear that the illusions of the Oslo years were less deadly than the reality check that followed.

Helal enjoys working with Rice. He appreciates her interest in hearing all points of view on a given subject and her understanding of the details. When I ask him what he makes of the words he often translates for her, like “freedom” and “democracy,” he is polite, but wary. “I cannot imagine that you can go anywhere in the world and ask people, ‘Do you want to be free?’ and they will say, ‘No, we really love to be prisoners,’” he says. The problem is not with freedom but with democracy, a concept that evolved in differing and idiosyncratic ways in the Western historical experience. “In the Middle East, they look at things and ask, Is it halal or haram,” he explains. “Is it approved by the religion or not? If you go to a Bedouin society and you tell them that the state will determine how you’re going to settle a conflict between you and your cousin, you must be out of your mind, because the most important and powerful tool to them will be tribal law, which is unwritten.”

Presented by

David Samuels’s “In a Ruined Country,” a profile of Yasir Arafat, appeared in September 2005.

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