Facing Fatah - the day I became one of the 'hard men' of the Middle East


I have just spent two days inside the skin of Jibril Rajoub, the Fatah hard man and former West Bank security chief. This was not a comfortable experience.

But as a participant in a simulation of Israeli-Palestinian talks, I was asked to join nine other negotiators, from a range of backgrounds, to thrash out a set of common principles to present to President Obama as part of an imaginary initiative to kickstart the peace process.

In a bizarre turn of events, Barack Obama helpfully turned this scenario into reality by announcing just such an initiative on the morning of our simulation.

The event was organised by Track 4, a project developed by American academic Natasha Gill designed to give policymakers, diplomats and opinion-formers a better understanding of conflict and mediation.

Unlike Jibril (the name to which I answered for 48 hours), I have not spent 17 years in an Israeli prison and was never nearly killed when the IDF bombed my house.

I have not been in charge of Palestinian Authority's Preventative Security Force or "developed a reputation as a ruthless enforcer", even on my toughest reporting assignments. I would probably agree with Jibril on Islamic fundamentalists that "no-one has a right to dictate their crazy vision to our children", but my view is not informed by having a brother who is a Hamas imam.

My fellow Palestinian negotiators were all Jewish. The head of our delegation, Sa'eb Erekat, was played by a prominent newspaper columnist and we were joined by a British-Israeli expert on the region who serves as a reservist in the IDF and the head of a UK Jewish charity.

I knew all three as passionate advocates for Israel and yet, within minutes, we were discussing strategy for pushing the Palestinian case with Obama's representative George Mitchell, played by a Swiss diplomat.

We quickly decided we would concentrate our efforts on persuading the Americans of the reasonable nature of our demands. Any interaction with the Israelis would be a sideshow to allow us to play for time. We knew, if push came to shove, we could simply sit it out until September when we would unilaterally announce Palestinian statehood.

As a white British middle-class man, I found the experience of being an oppressed and stateless minority as uncomfortable as being a man who dealt ruthlessly with his enemies. I was thrown immediately on to the defensive.

When Uzi Arad (played by an extremely debonair Palestinian-American businessman) asked me about my brother, I stonewalled and told him: "I am not an emotional man." After the simulation, "Uzi" told me the overture had been entirely genuine and he was hurt by my snub. But when he later told us we had our "asses whipped" by Hamas in the elections of 2006, I nearly exploded with fury.

As I struggled to retain an air of calm menace, my colleagues negotiating on refugees became genuinely angry with the Israeli head of mission, Dore Gold (a senior official in an aid charity) and Dan Meridor (bravely played by a female Israeli-Arab educationist) who was dismissed as a "liberal". Indeed, one of our delegation later admitted he had developed a visceral hatred for Dore Gold over the two days.

By the end of the second day, when the Israelis had ripped up Senator Mitchell's draft statement, we "Palestinians" choreographed a session where we threw our papers down, smashed our fists on the table, and I dismissed the Israeli delegation as "petty bureaucrats". This was surprisingly satisfying.

We also felt we had made significant gains. In the final document submitted to President Obama, we "Palestinians" had secured a commitment to 1967 borders and the partition of Jerusalem. We conceded on the terminology of the "right of return" for refugees, but gained full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank. We also insisted on the Americans giving equal weight to Palestinian and Israeli security concerns. It will be fascinating to see how closely our statement resembles the real thing when it eventually appears.

I must say I was sceptical about the merits of the exercise beforehand. But it was a long way from the peacenik love-in I had expected. We were, needless to say, not there to bring peace to the Middle East.

But we certainly came away with a deeper understanding of the nature of such negotiations and how easy it is to get stuck in entrenched positions.

In the end I felt the Palestinian case was well made by our team of three Jews and a friend of Israel. But others were not so sure. The Israeli team quickly grew irritated by our victim mentality.

And the young Arab academic who played Senator Mitchell's deputy said she was heartily sick of all the participants by the end, and seriously wondered why the Americans bothered talking to either side.

And as we left the negotiations, one question from "Uzi Arad" was left hanging. How could I reassure Israel about its security concerns if Hamas won an election in the new Palestinian state? Neither I nor Jibril could answer that one.

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