Editor’s Note: Stephen Philip Cohen, the academic and Jewish organizational leader who served as a confidential intermediary between Israeli and Arab leaders for three decades, died today. He was 71 and had been in poor health. Earlier this month, our reported interviewed him upon the release of his new book. You can read the interview below:
Stephen P. Cohen made history deep behind the scenes in the Middle East, as he helped to set the scene. In “The Go-Between: Memoir of a Mideast Intermediary” (Gefen 2016), he recounts, for the first time, the details of his 30-year effort to advance the cause of peace. A social psychologist, Cohen served as a trusted confidante, adviser and bridge builder between Israelis and Palestinians at the highest levels of government, including Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Rabin, Anwar Sadat and Yasir Arafat. He organized historic meetings between Egypt and Israel before Camp David and in the first official talks with the PLO. He taught at Harvard, CUNY Graduate Center and Yale, and made more than 150 trips to the Middle East over 40 years. During that time, his work was supported by USAID, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Charles Bronfman, and, most recently, Danny Abraham. Now 71, and facing some health challenges, he has decided to break his silence.
How do you get people to trust you on both sides?
That was the main achievement. In my early years of work, I realized the necessity of coming to understand the cost for the continued engagement in the violent conflict for each side. I would bring what I learned as a social psychologist to the conflict about the importance of direct communication about how each people was experiencing their life in conflict, how that experience was robbing them of any hopeful future, for each people and for the two together.
Why tell this now?
For a long time, I felt it was my obligation to maintain confidences,
to allow me the credibility to do this work. When I realized that the
process that I had engendered had come to, if not a complete halt, but
had become bogged down, and I was no longer in a position in terms
ofmy health or my ability to raise money to support the work, to
continue, Irealized it was time to tell the story before it would be
told inaccurately byothers, without full understanding of the
underlying motivation of bringing peace between the parties.
What will most surprise readers?
To find that both Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders were committed enough to make peace, and for the prospect of it to succeed, to risk so much of their political capital to keep it going. Many of the Jewish readers will be surprised by the Palestinian leaders’ commitment to the process at that time.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
My persistence — after the bombing of the Palestinian headquarters in Tunis, that I did not give up trying to create the first contact between Israeli officials and the PLO. It happened again when I was in Beirut and experienced the Israeli bombing of Beirut. I did not become afraid about plans to go underground to meet Arafat and his cohort of leadership.
I met Arafat for the first time in 1981 — when meeting with the PLO was officially forbidden to Israeli citizens by Israeli law, where the US official position was to follow the Israeli insistence on boycotting the PLO leadership.
Were you breaking the law?
It was not against the law for someone from Canada to do this. I was neither Israeli nor American. I was breaking the taboo, not the law.
I had to get agreement from the Israeli leadership to have these meetings take place — it’s not a good idea or an effective idea to do this as a rogue activity. Contrary to the impression that I was willing to break the law, I was trying to create a legal process of advancing peace, one that would be authorized by Israeli leadership.
Is there someone doing the back-channel work you used to do?
Unfortunately not. Not right now. In the book’s postscript, [Boutros] Boutros-Ghali [the Egyptian diplomat who served as Secretary-General of the United Nations], says explicitly that we need “a new generation of Steve Cohens.”
Why wasn’t Secretary of State John Kerry able to advance the peace process?
I think the problem was that the president of the United States had not developed a relationship with the Israeli prime minister, in which the Israeli prime minister would authorize a continuation of negotiations — it’s not possible to get those negotiations going without agreement of the leadership on both sides. I learned that early on. Unfortunately, President Obama persisted in thinking that he could force the Israeli hand to accept something they [Israelis] didn’t want.
Now it’s true that it doesn’t look, in retrospect, very promising for Obama to have been able to convince Netanyahu of anything. But if it did succeed it would have been possible for things to move ahead.
What are your thoughts, looking ahead to a Trump presidency?
The first question is whether Trump will have any commitment to spend some of his political capital in trying to convince the Israelis to approve new negotiations, which does not seem likely right now. But I don’t think we can force Trump to do something he’s against doing — we have to convince him that it’s important to America’s strategic future to agree to an American initiative on relations between Israel and the Palestinians. If he does make such an attempt, he has a better chance of succeeding, because Netanyahu believes in the Trump victory. Trump’s choices and decisions thus far do not bode well for his understanding of the importance of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Not only for the two people, but for respect for American leadership, and for the respect of the U.S. among Arabs, Muslims, and other nations in the world.
Is there a message you want readers to take away?
Underneath it all there is a place where both Israeli leadership and Palestinian leadership know that the continued armed struggle between them is a hopeless thing. They know that they have to find a way to get underneath their own deep covering of self-protection, to do what is necessary but not easy, to go deep into their psyches to acknowledge what they already know. It’s there and I believe it can be discovered again. Every year that we delay it becomes harder and harder.