I still have the press credentials I gathered nearly three decades ago from the Middle East's various combatants: one from the left-wing Druse militia in Lebanon, one from the right-wing Lebanese Christian militia known as the "Phalange," one from the Palestine Liberation Organization, another from the Israeli government. The only common features are the photos of me in my early 30s: scruffy, glowering, determined to penetrate the veil of secrets.
The press cards remind me of a time when you could be in the middle of the Middle East conflict and imagine that you were covering all sides fairly. And when I say in the middle, I mean that almost literally. Back in the early 1980s, you could interview the PLO in West Beirut in the morning, sneak past the snipers along the "Green Line" at midday, and then interview the Israeli-backed Phalangists that afternoon in East Beirut, even as the two sides were shooting at each other.
Not long ago, I found myself wishing I had one of those old press passes, which carried the implicit message: "Don’t shoot; I'm a journalist!" I had just "moderated" a heated discussion of the Gaza war at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The session became a minor international incident when I told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that, because we had run out of time, he could not have another round of comments responding to Israeli President Shimon Peres, whereupon Erdogan walked off the stage. In the aftermath, I received many outraged messages complaining I had censored Erdogan and sided with the Israelis.
For someone who has spent much of his career trying to operate in the middle of the Middle East conflict and working hard to avoid any appearance of bias, it was an unpleasant situation. Trust me, you would not like to examine the e-mails I got or read the articles in the Turkish press about the incident. There are several explanations I could offer about what happened: that we were 15 minutes late, that each of the speakers, and especially Peres, had abused the time limits, and that the organizers had signaled it was time to end the event.
But that only obscures the larger point. At Davos, I found myself in the middle of a fight where there was no longer a middle. My efforts to do what moderators do -- let everyone talk for a while and then find a few inches of common ground -- blew up in my face.
Gaza is simply one of those problems for which there isn't much middle ground. Israelis and Palestinians are both convinced not only that they are right, but that the other side is morally bankrupt. Talking about Hamas's rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, the normally placid Peres was almost shouting at Davos, angrier than I had ever seen him. Erdogan, in turn, was hot with indignation, voicing a rage that is felt across the Muslim world, and furious that I didn’t give him time to express those feelings fully. It's understandable, what happened. But it’s not a debate that anyone can "moderate."
Looking at America's troubled role in the Middle East today, I fear the country finds itself in a position similar to mine -- trying to act as a moderator in a bitter dispute, to seek a middle where there is no middle. The United States is perceived as siding with the Israelis even as it claims to be impartial. When someone walks off the stage, Americans wonder what went wrong.
The United States may regard itself as outside the conflict, but in the region it's seen as part of it. During the Bush years, people began to think of America as a combatant, not a mediator; it's pretty hard to play the honest broker when you have two armies on the ground. The American laissez-passer credentials didn't work anymore.
So what should the United States do about the Middle East? It has in Barack Obama a new president who says he intends to talk to all sides -- to America’s enemies as well as its friends. But what would this mean in practice? Is the damage of the Bush years irreparable, or is there a path that leads somewhere else -- not to the elusive middle, but to a new kind of connection?
I know a little about talking with our enemies because I have been doing it for many years. Not my enemies, mind you (journalists aren’t supposed to have any), but my country's. I talked with the PLO in Beirut when U.S. diplomats were forbidden from doing so. I visited Libyan officials in Tripoli back when the United States was bombing that country's leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. I have twice interviewed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah. I have interviewed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria twice as well, most recently last December. And I traveled to Iran in 2006 to interview officials there.
The "enemies list" is, more or less, the same roster of states and radical groups the United States must now engage as it seeks to stabilize the Middle East. And though the American mantra may be that it never negotiates with terrorists, the reality is that it always has, when it's necessary or useful to do so. To take just one example, at the very time the United States officially refused to negotiate with the terrorist PLO, the Central Intelligence Agency was recruiting the chief of Yasir Arafat’s intelligence service as a U.S. asset -- with Arafat's knowledge.
One remembers the inevitable oddities from these encounters: Arafat's habit of repeating in his post-midnight Beirut harangues that the Palestinians were "not the Red Indians"; the mad look in Qaddafi's bloodshot eyes as he stared at me in one of his palaces and then stalked out, refusing to conduct the promised interview; the animation in Nasrallah's boyish face as he talked about Hezbollah's grim mission; Assad's almost plaintive warning in 2003 that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would lead to disaster; the sudden softening of an Iranian hard-liner who, when he learned that I was a novelist, insisted on giving me a book of Persian poetry.