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They Dare to Speak Out
People and Institutions Confront Israel's Lobby
By Paul Findley
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2003 Paul Findley
All rights reserved.
Rescue and Involvement
"How did a congressman from the corn-hog heartland of America get entangled in Middle East politics?" people ask. Like most rural congressmen, I had no ethnic constituencies who lobbied me on their foreign interests. As expected, I joined the Agriculture Committee and worked mainly on issues such as farming, budget, and welfare reform.
Newly appointed in 1972 to the subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, I had represented the Springfield, Illinois, area for twelve years without attracting much attention at home or abroad.
Eight short years later, my involvement in Middle East politics would bring me infamy among many U.S. Jews, notoriety in Israel, and applause throughout the Arab world. By 1980, in urban centers of pro-Israel activism — far from the local Jews in central Illinois who knew and trusted me — I found myself in the most expensive congressional campaign in state history. Thanks to a flow of hostile dollars from both coasts and nearby Chicago, I became "the number one enemy of Israel" and my re-election campaign the principal target of Israel's lobby.
Prodded by a professor at Illinois College when I first joined the subcommittee, I had already begun to doubt the wisdom of U.S. policy in the Middle East. In the early years, I kept these doubts private, but not because I feared the political consequences. In fact, I naively assumed I could question our policy anywhere without getting into trouble. I did not realize how deeply the roots of Israeli interests penetrated U.S. institutions.
In matters pertaining to Middle East policy, members of Congress generally paid attention only to what Israel wanted. Arab American lobbies, fledgling forces even today, were nonexistent. Muslim organizations were in their infancy. Arab embassies showed little interest in lobbying. Even if a congressman wanted to hear the Arab viewpoint, he would have had difficulty finding a spokesman to explain it.
My personal involvement with Middle East politics started with a situation that had no direct connection to the Arab — Israeli conflict. It began in the spring of 1973 when a letter arrived from Mrs. Evans Franklin, a constituent who wrote neighborhood news for a weekly newspaper I had once edited. In this letter, she pleaded for my help in securing the release of her son, Ed, from a faraway prison. He had been convicted of espionage and sentenced to five years' solitary imprisonment in Aden, the capital of the Marxist People's Democratic Republic of [South] Yemen. After reading her plea, I had to consult a map. I knew only that Aden had once been a major British base.
Had it not been for a series of canceled airline flights, his mother told me, Franklin would never have set foot in Aden. Returning from Ethiopia to his teaching post in Kuwait, he was rerouted through Aden and then delayed there by the cancelation of his departing flight. His luck worsened. Unaware of local restrictions, he photographed a prohibited area. The Adenese were still nervous about blonde-haired visitors, remembering the commando raid the British had conducted shortly after they left Aden six years earlier. When Franklin snapped the pictures, he was immediately arrested. After being kept in an interrogation center for months, he was finally brought to trial, where he was convicted and sentenced. My efforts to secure his release proceeded for the most part without aid from the State Department. Our government had had no relations, diplomatic or otherwise, with Aden since a 1969 coup moved the country's regime dramatically to the left. This meant that the State Department could do nothing directly. I asked a friend in the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., to help. Franklin's parents, people of modest means living in a rural crossroads village, sent a request to Salim Rubyai Ali, South Yemen's president, seeking executive clemency. I sent a similar request. Our government asked Britain to intervene through its embassy in Aden. There was no response to any of these initiatives.
In December 1973 I visited Abdallah Ashtal, Aden's ambassador to the United Nations in New York, to ask if I could go personally to Aden and make a plea for Franklin's release. Ashtal, a short, handsome, youthful diplomat who was taking evening graduate courses at New York University, promised a prompt answer. A message came back two weeks later that I would be welcome.
If I decided to go, I would have to travel alone. I would be the first congressman — in either the House or the Senate — to visit Aden since the republic was established in 1967, and the first U.S. official to visit there since diplomatic relations were severed in the wake of the coup two years later. Although this was an exciting prospect, it caused me some foreboding. Moreover, I had no authority as an envoy. South Yemen, sometimes called "the Cuba of the Arab world," was regarded by our State Department as the most radical of the Arab states. A State Department friend did nothing to relieve my concern when he told me that Aden's foreign minister got his job "because he killed more opponents than any other candidate."
Troubling questions came to mind. How would I be received? I discussed the trip with Alfred L. Atherton, Jr., assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asia affairs. I asked him, "If they lock me up, what will you do first?" He smiled and said, "Look for another congressman to come get you out!"
Still, I was probably the only person able to help. Franklin's mother told me, "I doubt if Ed can survive five years in a Yemen jail." My wife, Lucille, expressed deep concern over the prospects of the trip but agreed that I had little choice but to go.
I also thought the trip might be an opportunity to open the door to better relations with a vital but little-known part of the world. With the imminent reopening of the Suez Canal, better relations with Aden could be important to U.S. interests in the Indian Ocean. After all, Aden, along with French-held Djibouti, was a guardian of a world-famous and vitally important strait, the gateway to the Suez Canal. If the Soviets, already present with aid missions and military advisers, succeeded in dominating the Aden government, they could effectively control the canal from the south. It was obvious that, Franklin's potential release aside, the United States needed good relations with Aden.
I decided that I must go. The trip was set for late March 1974.
From Middle East scholars, I learned that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was soon to begin shuttle negotiations between Israel and Egypt, was held in high esteem in Aden. I asked him for a letter that I could take with me which would be as explicit as possible about United States — Aden relations. A personal letter arrived three days before I left. In it, Kissinger said he welcomed my "humanitarian mission" to Aden and added, "Should the occasion arise, you may wish to inform those officials whom you meet of our continuing commitment to work for an equitable and lasting Middle East peace and of our desire to strengthen our ties with the Arab world."
The letter was addressed to me, not to the Aden government. It was a diplomatic "feeler." I hoped it would convince any officials I met that the United States wanted to establish normal relations with Aden.
A good traveler always brings gifts. At the suggestion of an Egyptian friend, I secured scholarships from three colleges in Illinois to present to South Yemeni students. I also located and had specially bound two Arabic language translations of The Prairie Years, Carl Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln. In addition, I carried two small busts of Lincoln — my state's most celebrated leader — hoping he would be known even in Aden.
I left Washington, D.C., early enough to visit Syria before heading south to Aden. Syria had not had normal diplomatic relations with the United States since the 1967 war with Israel, and despite its growing importance, no member of the House of Representatives had visited there for five years. To my surprise, President Hafez Assad of Syria agreed to receive me without advance appointment. Perhaps he was intrigued by the presence of a U.S. congressman who said he had an open mind about Middle East issues.
Assad received me in the spacious second-floor reception room of his offices. A tall, thickset man with a prominent forehead and a warm, quiet manner, Assad made his points forcefully but without a hint of hostility. While sipping small cups of rich Syrian coffee, he voiced his pain over the United States' support of Israel's actions: "We are bitter about the guns and ammunition you provide to Israel, and why not? But bitterness is not hostility. In fact, we have very warm feelings about the American people. Despite the war, the Syrian people like Americans and have for years."
While sympathizing, I took the initiative, urging him to restore full diplomatic relations and to take a page from the public relations book of the Israelis. I suggested that he come to the United States and take his case directly to the American people via television.
Assad responded, "Perhaps we have made some mistakes. We should have better public relations. I agree with what you say and recommend, but I don't know when I can come to the United States."
As I rose to leave, Assad said, "You have my mandate to invite members of your Congress to visit Syria as soon as possible. They will be most welcome. We want those who are critical as well as those who are friends to come."
While I later personally extended Assad's invitation to many of my colleagues and then, in a detailed official report, to all of them, few accepted. The first congressional group did not arrive until 1978, four years later.
After my interview with Assad, I was driven late at night from Damascus to Beirut for the flight to Aden. As our car approached the Syria — Lebanon border, I could hear the sound of Israel's shelling of Lebanon's Mt. Hermon. It was a sobering reminder that, seven years after the 1967 war, the fighting still continued.
In 1974 Beirut was still the "Paris of the Middle East," a westernlike city with a lively nightlife and bustling commerce. A new Holiday Inn had just opened near the harbor. Every street seemed to boast two international banks, at least three bookstores, and a dozen restaurants. A year later the Holiday Inn became a battleground between Phalangist militia, backed by Israel, and the Lebanese left coalition, including Palestinians, which were helped by various Arab governments and by Moscow. Its walls were ripped open by shells, its rooftop pavilion littered with the bodies of fallen snipers. The vicious civil war, which began in 1975, had turned Beirut into a city of rubble.
But even in 1974, the Palestinians in the refugee camps did not share the prosperity of the city. I passed the hovels of Sabra and Shatila, where, nine years later, the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians would shock the world. My embassy escort said, "These miserable camps haven't improved in twenty years."
I also passed the Tel Zaatar refugee camp, whose wretched inhabitants would soon suffer a fate even more cruel. A year later, it was under seige for forty-five days by rightist "Christian" militias, armed and advised by Israel's Labor government. Fifteen thousand Palestinians were killed, many of them after the camp surrendered. Virtually every adult male survivor was executed. That slaughter was barely noted by the world press. Today hardly anyone, save the Palestinians, remembers it.
At that time, the spring of 1974, however, I had no premonition of the tragedies to come. I boarded the Aden-bound plane at Beirut with just one person's tragedy on my mind — that of Ed Franklin.
Mission in Aden
In Aden, to my surprise and pleasure, I was met by a delegation of five youthful officials, three of them cabinet ministers. Mine was the only gray hair in sight that night. The group had stayed up until 2:00 A.M. to meet the plane. "Welcome. We have your quarters ready," said the government's chief of protocol. Good news! This meant, I felt, that I would not be stuck off in a hotel room. My quarters turned out to be a rambling old building which, in imperial days, was the residence of the British air commander. A tree-shaded terrace — a rarity in Aden — looked over the great harbor, a strategic prize ever since white men first rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the sixteenth century. Blackbirds chattered overhead.
I received permission to visit Franklin at 7:15 that first night. I found him under guard in an apartment on the second floor of a small modern building. When I entered, he was standing by a couch in the living room. We had never seen each other before.
"I presume you are Congressman Findley," he said.
Despite the emotion of the occasion, I smiled, sensing how Dr. Livingston must have felt years before in Africa.
After sixteen months of confinement, Franklin was thin, almost gaunt. His trousers were several sizes too big, but his blonde hair was neatly combed, his face was cleanly shaved, and he was surprisingly well tanned. He looked much older than his thirty-four years.
We were able to talk alone. I said, "You're thin, but you look well." He answered, "I'm very glad you came, and I feel pretty well. Much better now that you're here. A few days ago when I used a mirror for the first time in months, I was shocked at how I look." He said he developed the tan from daily exercise in the prison yard, adding that he had been transferred to the flat two days before, obviously because authorities did not want me to see the prison.
"Here is a box of food items your family asked me to deliver." When I said that, his face, which until then had displayed no emotion, fell. "I guess this means I am not going home with you."
I said, "I don't know."
Franklin changed the subject. "I had to leave my Bible at the prison. I hated to, because I like to read it every day."
I said, "Many people have been praying for you."
He responded, "Yes, I knew at once, even before I got word in letters from home. I could feel it."
Franklin told me he had not been physically abused but said the food was terrible and some of the rules bothered him. "I am not allowed to have a pen and paper. I like to write. I once wrote poetry on a sack, but then my pencil was discovered and taken from me. Still, I like the Arab world. Maybe someday when the American embassy is reopened, I could even get a job here."
I assured him: "I'll do my very best to secure your release, or at least shorten your term. That's why I'm here, and I'll try to see you again before I leave. I'll also try to get approval for you to have a pencil and paper."
On the way back to my quarters, I passed on Franklin's request for writing materials to my escort officer, who answered simply, "I will report your request." I spent Friday, a Muslim day of worship, touring the nearby desolate countryside. The main tourist attraction was an ancient, massive stone that was used to store the area's scarce rainfall. That evening the British consul, a compassionate man who had occasionally delivered reading material to Franklin, joined me for dinner. The British had long ago understood the importance of maintaining diplomatic relations even with hostile regimes and, shortly after their stormy departure from Aden, they established an embassy there.
On Saturday morning Foreign Minister M. J. Motie came to my quarters for a long discussion of United States — Yemen relations. The plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation was at the top of his agenda, Franklin at the top of mine. He complained, "The United States is helping Saudi Arabia foment subversion along Yemen's borders." I told him I was troubled by this charge, was unaware of such activity, and hoped to help improve relations. Motie responded, "While the past is not good, the present looks better, but we need a substantial sign of friendship. For example, we need aid in buying wheat."
After the discussion, I spent a long and fruitless afternoon trying to fill a shopping list my family had sent with me. The bazaar had little but cheap Japanese radios and a few trinkets. It had even fewer shoppers. I returned to the guest house empty-handed, only to find an assortment of gifts, each neatly wrapped. Among them was a jambia, the traditional curved Yemeni dagger, and a large ceremonial pipe. The gifts were accompanied by a card bearing the words: "With the compliments of the president."
Excerpted from They Dare to Speak Out by Paul Findley. Copyright © 2003 Paul Findley. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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