by Gabriel Stein
The first sign of anything unusual was the horseman. Not that riders were unusual in themselves, either in Jordan or in Israel or even the Palestinian territories. But what was rather unusual was that he was in uniform – and that uniform was neither Israeli, nor Jordanian and certainly did not seem to belong to any of the multiple Palestinian militias. On the Jordanian side of the river, the fellahin stopped what they were doing and stared at him. Anything was a welcome interruption from the back-breaking work of farming a part of the world that really did not lend itself to farming at all. As the rider approached, they straightened up and waited expectantly.
The man’s uniform was white with a camouflage pattern. There was a badge with Arabic script on it, but the letters did not make sense to those close enough to make them out. However, the shoulder tabs clearly indicated a senior officer. His uniform was dusty as if he had ridden far and the man himself was unshaven – probably since at least five days, judging by the stubble. As he came closer, one of the Jordanians offered him a water bottle. He drank gratefully and then, wiping his mouth, said Shuqran– thank you. But the words were accented and it was clear that Arabic was not his native language. This was confirmed when he spoke again.
‘Where is the river?’ he asked. ‘Is it far?’
‘The river? You mean al-urdun – the Jordan? Right here. That is to say, over that hill. But you won’t be able to get to it.’
‘It’s fenced off. The army won’t let us approach it. And on the other side, the Israelis have fenced it off for the same reason.’
‘Well, we shall see. Thank you for the water.’
As the rider rode off towards the hill, one of the fellahin took out his mobile phone. Whoever the man had been, he had not been a Jordanian soldier. Best to alert the nearest police unit, who in turn would notify the army.
One of the other fellahin walked towards the hill, following the horseman. As he came up to the crest, he gave a hoarse cry of surprise. Then he came running back towards his friends, waving his arms and shouting. As he came closer, he stopped to catch his breath. Then he blurted out, ‘He got across.’
‘How do you mean? What about the fences? And the river?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe the horse jumped the fences. All I know is that when I came to the top of the hill, I could see him riding off into Israel. The river was not much of a problem. With all this drought, it’s just a dry ditch anyway.’
‘Well, it’s not our problem anymore. Let the Israelis deal with him. It’s late evening already and we need to finish these fields.’
But although the fellahin did not know this, the Israelis already knew about the rider. The Jordanian police had acted swiftly in notifying the army. As the army passed the news up the ranks, someone thought it a good idea to call the other side of the river as well. Jordan and Israel were at peace, but it was a precarious peace. Any incident could disturb it. Better to keep everyone in the loop.
So while the Jordanian army relaxed once it was told that the strange horseman had crossed the river, the Israel Defence Forces began to search for him instead.
As it was, they didn’t have to search very far. A patrol from the Border Guards noticed something strange in a Jewish graveyard. When they came closer, to their amazement they saw a horse tied to a gravestone. Next to it, oblivious of his surroundings, a man lay, fast asleep. As the patrol took up position around the cemetery, their commander nudged the stranger with his assault rifle.
The rider woke up, looked up, smiled and exclaimed ‘Hal-e shoma, chettore.’
‘What?’ Segen (lieutenant) Amir’s parents had both been born in Isfahan and he had learnt to speak Farsi before he spoke Hebrew. But it was still a shock to hear the stranger speak his childhood language. ‘A Persian! Here. Who are you? What are you doing here? How did you come here? Don’t move!’
The other smiled. ‘I am Colonel Bahram of the Iranian Army. I rode here – for fun. Or for a dare. To see if I could cross the Jordan. I did it. Now, I will return home.’
‘No you won’t. At least not the way you came. Right now, you are coming with me. You two, take care of his horse.’
The news of Colonel Bahram travelled swiftly in Israel as well. By mid-day the next day it had reached the Prime Minister. He was just going into a special cabinet meeting, intended to discuss something far more mundane than Iranian horsemen crossing the border. For the third time in as many months, the Israeli government, like those of so many other countries, was discussing the price of food. For some years now, food prices had reversed a centuries-old trend and begun to rise. This agflation, as the newspapers quickly had dubbed it, was bad enough in the richer economies. In poorer countries and even in middle income ones like Israel, it was creating substantial problems, which constantly threatened to spill over into social unrest. The government, already suffering under the strains of a large defence budget, was forced to allocate more and more money to food subsidies as well. Sooner or later – probably sooner – something would have to give. What, he wasn’t quite certain. He was ideologically opposed to food subsidies, but he could hardly stand aside and watch people starve. And bad as it was in Israel, it was far worse in the neighbouring countries.
As the ministers gathered around the table, the Prime Minister looked around at them. Twenty-two individuals, in theory from six different parties, made up a fractious government. In fact, it would have been more correct to say that they were from 22 different parties, each one striving to achieve any minor advantage, with little or no thought for principles or the good of the country. Tactical alliances were made or unmade overnight and he sometimes seriously wondered whether he would still be Prime Minister at the end of a cabinet meeting. Wasn’t it an English politician who had said something about your enemies being the ones on your side, not the opposition? Fortunately, he did have one or two firm allies in this Cabinet. But in order to impose his will on the government, he would need something special – a major policy success would do, but where on Earth would that come from? As he was thinking about this, his military aide came in, went up to him and started mumbling in his ear. The Prime Minister was startled and looked up. ‘Is this true?’
‘Absolutely. I spoke with Segen Amir myself. We need a decision on what to do with the – the other man.’
‘Afterwards. I need to think about this. We need to assemble the Security Cabinet after this meeting. What time is it now? 11? Make it 2 p m.’
Then he turned to the Cabinet again.
‘Haverim, I apologise for this interruption, but I had some special news. I will let you all know in due course. But first we have to deal with the issue at hand. Finance Minister, will you please start?’
As the Finance Minister droned on about the increased cost of food subsidies, the need to increase agricultural production and the risk of a looming budget deficit due to the strained security situation, a thought, prompted by the news he had just heard, slowly began to take form in the Prime Minister’s mind. At first he had almost automatically rejected it as ridiculous, almost fanciful. But as he tried to analyse it from different perspectives, it grew on him. It could even be the solution to some other problems – even how to deal with his cabinet. The more he thought about it, the more he liked it. There must be a flaw somewhere – or must there?
In the event, the Cabinet meeting lasted until 2.30 before it adjourned – without a decision, but with full agreement that something must be done. What that something was, nobody quite knew. But they were all intent to make sure that it reflected well on themselves.
At the meeting of the Security Cabinet once again looked around the table. This was a much smaller group. It was also somewhat less fractious. The Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister would both like to be Prime Minister, for sure. At least the Defence Minister was ready to wait until he stepped down in her favour; while the Foreign Minister realised that his chances of toppling the Prime Minister on his own were minimal. As for the security personnel – the heads of the various intelligence services, the Chief of Staff and other officers – they were mercifully apolitical, at least as long as they were in uniform (or out of it, in the case of the spooks).
‘Haverim, let me quickly explain why I have asked you to meet at this time. Sometime last night, a Colonel of the Iranian Army rode across the Jordan –‘
‘What?’ ‘Are you mad?’ ‘Are you sure?’ The Prime Minister smiled. These were the same questions he had immediately asked when he was told.
‘I am sure. My security aid, Tat-Aluf Reuveni, has spoken with the commander of the patrol that captured him. And I am sure that the Chief of Staff also has had news about this. Am I not right, Ramatcal?’
The Chief of Staff – Ramatcal was the Hebrew abbreviation of his rank – nodded. ‘This is true’ he said. ‘I have also spoken with Segen Amir. He is fluent in Farsi and has been talking to the Iranian, Bahram. Bahram claims it was all for fun – almost like climbing the pink rock of Petra in the 1950s.’ This referred to the habit of young Israelis to sneak across the Jordanian border in the middle of the night in order to trek to the mystical desert city Petra and climb its pink rock. Sometimes they managed to do it and come back, but occasionally they ran into the Jordanian Army – or Bedouins – with occasionally lethal results. There had even been a song about the Pink Rock, which finally was banned by Israel Radio because it only encouraged the habit.
‘Regarding Colonel Bahram’, the Prime Minister said, ‘I don’t think we should do anything. We have nothing to gain from publicising his presence, nor do we want to make a big issue out of it with the Iranians. They may no longer talk about destroying Israel, but they retain their nuclear capacity. I think we should question him and then send him on his way – with his horse. But at the same time, we cannot let this lie. I am going to contact our neighbours and propose a meeting – a very small meeting’, he added with emphasis on the word small.
‘How small?’ This was the Minister of Defence.
‘Verysmall. You and I from our side. Our opposite from the Palestinians. King Hashem of Jordan and his Defence Minister and President Amr of Egypt and his. And King Bandar of Saudi Arabia and his.’
‘The Saudis? They’ll never come! You are out of your mind. They hate us – or have you forgotten?’ This was the Foreign Minister speaking.
‘No, I haven’t. But while they hate us, they don’t fear us, not any more. But they do fear the Iranians. The fact that an Iranian officer – in full uniform– could ride undetected through Iraq and Jordan will be unwelcome news to them as well as to us. I am willing to take the risk of a rebuff in inviting them. But I don’t only want to talk about the Iranian with them. I have an idea that might solve more than one problem. Listen.’
As he outlined his idea, he saw all of them going through the same scepticism that he himself had originally felt. But when he continued – with an eloquence that sometimes startled him – he also saw that he was beginning to win them over. The Foreign Minister continued to look sceptical. But even the soldiers and spies were moving over to his side. And he knew one argument that would clinch it as far as the Foreign Minister was concerned. He turned directly to him.
‘Shmulik, I understand that you are worried. And I admit that it’s a gamble. But I am willing to take that gamble. In fact, I am prepared to lay my job on the line. If this fails, I will resign and suggest to the party that you – not Shimrit here – become my successor. I’ll even give it to you in writing. But, in return I want your word of honour that if it succeeds, you will co-operate wholeheartedly with the idea. And that you will support Shimrit as the next Prime Minister.’
Shimrit – the Minister of Defence – looked surprised to hear her future debated so openly. But she wanted to become Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister had long been the one remaining obstacle. With his support, the path was clear.
The Foreign Minister still hesitated. ‘But if you succeed, what do I get out of it?’
‘Shimrit guarantees that you will remain Foreign Minister as long as she heads the government. And I guarantee that you can publish your memoirs before me. That should enable you to claim as much of the glory as you like and fund your retirement in any style you would wish. But you need to make up your mind now.’
The Foreign Minister didn’t have to think long. It was a win-win situation. And he could even afford to be magnanimous.
‘I agree. And I don’t need anything in writing. I would never doubt your word. Nor would anyone else here.’ A not so subtle reminder that there were others in the room who would remember what had been said. But the Prime Minister did not care. He had won. He felt like wiping his brow, but did not want to give an impression of weakness. Instead he looked around.
‘Rather warm here, isn’t it? Shimrit, can you open a window? And let’s have a cup of tea, that should cool us down.’
* * *
While the preparations for the summit were being made, the world remained fixated on the agflation story. It seemed that everything was conspiring against lower food prices. Prices originally began to rise as the population of the emerging economies – notably, but not exclusively China and India – began to earn higher incomes and spend more on food. But that should have been a once-off effect. Instead, it was followed by droughts in Australia, which pushed up the price of wheat; by a blight on pigs in China and then on rice which affected not only East Asia but a far greater part of the world. An American policy of lessening dependence on oil by switching to ethanol pushed up the price of corn because American Congressmen refused to use Brazilian sugar cane as the base for the fuel, preferring to introduce further subsidies for home-grown corn even though that was less efficient. The European Union already had in place the Common (or Crazy) Agricultural and Fisheries Policies, some of the most insane ideas devised by bureaucrats, and simply slapped export duties on food. And so it had gone on for years. Food prices or anything related to food was now big news and tended to lead any news broadcast unless there was something really special going on.
So it was that when the Israeli Prime Minister sat down to watch the news on the evening after his cabinet meetings, the main story came from South Africa. They too, had a drought, it seemed. A shepherd had been driving his flock to a water hole, but when he reached the well, it was already occupied by a pride of lions. The shepherd had taken fright and bolted. But his sheep had been so thirsty that they had ignored the lions and continued straight towards the water. As the shepherd crept back, trembling, he had been astonished to see that the lions had ignored the thirsty sheep in their midst. Nobody would have believed it, had the man not had the sense to take a video-clip with his mobile phone and send it to his brother in Bloemfontein. The brother had spotted a news story and passed the clip on – for a small fee – to a local TV station. Which then became instantly famous by passing it on to Sky TV. As the Prime Minister watched, some suitably serious ‘expert’ was trying to make sense of the story.
‘Clearly, under current circumstances, the animals realise their need for drink takes precedence over their normal feral instincts’, he was saying. ‘You might even imagine that the Water Truce, so eloquently described by Rudyard Kipling, has been declared, forbidding killing at water-holes.’ The Prime Minister had enough and switched channels. But Israeli news had the same story. Here, someone from Bar-Ilan University was pontificating about how this event showed the animals’ innate superiority over humans, and when would we learn by their example?
‘You should just know’, thought the Prime Minister, when his phone rang. With a sigh of relief he switched off the television set. ‘Ken? Reuveni? What did they say? Really? Excellent news. Get ready to leave in the morning – crack of dawn. See you then.’
He hung up and made another call. ‘Shimrit? Gad here. They’ve accepted. Yes, all of them – the Saudis too. I just spoke with Reuveni. We leave at 6 tomorrow morning. Better get some sleep. You too. Laila tov.’
* * *
It had been a strange summit, the Prime Minister reflected. When he had entered the room in Amman – King Hashem had kindly offered one of his palaces as venue, as being the only one who had more or less amicable relations with all concerned parties – the tension had been so thick that it could have been cut with a knife. King Hashem’s welcome had been warm and curious. That of President Amr had been cold and guarded. The Palestinian President had briefly shook his hand, while the Saudis had pretended to look at the walls and refused to say a word. They also carefully avoided looking at Shimrit throughout most of the meeting.
As for the talks themselves, they had followed the same pattern to which the Prime Minister had by now become accustomed. When he broke the news of the Iranian officer’s journey, there had been gasps of breath from all except the Jordanians. King Hashem had of course already been briefed by his own army. The news had even managed to break through the Saudi reserve. King Bandar had gone so far as to address a question directly to the Israelis.
‘Is Colonel Bahram still in your custody?’
‘No Your Majesty’ the Defence Minister replied, causing the King and his Defence Minister to look – briefly – at her. ‘We felt that there was nothing to gain by keeping him.’ We have returned him and his horse to his home country, if by a slightly circuitous route.’
‘Pity’, the King replied. ‘We might have wanted to question him.’
‘I am sure, Your Majesty. But I think you can rely on us to have gotten absolutely everything out of him. I would be very happy to provide you with transcripts of his interrogation.’
The Saudi King had made a gesture to his Defence Minister, who had scribbled a note.
When the Prime Minister then began to outline his idea, the reactions had again been the same. Incredulity. Dismissal. Ridicule. Followed by some interest, then increasingly questions about details and although objections were still raised, they became weaker and weaker. The Prime Minister was not surprised. He had hardly expected to convince these eight men in one go. It had been difficult enough with the Security Cabinet. But, if he could plant the seed of the idea with them, impress not only the urgency of action but also the beauty of an idea which would solve more than one of their problems – who knew? And for the first time in his life, he felt that the deed was its own reward. He was doing this for his own country, and for its neighbours. There would be no reward for himself – that had been ruled out by his promise to let Shmulik publish his memoirs first. But that did not bother him at all. (And deep within him, a remnant of a more politically attuned self whispered that there might be one reward after all – possibly for all ten of them around the table. It would involve a trip to Oslo in early December. But even as he thought this, he realised that it no longer attracted him as much as it once would. If it happened – fine. If not – equally fine.)
And it did seem as if the others were at least prepared to consider his ideas. They agreed to go back, each one to their own country and discuss it further with a small group of advisors. Moreover, they would meet again, one week hence, in the same place. When he had proposed a second meeting, President Amr had asked why they needed to meet so soon.
‘Your Excellency, you know perfectly well that it will be impossible to keep this a secret for very long. There are already ten of us here who know. Plus my Security Cabinet – and you all know that this is almost equivalent to standing on Zion Square and shouting it through a megaphone. In addition, the security details, the people who took us here from our own countries. You will then go back and speak with your own people, who in turn will speak with some of their people and discuss the feasibility. In a week’s time, the number of people in the know will number at least a thousand, probably more. Frankly, I’ll be astounded – if grateful – if we can keep it a secret for so long. But beyond that, I do not think we have the chance of a snowball in Hell.’
Amr had nodded, satisfied. But what really had floored the Prime Minister was when, at the end of the summit, the Saudi King and his Defence Minister had come straight up to him and held out his hand.
‘Until we meet again, insha’Allah. Go with God.’
He had had difficulty in collecting himself, but had still replied, ‘And you, Your Majesty.’ Then he had been even more surprised to see them both repeat the gesture with Shimrit.
The next week had been extremely hectic. He had tried to flesh out his ideas further, while at the same time facing the necessity of keeping people whose advice he needed in the dark. But until he knew that the others would agree, there was no way he could break the news. It would simply have to proceed on a wing and a prayer, in the hope that it eventually would work and that the details would take care of themselves – something his long experience made him doubt very much.
But after a long week, they had met again in Jordan. This time, the greetings had been more cordial. The Palestinian President had cracked a joke in Hebrew – learnt during one of his many spells in an Israeli jail on terror charges – and the Saudis had appeared as friendly as they probably could, in what was for them a new and untested environment. After a long session, they had finally agreed on an outline. In fact, on more of an outline, with some of the details clearly marked out and others at least drafted so much that it was possible to see a potential solution that everyone could accept. For once, the Prime Minister was looking forward to watching the evening news. He had kicked off his sandals and was relaxing in his favourite armchair with a large mug of what he jokingly referred to as ‘worm tea’ – Chinese jasmine tea, with the tealeaves unfurled and looking for all the world like little worms.
“This is Sky News. Our main news story today: For the first time in many years, there is a major likelihood of food prices falling again in the future. We take you now to Amman, where there has been a surprising announcement by King Hashem. Our Middle East correspondent John Brown has more on this.’
‘Yes, Ben. It is quite an amazing story and we don’t have all the details just yet. In fact, I don’t know if anyone has them. King Hashem’s spokesman seemed very uncertain at the press briefing following the King’s announcement. But what we do know is this. Apparently, the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia have in the past week met twice with the Israeli Prime Minister and some of his colleagues. At these meetings – which they managed to keep secret in a part of the world well-known for its leaks – they agreed on a fairly comprehensive framework for a general peace in the Middle East. As I said, the details are not quite clear yet, but it is understood that all the parties have committed themselves to pushing this proposal to a successful conclusion. We have not yet been able to interview any of the participants, but there have been identical press releases in Cairo, Jerusalem, Jericho, Amman and Riyadh. All of them say that each party is convinced that this is a fair deal for everyone concerned and that they see nothing to block a final agreement being signed within days. They are also inviting all other countries in the Middle East to join them.’
‘John, this is of course very gratifying. But how does this affect food prices here in Britain or in the rest of the world?’
‘Well, Ben, that is part of the deal. Apparently, they have all agreed that they will slash defence spending. In addition, they are going to use the money saved to bolster agricultural production and research. I understand that in some cases, there will even be armament factories that can be converted to producing agricultural equipment. I have asked some economists about this and they claim that the short-term benefits of this increased agricultural production – for instance in border zones that have previously been off-limits – should be enough to halt agflation in the region and to dampen it globally. But in the medium term – say three to five years down the line – the benefits could be even greater. Research breakthroughs, the adherence of more countries to the peace treaty and hence intensified agricultural production throughout the region could actually help to reverse agflation not only here, but all over the world.
‘Now, I should warn you that there are a lot of ifs and buts here. Much will also depend on how the rest of the world reacts and on how they adjust their policies. But this is a major, a truly major breakthrough in a region where nobody would have expected it.’
‘Thank you, John. And I can tell you that while we were speaking, there has been a press release from President Assad in Damascus. He is saying that he has been kept fully informed of the Israeli-Arab talks and that Syria is announcing that it will join the peace treaty. And I am getting emails that there are press releases coming out from a number of other Arab states as well, so I think we can expect more good news.’
‘Indeed, Ben. This looks like the story of the century. Back to the studio.’
The Prime Minister chuckled. The Syrians had been kept informed? Hardly. But they were clever people and knew when it was time to be inside the tent and when you could safely stay outside. With them inside, that meant the Lebanese as well. So all the borders were safe. It remained to convince the Jews, some of whom would have to leave their homes as part of the treaty. But that could wait until tomorrow. For now, he had earned a good night’s sleep.
* * *
But as the next few days rolled by, it seemed that dealing with the Settlers was not going to be too much of a problem after all, provided it was done quickly. Because the momentum – the Big Mo as the Americans called it – was clearly going his way – his and that of his partners in peace, as he now thought of them.
In Saudi Arabia, an assembly of senior Moslem clerics pronounced a fatwa declaring that by agreeing to a just peace, Israel had proven itself a true part of the Middle East. It was incumbent on all the Faithful to help establish and maintain this peace. The Saudi fatwa could be dismissed by some as the product of a religious establishment in the hand of the government. But when a similar statement came from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest university in the Moslem world, it had a much more powerful effect. Meanwhile in Israel, even the most strident rabbis were suddenly declaring that peace took precedence over land. There was even talk of re-establishing a Sanhedrin to issue an edict to that effect that would be binding on all Jews.
As for the Settlers, they seemed divided. Some of them seemed resigned to leaving their homes and moving back to ‘Israel proper’. Others were already talking about staying put. But instead of doing this as militant resistance, they were talking about not abandoning productive farms and instead helping the Palestinians improve their agriculture – even if this meant living in a Palestinian state.
Strangest of all, there were even soothing noises from Teheran. It was the threat from Iran – showing how easily the Iranians could march through two Arab countries in the wake of Colonel Bahram – that had triggered the Prime Minister’s idea. He had used it to convince his own colleagues and later his neighbours to go along with his plan. And yet now, the Iranians, while not forswearing their enmity to Israel, were at least saying that the struggle for al-Quds was up to the Palestinians and that Iran’s only interest was to ensure justice for the dispossessed. The statement was so low-key that the Prime Minister found himself going back to some of his intelligence briefings on Iran. Maybe it was true that the regime – which had signally failed to improve the lot of its people – really was tottering as some of the analysts thought.
As he looked out through the window, the Prime Minister saw that it was a beautiful sunset. Jerusalem was glowing like gold. And he decided to do something that he had not done for many, many years. He put aside his stack of briefings, grabbed a book he had been meaning to read for months, stopped by his kitchen to take out a nice bottle of Yarden Chardonnay from the fridge and a glass from a cupboard. Then he walked out into his garden, sat down under a fig tree, opened his bottle, poured himself a glass and raised it to the sky.
‘Shalom’ he said. ‘Peace.’
* * *
“When you see a Parthian charger tied up to a tombstone in Palestine, the hour of the Messiah will be near.” Old Jewish saying.