by: Joseph V. Montville
Retired Foreign Service Officer
Former Chief of the Near East Division on the Bureau of Intelligence and Research
Program Director at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
Founder of “Track-Two” Diplomacy, used in the Oslo Agreements
American Friends of Combatants for Peace Board Member & Former Board Chair
On June 5, 1967, I was vice consul at the American Consulate in Basra, Iraq. That morning we learned that the Israeli Air Force had destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground and that the June War—the famous Six Day War—was under way. I went out to the iron fence of our compound to pad lock it but the mob from Basra University was well on its way for a visit. The fence was pushed in with little resistance and the protesters entered our space including one home whose family was with us in the consulate. My wife, who was nine months pregnant, did not make it to the office building and was locked by our servant in our bathroom.
Luckily our apartment looked like the backside of the first apartment they entered and the demonstrators went to the back garage to beat up some cars. For some reason, they never tried to enter the office. It didn’t take long for Iraqi Army troops to come to our rescue. And we had the chance to burn documents—standard procedure when diplomatic posts are threatened. And I had a chance to practice my mediation skills. Our Kuwaiti consular neighbor called the fire department and the firemen came to put out the fire. My job was to explain to the firemen that we burn documents all the time when our posts are attacked. I also thanked the firemen for their courage in trying to help us.
My daughter, Clea Aimee, was born in Paterson, NJ, on June, 15, after we evacuated to Iran. After we got a letter from an Iranian ob-gyn stating that my wife was only six months pregnant, she flew to Tehran from Abadan and then home. Clea is now fifty three, an actress, and film script writer, the wife of an adoring husband and two equally adoring teen-age sons. Not to mention an adoring father.
I had studied at the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies after graduating from Lehigh in 1959. After getting a Fulbright grant to Cairo, where I met my wife, I went to Columbia to work on a PhD and made it to an ABD—all but dissertation—before being admitted to the Foreign Service, which had always been my first choice. My first assignment was to Baghdad and Basra. After assignments to Beirut, Libya and Morocco, I was appointed to the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs in the State Department. After that I was named Near East Division chief in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at State.
Ordinarily I would not start a letter with a biography, but my hope is to give some credence to my strong commitment to the Combatants for Peace. I have long supported NGO’s in Israel and Palestine who work to construct a vision of mutually respectful communities in Israel/Palestine. But there is something very special about Israelis and Palestinians who have a history of violence in their background.
I first met one of the Palestinian founders of Combatants for Peace, Suleiman Khatib, in Ramallah. He has a stunning biography, having been sentenced to fifteen years in prison by Israel for trying to steal a rifle from an Israeli soldier at age fourteen. He must have had an amazing transformation in prison learning Hebrew and studying history. His sentence was reduced to ten years. He is now in his forties, and a passionate devotee to non-violence in defining a vision of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Souli as he is called is a very effective advocate for non-violence and makes a strong impression on Americans.
The other day I watched a webinar with Souli and an Israeli Defense Force medic named Tuly Flint, who reached a very senior position in the IDF. In the process he came to a powerful transition in his own values about peace making with Palestinians. As with the case of Souli, Tuly started his IDF career simply believing that his mission was to protect Israel from hostile Arabs—including Palestinians. As he moved up in his career, he developed a new sense of mission that fit well with the Combatants for Peace philosophy. Tuly makes a strong impression on film which I’m sure is even more powerful in person.
A final thought. I recently saw another webinar of two fathers—an Israeli and a Palestinian—who each lost a daughter at roughly age eleven. The Palestinian speaker, Bassam Aramin, was one of the founders of Combatants for Peace, and the Israeli speaker’s son, Elik Elhanan was another of the movement’s founders. I have two daughters who are the center of my life. I can’t conceive of how these two men, and their families, have made an alliance to find some meaning in their unspeakable losses.
This is what in my mind makes Combatants for Peace a very special organization in Israel and Palestine.