The setting was the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid.
It was before the Oslo process between Israel and the PLO – the Palestine Liberation Organization headed by Yasser Arafat – would be launched in 1993.
Israel’s prime minister was Yitzhak Shamir. The U.S. president was George H.W. Bush. Both were present at the Madrid conference.
Much of what came out of the conference was ceremonial. The headlines which emerged were often who had shaken hands with whom.
Israel was at the conference surrounded by adversaries. There were delegations representing Syria and Lebanon. Shamir objected to recognizing the Palestinians as their own identity and instead there was a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
Only Egypt already had a peace treaty with Israel among the Jewish state’s neighbors.
Among those Israelis shaking hands with participants from enemy countries were reporters and I was determined to be one of them. Making my ambitions perhaps more complicated was that I stood out like a sore thumb because I wore a kippah.
Still, I had become friendly with a Palestinian journalist, Maher Shalabi, through my work with Visnews, which would later become known as Reuters TV, at its Jerusalem bureau.
When I walked into the Jordanian-Palestinian media booth at the Madrid conference and peered in cautiously, I was suddenly greeted by Shalabi, who patted me firmly on the back and shouted: “Hey, David!”
Suffice it to say that a number of the Jordanian-Palestinian staffers were left sitting there with their mouths wide open in shock over the friendship shown by one of their own to an Israeli wearing a kippah.
Nowadays, despite the tensions and terror since the launching of the Oslo process, it wouldn’t be considered as unusual, but back at the time of this conference every such encounter was considered a big deal.
My welcome in the Syrian booth was one of suspicious looks and after reaching for some written material which they had on display, I walked out.
Later, I came across a Lebanese journalist, Hala.
Hala and I became friendly. We started talking about each other’s country.
As we held one such discussion, we sat down on armchairs in the large media pavilion with a lot of activity going on around us. Camera crews from various news outlets were strategically positioned, looking for good stories of what was going on behind the scenes at the peace conference.
One camera crew nearby figured that a Lebanese journalist schmoozing with someone wearing a kippah was certainly a fascinating scene.
Hala, who had seemed very comfortable in our conversations until that point, ran away like a bat out of hell as soon as the camera light turned on.
We maintained contact for the rest of the conference but only by phone. She refused to be seen with me in public. Our conversations continued to be fascinating as she told me what was going on among the Lebanese delegates and I tried to reciprocate by portraying the state of mind of the Israelis at the conference.
A couple of years later, Hala renewed contact with me. She told me that soon after she returned to Lebanon following the peace conference, she was imprisoned.
To this day, I am not exactly sure how long her detention lasted. I believe that she was in jail for a few months.
However, thanks to a close contact I had at the US Embassy in Israel at the time, I was able to verify that American officials in Beirut had been aware of and apparently protested Hala’s imprisonment, which they were told was due to her “crime of contacting a hostile agent at the Madrid conference.”
I cannot be totally sure that I was the “hostile agent,” but I felt extremely guilty nonetheless.
Hala has been in touch with me a few times in recent years, telling me that she had gained asylum in the US and urging me not to feel any guilt.
I was touched by the fact that she followed up on a proposal of mine to hold an event promoting understanding on the part of Americans of the situation in the Middle East.
It followed my effort to arrange a moment of silence at a New England Patriots football game in November 2015 in memory of Ezra Schwartz, a US student from Massachusetts who was murdered in a terror attack in the midst of his gap year in Israel.
After the moment of silence was held, I tried to advance the cause further by holding more events at stadiums and arenas before sporting events, aimed at providing educational resources which could help toward learning more about the regional conflict which Israel has faced.
I must confess that my project was not overly successful but that some such sessions did take place, with small groups of individuals invited to attend an event in either a luxury box or conference room at these sports venues.
Hala, who has lived in California and Texas, has held two such events at football stadiums in both of those states, with the participation of a few Lebanese nationals, a few members of the Jewish communities, and “regular” American friends, who were football fans, she said, and were glad to gain free entry to a game in exchange for attending a session before kickoff about the Middle East conflict.
Even now, Hala says that she lives in fear and tries not to “overly expose” her identity. Israel and Lebanon recently launched negotiations over their shared maritime border. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “it might be a first sign for peace that could maybe happen in the future.”
If peace does happen, I would look forward to hosting Hala here in Israel and hope that she could put the trauma of imprisonment in a Lebanese jail behind her.