If you walk along a certain dusty lane in the walled Old City of Damascus, you’ll come to a heavy door that admits you to the tree-shaded courtyards of the Talisman Hotel. Last January I was part of a small group that stayed at the Talisman. We ate breakfast in its womblike bar/cafe, under a sixty-inch plasma screen that showed Al Jazeera’s play-by-play of the ongoing destruction of Gaza. One morning my colleague Tom Dine introduced me to another guest. “And this is Helena Cobban,” he said. “Back in the 1980s she caused me so many sleepless nights! But now we are working here together.”
My jaw dropped. I caused sleepless nights to Tom Dine in the 1980s? How about all those sleepless nights he caused me back when I was trying to argue in Washington that Palestinians are people like everyone else and he was the much-feared executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who took down the careers of people like me without a second thought?
Damascus, with its long tradition of conversions, seems a good place to launch this story. But step back to 1982, when Dine, figuratively speaking, picked up veteran Illinois Representative Paul Findley by the lapels and slammed him against the wall of electoral defeat–to make an example for any other members of Congress who might want to take even a half-step away from AIPAC’s rigidly pro-Israel orthodoxy. (Four years earlier, Findley had met twice with PLO leader Yasir Arafat, eliciting from him a statement that offered guarded support for a two-state solution and, according to Findley, “de facto recognition” of Israel.) Dine was also the man who, as he told me recently, spent many Saturday mornings sitting with Secretary of State George Shultz, conferring closely–no aides present–on key aspects of US Middle East policy, especially arms sales.
Today AIPAC is just as much a powerhouse lobby as it was during Dine’s thirteen-year reign, but it is much more pro-Likud than it was back then. And it is still working hard to drum up opposition to Syria. Dine left AIPAC in 1993 and has moved noticeably toward the peace camp since then. Recently he worked with the broadly dovish Israel Policy Forum (IPF), which advocates a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. And for the past year, Dine has been heading a small group dedicated to improving US-Syrian relations.
Dine has taken a long journey, from drinking Scotch one-on-one with Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel–at a time when Rabin, as defense minister, was calling publicly for his soldiers to “break the bones” of unarmed Palestinians during the first intifada–to caucusing with well-connected Syrians in Damascus, two decades later.