Players: Gamal Helal

Veteran Interpreter Has Been at Center of Mideast Talks

Interpreter Gamal Helal helps as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat talks to President Bill Clinton at a 1998 meeting.
Interpreter Gamal Helal helps as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat talks to President Bill Clinton at a 1998 meeting. (White House Photo Via Getty Images)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Over the past 15 years, in one Middle East crisis after another, Gamal Helal has served as the mouth of three presidents, five defense secretaries and six secretaries of state -- as well as assorted vice presidents and national security advisers.

As senior interpreter and guide to the Arab world, Helal is usually the little-noticed man in the middle.

During the first Bush and Clinton administrations, Helal was often the back channel for U.S. mediators to the Arab world. "If I wanted to communicate something private and ensure that it would be conveyed exactly the way I wanted it, I would use Gamal," said Dennis B. Ross, the former chief of Middle East peace for both presidents. "Most of my meetings with Yasser Arafat would start off with my delegation, but the real work would be done with just Arafat, me and Gamal."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Helal was President Bush's voice as he reached out to the Arab world to confront terrorism and Islamic extremism, conveying Bush's words during telephone calls and official visits by Arab leaders.

For Helal, the assignments have always involved more than interpreting, particularly in this case. "We were asking countries to do a lot for us as we started to pull together a coalition for the war on terrorism," Helal recalled in a recent interview. "I had to be in a position to convey not only the words, but the mood, the determination, the ideas and the nuance of what he was saying."

Egyptian-born and U.S.-educated -- he became a citizen in 1983 -- Helal's career is a living history of U.S. crisis management and frustrated stabs at peace in the world's most volatile region.

In late 2000, during President Bill Clinton's last-ditch peace effort before leaving office, Helal was often the only person in the room at Camp David when Clinton pressed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to accept terms offered by Israel. In his memoirs, Clinton noted the "unique role" Helal played in the crucial talks.

"He understood the Middle East and the role each member of the Palestinian delegation played in their deliberations, and Arafat liked him. He would become an adviser on my team. On more than one occasion, his insight and personal connection with Arafat would prove invaluable," Clinton wrote in "My Life."

At a critical juncture, as the talks began to collapse, Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak asked Helal to speak with Arafat about the historic opportunity he faced. Helal spent an hour in Arafat's cabin, one-on-one.

"I told him it was all now in his hands and that he couldn't use the excuse of other Arab countries having control," Helal said. "I told him that if he turned down this historic opportunity, God knows what size the Palestinian territories will be when they had an opportunity [for peace] again. I was trying to tell him that this was an idea that should not be missed."

But at the end of the hour, Helal said Arafat told him, "I can't accept it." Helal told Clinton and Barak that Arafat had refused. "We continued to meet, but it was clear that it was going nowhere," Helal said.

U.S. diplomats who have devoted their careers to brokering peace say Helal has played a quiet but pivotal role in the Middle East policies of the past three administrations.

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