Veteran Interpreter Has Been at Center of Mideast Talks

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.

"He's a man of rare insight and original analysis, not only in interpreting Arabs to Americans but in finding a connection point between the two. He's a bridge between political cultures," said Aaron Miller, a U.S. negotiator and adviser to six secretaries of state who has worked with Helal for almost 20 years.

"I've seen him in both Republican and Democratic administrations take senior officials by the hand and explain remarkably complicated situations and problems. I've seen him communicate to secretaries of state and national security advisers in a way that is respectful but firm and direct," Miller added. "I've also seen him offer advice and negotiate with Arabs in an effort to help negotiators solve a problem. I've seen him tell Arafat things that his own advisers would never say."

Helal, Miller said, "has been in the background way too long."

A genial man noted for his classy ties, Helal was deeply involved in the first Bush administration's attempts to avert war with Iraq 15 years ago. He flew to Geneva with Secretary of State James A. Baker III to issue an ultimatum to Iraqi emissary Tariq Aziz to withdraw from Kuwait. Baghdad's 1990 invasion had thrown the oil-rich Gulf into crisis overnight. By January 1991, the United States had mobilized a coalition of a half-million troops to confront the government of Saddam Hussein.

During the six-hour crisis talks, Baker presented Aziz with a letter from President George H.W. Bush telling Iraq to withdraw -- or else, Helal recalled. "As Aziz was reading it, his hand was shaking," he said. "Aziz claimed it was not written in diplomatic language and was a threat, not diplomatic. He refused to take it, and the letter was left on the table."

Helal interpreted as Baker warned Aziz that if Baghdad did not withdraw its troops from Kuwait, Iraqi forces would be forcibly ejected and Iraq's ability to defend itself would return to "the stone age." Throughout it all, Helal recalled, Baker was "extremely cool."

Helal has had some unusual rewards for his efforts. At a summit in the Egyptian desert resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2003, Helal was the interpreter for Bush's meeting with Arab leaders. Helal spent more than an hour in a makeshift outdoor interpreter's booth, as the temperature rose to about 115 degrees, he recalled. "I was in a suit and tie and about to faint," he said. When he emerged, he was sweating so profusely that Bush came over with a wet towel and wiped Helal's forehead -- a scene captured by a White House photographer.

Just last week in Sudan, when much of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's staff was barred from entering a meeting with the president by aggressive security guards, Helal was among those left outside. Rice spent more than five minutes sitting uncomfortably with the president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, who speaks no English. Helal, cursing at the guards in Arabic, was finally let in when he convinced them their president might be displeased by his absence.

"People assume you're like a device that can be turned on and off. But it's not just interpreting, it's about establishing full communication, which requires establishing a personal relationship and creating an environment for it to flourish," Helal reflected. "What constitutes logic in one society does not necessarily constitute logic in another. You bridge the gap by fully understanding patterns of thinking in both cultures . . . knowing how to structure an argument in a way that makes sense to the other side -- all in a split second."

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