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Mission to Stockholm : How Stanley Sheinbaum, an American Jew, Found Himself With His Arm Around the PLO's Yasser Arafat

December 16, 1988|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Stanley Sheinbaum was finally feeling better. He had been in his sickbed in the Regency Hotel for a week. But the news had just flashed on television that President Reagan was ordering the State Department to open a formal dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Sounding breathless, Sheinbaum pronounced himself greatly relieved.

The day before, with much different emotions, he had watched PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's televised speech at the special session of the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva. It seemed then, Sheinbaum would later say, that his work along with four other American Jews to produce the so-called Stockholm Declaration would "come to naught."

Called a Naive Dupe

And for his trouble, he had already earned the wrath of some Jews, who were calling him a naive dupe of PLO manipulation and his mission another example of "Jewish self-laceration." In Los Angeles on Tuesday morning, City Council candidate Steve Saltzman, backed by two rabbis, had demanded Sheinbaum's resignation as a University of California regent.

How Sheinbaum, the 68-year-old Los Angeles activist, economist and publisher, found himself in this particular maelstrom--and, not coincidentally, in his sick bed--is a dramatic tale of shuttle diplomacy and high-pressure intrigue. It is also a typical lesson in Sheinbaum near the center of the storm, a spot that seems to have a hold on him.

He understands the criticism of his meeting with the PLO and the furor over a photograph showing him with his arm around Arafat. But, he says, "I feel very Jewish about going. I have no guilt feelings about that at all.

"I think I did something that I would have done for any people if I had the opportunity," he said. And in this particular instance, "I did it for Israel."

It began last April with a series of seemingly unrelated phone calls.

Sheinbaum and Rita Hauser, an international lawyer active in Republican politics and the American chairman of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, were talking by phone about the Palestinian uprising in the territories occupied by Israel.

Sheinbaum is a member of the center, headquartered in Israel, which was created by Jewish intellectuals and "luminaries" to encourage a peaceful settlement of the Israeli/Arab conflict. Among its founders were France's former premier, Pierre Mendes-France; former Israeli prime minister Abba Eban; and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, an American who is former vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

"We agreed the center had to do something," Sheinbaum recalled of that first phone conversation, "and we decided to have a meeting to discuss it."

Next Call From Buenos Aires

The next call came from writer/publisher Jacobo Timmerman in Buenos Aires. Timmerman, who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Argentine junta and was a former resident and critic of Israel, was coming to New York and wanted to know if Sheinbaum could meet him there. They made a date to have lunch the same day Sheinbaum was to meet Hauser and Drora Kass, the center's executive director in America.

The third call was from another friend, Ulf Hjertonsson, second in command at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. Was Sheinbaum coming east anytime soon? Hjertonsson and another Swedish friend, Pierre Schori, )undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, had something to discuss with him.

Sheinbaum arranged to fly to Washington after his New York meetings for a private session with Hjertonsson and Schori, followed by a dinner at the embassy. He had no idea that he, Timmerman and the Swedes all had the same thing on their minds.

"At lunch, Jacobo, my old buddy, was up the wall about the intifada and the apparent (Israeli) brutality," Sheinbaum recalled. Timmerman pleaded: "Stan, you've got to do something to bring American Jewish pressure on Israel to negotiate with the PLO."

In Washington that night, Hjertonsson told him that the Swedish prime minister, Ingmar Carlsson, and foreign minister, Sten Andersson, were determined to do whatever possible to break the logjam in the Middle East.

The coincidence jarred Sheinbaum. "I felt kismet was at work," he said.

Sheinbaum and the Swedes agreed that a clear, unambiguous statement from the PLO was needed to satisfy the United States' three requirements for negotiation: renunciation of terrorism, acceptance of U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 and affirmation of Israel's right to exist.

He proposed that they put together a group of leading American Jews not necessarily tied to major Jewish organizations. The group would eventually meet with the PLO and Swedes to work out an acceptable statement.

For starters, Hauser and Kass seemed ideal. Hauser, with a background in foreign policy, was well connected, counting among her contacts Secretary of State George P. Shultz and his assistant secretary for the Near East and South Asia, Richard Murphy. Kass had close connections, including family, in Israel and "an extraordinary commitment" to it.

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