Like a Jailer in the Hands of the Prisoner

MARRAKESH - Tomorrow is both Ehud Barak's and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's birthdays. This is still not a popular holiday here in Morocco, and so the airport security officers were probably nervous at the sight of Israeli journalists on their way to a conference on freedom of the press. This also likely stemmed from another anniversary marked on February 12: the assassination of top Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh two years ago.

The most prominent terrorist organization in terms of the abduction and murder of Westerners in the region, and mainly in Algeria and northern Mali, is in fact not Hezbollah but rather Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Still, the presence of Israeli journalists is unsettling for the local security forces.

Therefore, while dozens of foreigners move quickly through passport control, the Israelis, whose invitations and visas had been arranged by an official request from the European Union Commission to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry, were politly asked to wait until security clarifications had been made. It took an hour until approval came from Rabat.

This is a good time to recall how James Stewart and Doris Day found themselves right here, in the midst of a kidnap-murder mystery, in Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much"; and how CIA deputy director Gen. Vernon Walters in 1973 secretly came here to meet with Palestine Liberation Organization representatives under the auspices of his friend King Hassan II. Henry Kissinger had sent Walters to warn the PLO to stop murdering American diplomats. Walters, who feared he was "number six or seven" on their hit list, and was disappointed to find that his host was not going to attend the meeting, told the king he was "going in alone and unarmed." When Hassan assured Walters that his forces had the palace surrounded, Walters responded: "Your Majesty, I'm not terribly interested in being avenged."

As discussions over our authorization continued between Marrakesh and Rabat, a police officer came out - armed with passports and a stamp - and limited our stay in the country to four days. Do you need five? Alright, but not one more day. That is how it is in friendly Morocco - the darling of the Mossad, the cradle of peace talks with Egypt, a popular destination for groups of Israelis on organized tours - even without official diplomatic representation for a decade now, since the territories burst into flames.

The conflict with the Palestinians is quite noisy in contrast to the silence of the peace with Egypt and Jordan and the long periods without a major war with Syria. In Marrakesh - in the shadow of the snowy Atlas Mountains, whose southern slopes face the edge of Sahara, in a desert atmosphere that recalls the heat of Eilat and Arad, Be'er Sheva and Jericho - the truth of Gen. Israel Tal's prophecy years ago becomes clear: Comprehensive peace will come when Israel becomes a regular player in "Middle Eastern intrigue."

Indeed, this week's conference was almost thwarted due to competition between Egypt and France, the alternating presidents of the newly formed Union for the Mediterranean, and Morocco and Spain. The tensions over the soccer battles between the Egyptian and Moroccan teams have deteriorated into an abyss of hatred and challenges to manhood and national honor. The refugees of the southern Sahara trying to immigrate in and out of Morocco are subjected to racism (being labeled "black crickets"). And that was even before the confrontation with the Copts in Egypt, the Kurdish friction with the Iraqis and Turks, the ethnic infighting in Cyprus and the worry in Europe over Islam burrowing into it like a mole.

There is no other country in the region like Israel, where the position held by the other side enjoys almost exaggerated understanding. But this does not help anyway: Israel's attitude toward the Palestinians preoccupies the authorities in the Arab countries because the cry of the Palestinians always engenders popular sympathy. If the Palestinians were to declare that they were satisfied, other Arabs and Muslims would calm down. Israel's demand for security is understood and in the final analysis also accepted. However, there is no such understanding of annexation or settlements, not even of the settlement blocs, as long as the Palestinians refuse to include them in an agreement.

The Palestinian prisoner, who could go free if he would agree to a deal he considered unacceptable, hides the key in his cell - thus also preventing his Israeli jailer from going home. The situation is bad for both of them, but unless the key is found, it will get no better for the Israelis.