Sunday, March 11, 2007

My Night Flight to Israel Seated Next to a Former UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq

You've heard of "Food for Peace," "Oil for Peace." Now there's "Sleep for Peace." One small step for mankind happened last night on our flight to Israel.

It wasn't until the eighth hour of a ten hour flight from New York to Tel Aviv last night that we---I and the very gruff man sitting on the row with me---started chatting in a civilized manner. It was daylight over France. Coffee was being served and we had managed to come through the night basically unscathed.
When we boarded the plane at Newark a little before midnight, I had only one thing in mind: finding a small spot to lay my head and sleep for several hours. Any sleep was better than none. I didn't want wine. Didn't want dinner. And I certainly didn't want conversation. I had spent the prior three hours trying to stay awake at the gate so I wouldn't fall asleep and have the plane leave without me. Standed in Newwark is not my idea of a good time.
The stranger I was seated next to on row 55 of El Al flight 026 was the grinch that stole Christmas. He was so cross that I thought of exiting the plane and forgetting the whole trip. We had an empty seat between us. And he made it abundantly clear he was hoping for the whole row so he could lie down. But then I had appeared to dash his hopes.
I am not given to chit chat late at night and this was no exception. I simply gave a small smile, opened my packaged blanket and pillow, curled up as best I could, covered my entire body---head to toe--with what small cover I had been provided and went to sleep. I tried my best to stay out of the demilitarized zone between us, that he had had his heart set on.
Five hours later, I awakened with a renewed lease on life. Not only that, I felt magnanimous.
The grinch to my right appeared to be sleeping fitfully and his facial expression tortured. I could bare his pain no longer and decided to find another seat for a while and let him have the whole row. When I woke him to tell him the good news, he thanked me and disappeared from sight for the next four hours.
When I returned to claim my seat later hours later, he was a changed man. So convivial in fact that he actually broke out into a smile. We both ordered coffee and, refreshed, began to chat.
First we asked each other about accents: he grew up in South Africa, but was now living in the United States. After a while, we got around to illegal immigration, politics and finally the War in Iraq. I could tell he was conservative. There was hope for this man yet! I was sitting next to a conservative grinch.
Then he came clean: He had been a UN weapons inspector privately contracted in Iraq in 1991 when they had found WMDs. And he was there again in 2003, and one of the last to be evacuated before the start of the war.
"We couldn't find them. Not because they weren't there. They most certainly were. They had been there. Saddam had them, everyone knew that," he said.
So where did they all go? I queried, having heard this many times before.
"Saddam sent a lot of it into Syria. Everyone knew that too. But in Iraq there were so many, many munitions stored in hugh bunkers we went through--it would have taken years to search everything thoroughly," he continued. "It was like looking for a needle in a haystack."
" And there were and are lots of weapons buried underground there too."
"We say in the business, if you go digging in the Middle East, especially Iraq, sooner or later you'll either find oil or weapons."
Yes, yes, we all know all this, yet it was fun hearing from first hand experience. Last question from me was about what he thought about Iraq. now.
"It will never end," he said. "It will never end between the Sunnis and Shiites. It will never end between Israel and Palestine."
Though I didn't agree with everything he said, I left it at that, as our plane touched down in Tel Aviv.
I was satisfied that we both had negotiated a "sleep for peace" on row 55 of El Al flight 026, and left the plane in better spirits than when we got on.
Come to think of it, what if Sunni and Shiite, Palestinean and Israeli got a little more sleep?
Could world peace be just around the corner, after all?

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