Thursday, September 13, marked 25 years since Israel took the (then) radical step of recognising the Palestine Liberation Organisation in a Norway-brokered deal that many thought would ultimately lead to a two-state solution in the Middle East and bring an end to one of the most bitter feuds between nations.
Alas, it was not to be. Twenty-five years on, what remains of land that could have been a Palestinian homeland is bantustans, and things seem to be going from bad to worse. With the US recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it is now inconceivable that Tel Aviv will ever countenance giving up part of the city to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
It brings back memories for me, as it was the biggest news event that I have managed in nearly 40 years as a journalist in three countries. In 1993, I was deputy chief sub-editor at the Khaleej Times in Dubai, and that September I was producing the daily editions as the chief sub-editor, my good mate T.K. Achuthan, was on leave.
He returned to work on Monday, September 13. When he came in to work, he took one look at the copy sitting there for the edition and told me that it would be better if I handled the edition as I had been following the whole thing. That’s how I came to produce what ultimately was the newsiest front page of my journalistic life.
There was a public sector strike in India the next day and the day chief-sub, N.J. Joseph, had kept the story for the front page. When I sat down to take stock, I told him that it could go on an inside page; he was quite annoyed about that, accusing me of playing down events in India.
So I waited for him to go home and then sent the strike news to the sub-editor who was laying out the late news page — the news night shift basically made those two pages, apart from the city pages — and asked him to make it the lead.
We had a rather flaky gent as editor, one Bikram Vohra, who had little news sense. He would call every night to find out what was going on the front as many editors do; when he called that night, about 7.30pm, he said that there was something about the Middle East on TV (something? this was the biggest story for decades and the editor of the biggest English daily in the Gulf and Middle East was calling it “something”!) and asked me if I would be using anything on the front page.
I was quite taken aback at such a silly question; when I realised he was serious, I told him that we would use a story on the front. I did not elaborate.
Achuthan is a newsman to the core and it is a measure of his professionalism that he opted to play second fiddle to me that night. We finished on time as we normally did when the pair of us worked together – the proprietors of the Khaleej Times were very particular about timings as the paper had to be sent to nearby Persian Gulf states by air. The entire front page was about the Israel-PLO deal, with a massive banner headline.
Both Achuthan and I had a quiet sense of satisfaction after we put the edition to bed. The front page looked very good and there were strong stories right down the page.
The next day, Vohra did not talk to me. I reckon he was annoyed that he had betrayed his ignorance about the Middle East to me.
The day chief sub, Joseph, came to me the next evening when the shifts changed and said that it was the right decision to put the Indian strike story inside. I did not crow about it; I have often made wrong decisions like that myself. One cannot see a front page in one’s head until one is right in the thick of it. One just trusts one’s instincts and goes with what seems right.
It’s sad that 25 years on, the Oslo accords are just seen as another wasted opportunity on the bloody path that is called the Middle East peace process.