The laptop on which Pamela Levene had to record every word and negotiation of the peace talks. Only a third of a page of type could be seen at any one time. Shimon Peres' passport, propped up, shows how tiny the screen was
Employed by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was the Secretary to the Peace Talks with the Palestinians which culminated in the "Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip” - commonly known as Oslo Bet or Oslo II. I got the job by mistake, but that’s another story.
The negotiations were carried out in English.
Various committees would be sitting on sections of what was to become the Agreement. Having prepared the original draft I would then have to record (and save) every change, every edit, each tiny concession or agreement – ongoing, as they continued to discuss (argue over!) every word.
The agreement signed on the White House Lawn came through my hands. I was the one who typed / collated / printed it on to the fancy paper that they signed. This meant working literally through the night - having been doing 18-hour days for weeks.
I was also Secretary to the Peace Talks with the Syrians in 1995 - talks conducted at the Wye Plantation. Similar modus operandi.
There were days of optimism when we thought the Palestinians actually wanted peace. My first appearance on TV. No, they weren't aiming at me (or the potted plant). It was Shimon Peres they wanted - as we were finishing a day of talks at Machsom Erez. (You can just see Arafat’s nose on the left. That’s why I’m not smiling!)
When Arafat saw my knickers (or could have done if he had been looking)
Pamela Levene’s first appearance on Israeli TV, pictured with Shimon Peres after completing a day of talks. Says Pamela: “You can just see Yasser Arafat’s profile on the left of the picture . . . that’s why I’m not smiling.”
For the important work of recording every comma and question mark, every word and phrase of the negotiation, I had been supplied with a laptop. It was (for those times) a very small model that was much admired by those who didn’t have to use it. For me it was awful. The computer was a wonder of modern technology, so minuscule in size that by the time all the icons and tool bars appeared on the screen, what remained for the text was tiny indeed. Roughly one third of a page could be seen at any one time. This would make finding the one word or phrase in any document that urgently needed changing almost impossible to find.
As small as the laptop was it was no light weight to carry around. With it came the wires and power junction box, and with these came the companion “portable” printer, a high quality machine that made up in weight what it lacked in size. The printer came with its own paraphernalia of wires and connectors. The two packed neatly into a heavy-duty leather carrying case amply equipped with extra partitions for the office stationery, pens, staplers, spare ink cartridges, folders etc. that I needed to always bring as I never seemed to be near any place that could supply these basic necessities.
That tiny little laptop became a heavy burden to tote around. Women’s lib triumphed in our delegation and equality was scrupulously observed. Not once did a man offer to carry it for me.
And so it happened that after the peace talks had been conducted on a frantic scale for months - 16 hour days were average for me - in a desperate effort to precipitate an end, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat came together in the Sonesta Hotel in Taba. (Meeting in Egypt meant we didn’t have to entertain Arafat on Israeli soil.)
Late in the night I was camped out in a bedroom in Taba. I had amused myself while waiting with looking through various items that had been left in the room for safekeeping. Amongst the items was Shimon Peres’ passport. What could I do but photograph it - together with my tiny laptop that most of Oslo Bet was typed on. (Pity cameras didn't have the quality then that they have now.) Using the passport for scale, you can see that I wasn’t exaggerating about the size of my laptop!
It was way after midnight when I was awoken to be rushed to one of the meeting rooms to type something. I was still half asleep and was hard put to gather up and carry with me my printer, computer and all the trailing leads and connections that went with it as they hustled me, not into a lift, but up some back stairs. We came to a door and swept through, or rather, I swept through. My dress, on the other hand, did not. It caught on a nail and ripped, leaving my knickers exposed to anyone who cared to look!
The sewing kit given to Pamela Levene by Shimon Peres so she could sew back on a detached part of his tie label. It’s now one of her treasured souvenirs
Consequently, I met my boss, Joel Singer, and his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, as I tried to hold together my torn dress whilst hanging on to the computer. I quickly set it up on the hotel bedroom’s dressing table. Whilst I thus busied myself, the two men left the room. I made a dive for the drawers in a desperate attempt to find one of those handy little sewing kits that all the best hotels thoughtfully provide. Needless to say, there wasn’t one (yes, I was needleless). I still had my hand in the drawer when Saeb Erekat suddenly reappeared. I explained my predicament and said how embarrassing it would be when I went from there to the meeting with Arafat (which was next on the agenda). “Don’t worry,” was his reply. “They have such big egos they won’t notice!”
As it transpired, he was right. I was certainly most concerned not to expose more of my knickers than I had to as I came into the main meeting room. Indeed, I tried to hide behind my boss, but I am bound to admit that my entrance elicited not even a spark of interest.
It was later that night (or to be precise, “morning”, as by then it was 3:30am), that I finally spoke personally to Shimon Peres. I’d printed and handed out 20 copies of the joint statement that Arafat and Peres were presenting to the press. The printer printed page by page at an excruciatingly slow pace. The task finally completed I had packed my computer away as instructed (everything was always done with a great sense of urgency, even at that time of the morning). With a sigh of relief I was ready to go when someone came back and asked, “Have you another copy for me?” “No,” I said. And that was the full sum of my very first conversation with Shimon Peres.
So, will I ever get the chance to say more than “no” to Shimon Peres?
My next door neighbor on our moshav was a woman who had come in the early days of the State of Israel as a refugee from Morocco. She had been widowed many years previously leaving her with six young children to raise alone. Aliza was given to quarrelling with her neighbors. Luckily she seemed to like me because once she was spotted scattering egg shells on another neighbor’s lawn whilst muttering curses. This minor idiosyncrasy aside, she worked like a Trojan, year in year out, raising chickens, and all her children grew up into fine people. Her oldest son was mentally challenged but he managed to hold down a simple job as well as being a great help to her. All the others got university degrees or their equivalent. As they got older they began to pair off and we were invited to the first wedding. This was some years before I got involved with the Peace Talks. To our surprise one of the honored guests was Shimon Peres. He had been a friend of her late husband, and even after all these years he had not forgotten his friend’s widow. We were to see him again at subsequent weddings although we never met him personally.
So now that I found myself in Taba where Shimon Peres was also present (perhaps that should be the other way around?) I was very keen to have a word with him and to pass on greetings from Aliza. Yes, of course Aliza was unaware of this – being perfectly capable of conveying her own greetings directly - but this was to be my excuse to talk to him.
My chance came that evening as we both stepped forward to get into an elevator together in Taba. His security guard tried to push me aside, but seeing what was happening, Peres – showing that he truly was a consummate gentleman - immediately beckoned me to stand in front of him. Standing close to him, I plucked up my courage and mentioned Aliza. He knew immediately where I lived and seemed genuinely interested.
The very next day Shimon Peres wandered into a room to which I had just been summoned and asked if anyone could sew. I, of course, without having a clue what needed sewing, volunteered. I dashed into the bathroom to bring the sewing kit, only to discover that someone had taken the needle! I couldn’t believe it. Coming out empty-handed, I explained the problem. “I’ll get you mine,” said Shimon Peres, and went off to fetch it. (That little sewing kit is now amongst my treasured souvenirs.)
Luckily for me the required sewing was not complicated. The label of his tie had detached itself at one end. I didn’t understand why he wanted it fixing. One of the guys explained to me later that he probably wanted to tuck the unseen end of the tie into this to keep it neat. Not having worn a tie since my British Girls’ High School days and never having had the slightest concern about looking neat I can’t confirm or refute that theory.
This little incident happened at a most inopportune moment. A small group of us had stayed down in Eilat over the weekend for some extra behind- the-scenes meeting. We had moved from the Patio (the as yet unopened hotel which served as the nerve-center for the months of negotiations in Eilat) to the more luxurious Princess Hotel, where Shimon Peres was staying. I had enjoyed unexpected free time that morning as Arafat had been delayed in Alexandria, and so I had decided to go down to the sea as The Princess had its own coral beach. I went with Deputy Legal Advisor Alan Baker. I had a most enjoyable twenty minutes using Alan’s goggles and a snorkel to see the fish, getting totally soaked of course. Lost in awe at what I was seeing, I was only half aware that I was being battered on the corals as the waves were rather strong. Then Alan got a call that I was needed urgently to type something. Consequently, I had no time to change and rushed straight to the designated meeting point.
So it was that I stood before Shimon Peres with my hair dried to a style that could only be described as “à la toilet brush”, with no make-up of course, and wearing over my swimming costume a long tee-shirt (with significant damp patches) which failed to cover my bare legs. Clearly I had not looked in a mirror when I so enthusiastically offered my services as a seamstress. To show what a consummate gentleman Peres was, he did not bat an eyelid. Only after he had left the room did I discover that apart from the bad hair day, I was bleeding from a myriad of scratches on my legs.
To add insult to injury, my face had broken out two days before in a rash which had intensified rather than gone away. It wasn’t till I returned home the following weekend that I found out what had caused it. Having been cooped up in the Patio Hotel for months, I had treated myself to a Dead Sea mud face mask. Unfortunately, I hadn’t read the instructions on the box and had in fact used the one mud pack that was for everything but faces! Consequently, the horrible effect on my skin. All I could hope was that Shimon Peres, incredible as he was for his age, didn’t have 20/20 vision.
That evening we would all be having dinner together in the elegant Princess dining room, so I got myself as dressed up as possible in the hopes that Shimon Peres wouldn’t recognize the well-turned out lady seated opposite him as the water-logged sea monster of the afternoon.
As people came in and started to sit down I noticed, in front of us, a bottle of wine, the table being set for Shabbat. Nobody made a move so I asked Shimon Peres if he would mind making kiddush. With a smile, he stood up and obliged. As he went to sit down, I pointed to the challah. And the blessing for bread? Again he obliged. Then he sat down, turned to the person seated next to him and began to explain that I lived on a moshav where his late friend had been one of the founders … So much for him not recognizing me!
I have many more stories of chance meetings and encounters with Shimon Peres. Perhaps the most startling is the one where I told him he was wrong. If I ever finish the book that I keep promising to write – you may get the full story. For now, let me just say he responded in exactly the way you would have hoped. He accepted my word and apologized.
What an amazing man he was. And how privileged I was to have had the opportunity to have met him.
Only in Israel could a middle-aged woman go from English teaching / running a craft shop / chicken farming to being a part of history!