09 Jan
  • By Stephen Byrne

A very secret (Middle East) meeting

It was the first time I was invited to a secret meeting, well OK the first since I was a boy scout. To say I was excited heading into the hotel would be an understatement. However, in attending the gathering and writing this blog I have agreed to some very specific rules. I cannot reveal who attended or where the meeting was held, not even when it took place. What I can tell you is that the meeting happened in late 2016 over three days and was attended by some very senior Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian people with a common vision; bringing peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There were official people there in an unofficial capacity. There were also some highly respected people with influence with official people that were not attending. A little unnerving were some bodyguards hovering about which gives context to the risks the attendees were taking so that they could participate in this unique event.

And now for some things, I am allowed say. The fact that this meeting happened at all is down to the fearless tenacity of one man, Enrico Molinaro an Italian academic who has dedicated his life’s work to promoting peace in one of the most troublesome hotspots on the planet. Enrico is an Israeli/ Palestinian/ Jerusalem scholar and a leading International expert on the conflict. His book “The Holy Places of Jerusalem in Middle East Peace agreements” was first published in 2009 and is recognised a must read for any student, academic, politician or administrator looking for a deep understanding of the origins and complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I first met Enrico many moons ago in Sardinia. At the time I was wearing my business hat and trying to negotiate a very complicated transaction. Enrico was the trusted translator, helping out a family member. Over several lunches, I got to know Enrico and found the work he was doing way more interesting and certainly more rewarding than anything I was up to. Several visits to Enrico & Rome and a couple of his return fly in’s to Dublin and I was able to better understand and appreciate his work and the mountain he was trying to climb, slowed down by some incredible challenging hurdles, though still travelling upwards with tonnes of optimism.

Incredibly, Enrico has to date organised 9 of these very secret meetings over the last decade supported by the goodwill of some very influential people operating in the conflict zone as well as the Italian Government, some International agencies and even a number of Churches. All of Enrico’s work is about building trust between the stakeholders and taking baby steps, one at a time. More about the progress at a later time.

So there I am, a guest at a very secret meeting. I was there only to observe and gain a deeper understanding of the conflict, the challenges and meet some people who are working tirelessly to make a difference. Yet, it was impossible to ignore some very large elephants in the room. While all of the speakers spoke respectfully to each other and were working hard not to be in any way antagonistic, the reality of the situation was pretty clear; a long-term peace agreement is a long way off. In Israel and Palestine fear, mistrust, broken promises, sabotage, terrorism and many more not-pretty descriptives are all part of how the population find themselves living day to day.

Over the three days, each of the nominated speakers were given a set period of time to present their views on some quite specific subject matters. The opinions were varied, often at odds with each other and mostly very broad. Each participant was also given time to respond to each of the other speakers. Enrico managed the process fairly and quickly. He expertly narrowed the focus of the discussions away from general to a quite specific goal; a new study of The Jerusalem Holy Places. This is THE MOST sensitive issue in the Arab – Israeli conflict and negotiations, embodying key symbols of the national and religious identities respectively for Israelis/Palestinians and for Christians/Jews/Muslims, often transformed into a source of violence in the Middle East. There was a general consensus that the high-level goals, agreed on the final day, were both realistic and achievable.

Now comes the difficult work; getting agreement from each member of a yet to be appointed Advisory Board that the project plan, road map, timescales, processes and most importantly the specific goals are all unanimously committed to. If anyone can make this happen my money is on Enrico and his very trusting personality which all sides have bought into. That’s a huge achievement in itself. Once Enrico gets beyond this next hurdle some key local and International influencers should become more visible and this will surely give The Study momentum.

As they say, the devil is in the detail. Hopefully, I will be writing more about this project in the coming months. That would mean progress is being made and that would be a very good thing for the world and the Middle East.


(I turned photographer for a few minutes, we’ve Enrico on the left, Enrica his assistant and Rob from RippleZoo)