Pakastani leader’s murder leaves Jewish friends grieving; Israeli UN envoy recalls dinner.
As Pakistan’s prime minister in the mid-1990s, Benazir Bhutto sponsored the fundamentalist Taliban insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan — thereby bringing to power the force that would shelter and defend Osama bin Laden.
Bhutto also unstintingly backed Pakistan’s covert nuclear weapons program as a response to the program of arch-rival India, including her country’s decision, while she was opposition leader, to conduct Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb tests in 1998, bringing to fruition the world’s first "Islamic bomb."
Yet by the time of her murder by forces unknown in Rawalpindi, Bhutto had won the personal friendship of some — and public support of many — influential Israelis and American Jews who understood the pressures of realpolitik under which she operated.
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In the days since her death, prominent Israeli and Jewish figures, including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres, have showered Bhutto with accolades for her fiercely stated commitment to fighting terrorism waged in the name of Islam without quarter; her vision of a secular-oriented future for her country; and her unabashed interest in forging closer relations with the Jewish state. In line with this, her death is seen now by some as a hammer blow to the very viability — not to mention pro-Western development — of the world’s second largest Muslim population.
"I have met many people in my life, very impressive people," said Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman, who grew close to her in the last months of her life. But Bhutto, he said, was "one of the most impressive people I have ever met. She possessed great leadership, tremendous charisma. She was intelligent. She was eloquent. I really feel she was a very great leader, and I feel that had she led Pakistan again, she would have made every effort to lead it to democracy, and to avoid it falling to extremists."
Now, according to former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, the death of Bhutto at 54 is likely to affect not just Pakistan but, in the way of political ecology, the whole region and beyond, including U.S. relations with Iran.
"Iran holds special weight both in the Pakistani theater and in the adjacent Afghani arena," Halevy wrote in the Israeli daily paper Yediot Achronot. "The U.S. and Iran have very similar interests in both those arenas and they are expected to tighten the cooperation between them in order to prevent the collapse of the regimes in those countries. Benazir Bhutto’s death will accelerate this trend."
Dinner At The Mandarin Oriental Hotel
In September, Bhutto reached out to Gillerman, whom she had never met before, even as she was preparing to end a nine-year exile from Pakistan under a plan brokered by U.S. policymakers. Bush administration officials were pushing her and her longtime adversary, Pakistani President and military chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf, toward elections and — presuming she won — a tentative power-sharing. With Musharraf’s popularity in free fall, the plan was designed to lend his rule a veneer of democratic legitimacy. In the midst of this, Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, dined with Gillerman and his wife, Janice, in a private room at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Columbus Circle.
The quartet chatted for three-and-a-half hours. And the next day, Janice Gillerman lunched with Bhutto for some follow-up discussion.
"We had a very warm, intimate conversation," recalled Gillerman. "It touched on every aspect of Pakistani life and Israeli relations. She described to me in great detail her plans to return. She talked about her great concern about extremists and expressed a lot of concern about her own safety. But she was determined to go back."
Asked why Bhutto, whose networking was the stuff of legend, had sought him out at such a crucial time, Gillerman was a realist. "I believe she was aiming not just at Jerusalem but Washington, as well," he said. "Maybe Israel could be influential in convincing Washington to give her more support. I’m not sure. It was sort of implied."
Later, as her sense of imminent danger in Pakistan rose, perhaps Bhutto thought Gillerman might even influence Washington to push Musharraf on her faltering security. After her return there, "She sent us several e-mails in which she expressed concern and worry about her safety," Gillerman related. "They were not really specific, but she felt Musharrraf was not living up to his commitment to assure her safety."
Gillerman conveyed Bhutto’s message to "the people I thought should be aware of it." He declined to say who.
Meanwhile, Mark Siegel, a prominent Democratic Party consultant and lobbyist — and White House liaison with the Jewish community during the Jimmy Carter administration — was getting similar messages. But her turn to him was less surprising.
"I was the most prominent Jew close to her," said Siegel, who was Bhutto’s representative in Washington. "Her opponents would refer to me as ‘Benazir’s Jew’ — a representative of the ‘Indo-Zionist lobby.’"
The two met in 1984, shortly after Bhutto was allowed to leave Pakistan by an earlier military dictator, Gen. Muhammad Zia Al-Haq. A close U.S. ally who funneled millions in American aid to Afghan Muslim fundamentalists then fighting the Soviet Union’s occupation of their country, Zia had deposed Bhutto’s father as prime minister in a 1977 military coup. Despite worldwide appeals for him to grant Zulfikar Ali Bhutto clemency, Zia executed him in 1979 after putting him on trial for conspiracy to murder a political opponent. Benazir and other family members were detained.
These were the dramatic events that set Benazir Bhutto’s own drive to power into motion.
Bhutto redeemed that drive in 1988, after Zia died in a mysterious helicopter crash and his military successors called elections that Bhutto returned to contest, and win, as head of the center-left Pakistan People’s Party founded by her father. But in 1990, after just X months as prime minister, she was dismissed from office by Pakistan’s president on corruption charges for which she was never tried. Elected prime minister again in 1993, she was dismissed again on corruption allegations three years later. Reviews of her governance during these two tenures are highly mixed. Zardari, her husband, was tried and convicted on corruption charges and spent eight years in prison. Bhutto herself went into exile in Dubai from 1998 until her return in October.
It was a return that saw the Pakistani populist greeted by hundreds of thousands after her landing in Karachi International Airport — and an attempt by two suicide bombers to kill her enroute to the city that left 134 dead but Bhutto unhurt. In November, amid protests from the country’s lawyers over his dismissal of most of the Supreme Court when he thought they were set to rule against him, Musharraf effectively declared martial law, and put Bhutto under house arrest when she announced her intent to lead a rally against him. She was released the next day.
Born to wealth, daughter of a major landowning family in a largely feudal society in Sindh Province, Bhutto knew both prison and privilege. During the late 1970’s and early ‘80s, after a stint at Oxford, she went to Radcliffe, where she grew close to Peter Galbraith, son of the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith and later himself a prominent U.S. ambassador. This was how she came to know Siegel.
"I was asked by Peter to throw her a dinner party" when she came to Washington after Zia released her, Siegel recalled. "We invited members of the press, members of Congress. It was a small, intimate dinner party. From then on, we were just extremely close."
The two were in almost constant e-mail contact when she returned to Pakistan, Siegel related. And on Oct. 26, in a message from her Blackberry titled "MOST URGENT ATTENTION," Bhutto wrote Siegel:
Nothing will, God willing happen. Just wanted u to know if it does in addition to the names in my letter to Musharaf of Oct 16th, I wld hold Musharaf responsible. I have been made to feel insecure by his minions and there is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides cld happen without him.
(Jammers are electronic devices that block radio signals meant to set off Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs.)
Among those to whom Siegel relayed this message, at her request, was CNN "Situation Room" anchor Wolf Blitzer. On the day of her assassination, Blitzer read her e-mail on the air, saying, "This is a story she wanted me to tell the world on her behalf if she were killed." Siegel, he explained, had sworn him to silence except in the event of her being killed.
Now, Siegel is rushing to press with a book that is the result of his collaboration with her during these last few months. Entitled, "Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy And The West," it is, in effect, her last public testament.
"We’ve been working on this under the most difficult conditions," he said. "Two assassinations, house arrest, martial law. It must have been God who let us finish it. On 2 a.m. the day she died, she sent me the final chapters."
Siegel said the book dealt with what she saw as the "two central tensions of the new millennium: the tension between democracy and dictatorship and between extremism and moderation. She was determined to write about the Islam she knew."
Bhutto’s death hit Siegel hard, leaving him struggling for words at one point during an interview. "We had our discussions about Islam, Christianity and Judaism. We had the same sense of humor. We were buddies. She was the most tolerant person I know."
Asked if he ever brought her into his Jewish life, Siegel began, "She was at my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Her husband came to my daughter’s wedding." He abruptly stopped. "No. It’s too personal," he said.