For Chuck Hagel, it was the meeting that wasn't.
It was December 2000, and Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, was traveling the Mideast seeking the answer to a single question. Then-President Bill Clinton had brought Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Camp David in July for intensive negotiations that brought the two sides tantalizingly close to a full peace treaty. Arafat would have received a sovereign state of Palestine with its capital in Jerusalem, just as he had demanded for decades. Clinton and Barak both thought they had a deal, but Arafat backed away at the last moment. Why, Hagel wondered, wouldn't Arafat take yes for an answer?
"He had 95 percent of what he asked for and then turned it down," Hagel writes in his 2008 autobiography "America: Our Next Chapter." "How do you get what appears to be such a good deal and then walk away from it?"
Fortunately, Hagel writes, he soon had the chance to ask one of the Mideast's canniest and most-experienced leaders that very question. Hagel, according to his memoir, traveled to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad, the father of the country's current dictator. In his book, Hagel says that Assad told him that he was prepared to a sign a peace treaty with Israel provided the Jewish state agreed to give up both East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Then, Hagel writes, he asked Assad for his views on the Camp David talks.
"He does not have the sole authority to make a deal," Assad replied, according to the book.
Hagel believed that Assad was trying to pass along an important lesson about the modern Mideast: the Israel-Palestine issue was so important to the region's other Arab leaders that Arafat couldn't sign a treaty without their approval.
There is just one problem with Hagel's account of the meeting: it never happened. Assad died in June, six months before purportedly sitting down with Hagel and one month before the Camp David talks had even begun. The book vividly recounts a conversation that couldn't have taken place.
The defense secretary is currently dealing with a different Assad, at a very different time in U.S.-Syrian relations. Hagel met with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in 2002 to discuss regional security issues, including the stalled peace process. Eleven years later, Hagel was a key player in the Obama administration's internal deliberations over whether to bomb Syria after the younger Assad used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of his own people.
In his decades in public life, Hagel has earned a well-deserved reputation for candor and honesty. There is no reason to think that he intentionally fabricated the meeting with the elder Assad or tried to mislead his readers. All the same, the book - co-written with Peter Kaminsky - contains a significant error on the subject of Mideast peace, a topic that Hagel has worked on for years, first in the Senate, then at the Atlantic Council, and now at the Pentagon. The book came out in 2008, and has been reprinted as a paperback and e-book. The erroneous account has never been corrected.
Carl Woog, a Pentagon spokesman, said the mistake stemmed from a "simple editing error."
Hagel, Woog said, met with Assad in Damascus in August 1998 to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Syrian leader made his comment about Arafat lacking the authority to make a deal with Israel during that meeting. Hagel returned to Damascus in December 2000 and discussed the failed Camp David talks with senior Syrian government officials, including then-Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara. Woog said that Hagel's editors at his publisher, Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, mistakenly combined the two trips into a single one.
"Secretary Hagel has asked the publisher to correct the error in this passage," Woog added.
A spokeswoman for HarperCollins said she was unaware of how the error crept into the book and couldn't confirm whether the publisher had received Hagel's request to fix that part of the memoir.
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