Editor’s note: A memorial service will be held for former Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah) at 3 p.m. today in Room B-338 of the Rayburn House Office Building.
At a time when prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace have receded dangerously and bold leadership is in short supply, the death of former Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah), president of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, is a devastating blow. Those who wish to advance the cause of peace can take instruction as well as inspiration from the way Owens went about his work.
Owens, 64, collapsed and died of a heart attack while walking on a beach in Tel Aviv on Dec. 18. The previous evening he had bade Rep. Jim Davis (D-Fla.) and me farewell after seven intense days of travel through the Middle East. Our shock and sorrow upon hearing the news a mere 24 hours after we had parted in the airport were acute. These emotions were widely shared among Owens’ many friends, the Utah constituents he served during two distinguished stints in the House, and the admirers of his path-breaking work since 1989 with the center.
Owens’ personal and political background hardly pointed to a career in Mideast diplomacy. He gave six years of service to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including work as a missionary in France. In the 1960s, he served on the staffs of Sens. Frank Moss (D-Utah), Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass). He gave up his House seat for an unsuccessful Senate race in 1974 and again in 1992. But in the meantime he had found what came to be his true calling, drawn to the Middle East by his experience on the then-House Foreign Affairs Committee, his vision of what a small, independent and creative organization might achieve in this political and policy thicket, and his friendship with Daniel Abraham, co-founder and financier of the Center for Middle East Peace.
Owens, Abraham and the various Middle East hands and political leaders working with the center were actively involved in discussions that helped bring the relevant parties to the 1991 Madrid Conference. They then found numerous ways of encouraging the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of the 1990s. Owens was haunted by the knowledge of how close to resolution those efforts had come, only to collapse into distrust and violence. He had few illusions about the obstacles to getting peace negotiations back on track. Still he persevered, always looking for the openings, the confluences of interest, the glimmers of hope that could be acted and built upon. He was one of the most determined and dedicated persons I have ever known.
Owens’ approach was mirrored in the trip we took in December. We met with the heads of state in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, demonstrating again the remarkable access and the relationships of respect Owens and the center had developed across the political spectrum in Israel, in the Palestinian community and in most Arab states. But many of our visits were more narrowly targeted to learn about and to encourage promising initiatives, an approach necessitated by the collapse of the peace process.
For example, we met in Cairo with Chief of Intelligence Gen. Omar Seuliman regarding the next round of cease-fire talks to be brokered by Egypt among Hamas, Fatah and possibly other groups. We then visited chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Abu Mazen on the day it was determined that he would personally attend this second round.
We met with Palestinian Authority Finance Minister Salam Fayyad regarding financial and budget reform, where there has been enough progress to allow the United States to broker the release of a first installment of Palestinian Authority revenues impounded by Israel. We talked with Sari Nusseibeh, head of Jerusalem Affairs for the PLO, about the back-channel, unofficial peace initiatives undertaken by him and others.
Owens specialized in discussions of these sorts, which bore witness to his remarkable understanding of the politics of the region and of the many facets of peacemaking, his conviction that fact-finding for himself or others required diverse sources, and his realization that the encouragement offered, the feedback given, and the information exchanged in such off-the-record sessions could be significant.
Owens and the center also have stressed the economic aspects of regional coexistence and cooperation. A major focus has been research on water desalination and the planning of plants for Israel, Gaza and surrounding states as a means of addressing what is perhaps the region’s most threatening long-term conflict of national interests. Owens a decade ago began to encourage Members of Congress to visit and work with the smaller Gulf states, in addition to Saudi Arabia, to build economic as well as political support for a comprehensive Mideast settlement.
I have found the repeated visits Owens organized in the region and the discussions hosted by the center in Washington invaluable as a source of information and insight and as an avenue for constructive engagement. The many tributes to Owens offered on the House floor on Jan. 7 affirmed that this experience was widely shared among Members of Congress.
Owens was passionately committed to the security and integrity of Israel and to justice and self-determination for Palestinians. He understood well the relation between the two and the unlikelihood of forward movement without persistent American engagement.
The achievement of a comprehensive peace among Israel and its neighbors is a compelling cause in its own right, but it is one given additional urgency by the need for regional cooperation and support in combating terrorism and in disarming Iraq. With Wayne Owens’ passing, we have lost one of our country’s most determined and resourceful contributors to this cause. It is critically important for those of us who understand the value of his work to find ways to carry it forward.
Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) participated in the December trip of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation.