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by George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent may 12, 2011

     His country is so remote that only devoted, compulsive students of geography (like this correspondent) seem to even know where it is. Timor-Leste, or East Timor, is part of anl island in what would otherwise be called the Indonesian archipelago, a few islands east of Bali, and west of New Guinea. Its eastern section—with its capital at Dili—was a colony of Portugal. The somewhat smaller western part—with its capital at Kupang—belonged to the Netherlands, and therefore became part of Indonesia at independence, in 1949. But that is only the background to the story of Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste (East Timor).
     West Timor’s first claim to fame (and the way this correspondent first read of the island) was that Kupang was the town to which Captain William Bligh rowed (in Men Against the Sea, second volume of the “Bounty Trilogy”), after being put adrift in a large rowboat when his crew mutinied off Tahiti in 1789. It was one of history’s most incredible feats of seamanship, equaled in difficulty—if not anywhere near in distance—by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s voyage to South Georgia, some 127 years later.
     East Timor, on the other hand, was a colony of Portugal…and Portugal had sworn to never give up their “overseas provinces”…until they precipitated the revolution in Lisbon, in 1974. In very short order, they made arrangements to grant independence to their five African colonies: Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Sao Tome & Principe. They were about to negotiate a similar arrangement for East Timor, but the Timorese pre-empted them and declared independence unilaterally. One week later, in November 1975, the Indonesians invaded and occupied East Timor. The result was a quarter-century of genocidal rule and repression.
     Jose Ramos-Horta was born in Dili in 1949, the child of a Timorese mother, and Portuguese father who had been “exiled” to the overseas province. His father—a career naval officer-- had been sent there over a decade earlier, for participating in another mutiny: He and some fellow officers had refused orders to aid Franco’s nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Jose was originally one of 12 brothers and sisters, several of whom have—in one way or another—perished in East Timor’s struggle. He believes he may possibly be descended from some Jewish converso ancestors, on his Portuguese father’s side.
     I first met Ramos-Horta when he was the unofficial representative of the East Timor Liberation Front, operating over 30 years ago out of the Mozambique Mission to the U.N. in New York, while also doing graduate work at Columbia University. When he expressed an interest in meeting with some Israeli diplomats, I arranged a meeting for him, after speaking to then-Ambassador Yehuda Blum. Just a few months later, when an Israeli citizen somehow wandered over the border into Mozambique from Malawi, Ramos-Horta interceded, and the Israeli was put on the next plane out, to return home to Israel. And when East Timor finally achieved its independence, full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state were established. As the [unofficial] representative at the U.N., he had become the world-wide voice of East Timor’s struggle for independence. In 1996, he and his friend Carlos Ximenes Belo, the Bishop of Dili, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
     First made Foreign Minister (an office he had previously held in his mid-20’s, before the Indonesian invasion), he was briefly Prime Minister, and has now been President since 2008. He survived an assassination attempt in that year, when he was taken to Darwin, Australia for emergency treatment.
     President Ramos-Horta has several times written op-ed pieces for various foreign newspapers. In a recent article in the Huffington Post, he gives his “Reflections on A Visit to Israel and Palestine”. The reader (or this reporter) might not agree with everything that he says, but it is a surprising statement from a respected third-world leader…and almost unique in its ability to see both sides of the bitter, seemingly-intractable Palestine-Israel problem.
     Ramos-Horta met with the major Israeli leaders (President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak), as well as with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). He described their combined area as one of “fragile peace”, but still ahead economically of most of the surrounding Middle East. He describes the West Bank as
     “…far ahead of most Sub-Sahara African states, and indeed well ahead of my own country, in
      economic well-being…”.
And in an “understatement” of something everyone knows, he noted that
     “Israelis were not bestowed with the same resources available to much of the Arab world”.
     Ramos-Horta notes that Netanyahu is “…anxious to start face-to-face dialogue. He appears to be firmly committed to the two-state concept”. This is in clear contrast with the Western media in the early days of the Netanyahu government, who appeared to believe that everything would fall into place, if the new Prime Minister would just utter the words “two-state solution” in the same sentence (He did, and…?). But, interestingly, he found much agreement on one thing:
     “For many in Israel, Palestine and elsewhere in much of the Arab world, Iran presents the
      greatest threat to all”.
     Ramos-Horta argues that the Israelis know that they will have to withdraw from most of the West Bank, as they did from Gaza and, earlier, from Sinai, and “…they are prepared to do it in the West Bank with ‘minor border adjustments’ from both sides”.
     Interesting words these…from one with both credentials as a peacemaker and vision and worldview as a Head of State.
                                            © 2011 George Alan Baumgarten
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