Friday, December 26, 2008

A political pilgrimage

Hailey couple journeys to the Middle East

Express Staff Writer

Hailey residents Marcia and Don Leibich were a part of a "Political Pilgrimage" in November. Photo by

When a group of Americans stopped at the compound of a shepherd in the South Hebron Hills in early November, the Palestinian shepherd told them he was happy that President-elect Barack Obama won but that he was surrounding himself with Jews.

Besides being an illustration of the region's intractable problems, the encounter led Hailey resident Don Leibich, 67, wondered how did he know?

"We were in the middle of the desert," Liebich said. "Then someone said, 'Every move and every word Obama speaks will be analyzed and overanalyzed.' In many parts of the world it's literally life and death."

At the time, Liebich and his wife, Marcia, were part of a delegation of 15 people traveling together for three weeks in the Middle East, led by former Ambassador to Iraq Edward Peck.

(Peck is the man who, in an interview on FOX News, inspired Rev. Jeremiah Wright's now infamous anti-American foreign policy tirade that led Obama to drop Wright, his longtime pastor.)

The group went from Beirut, Lebanon, to Damascus, Syria, and Amman, Jordan, over the King Hussein Bridge to the West Bank, then to Jerusalem and on to Cairo. They represented the 15th "Political Pilgrimage" sponsored by the Council for National Interest to the Middle East.

They met with government leaders, opposition parties, non-governmental organizations and journalists along way. The objective was to discover what the people of the Middle East want from the Obama administration.

Both Martha Liebich and Don Liebich, a former president and CEO of Sysco Food Services-New York, are involved in many local charitable issues. For instance, Marcia is a founding member of the Wood River Women's Charitable Foundation.

But their world is a far more expansive place. As a former executive with one of the country's largest food distributors, Don Liebich is welcomed as a consultant in many foreign locales, including Eastern Europe, Venezuela and Indonesia. But they have a special interest in the Middle East.

They have led two groups to build homes with Habitat for Humanity in Jordan and led two groups to the Middle East from St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Ketchum and Lord of the Mountains in Dylan, Colo.

This past fall their trip had a more political focus.

"Americans need to look out for our interests—a peaceful, stable Middle East, that is not at war and where we can acquire oil at a stable price," Don Liebich said. "One of the trends that became apparent was the changing political landscape. During discussions with Hezbollah and Hamas, two groups isolated by the Western powers as terrorist organizations, the words that I heard most frequently were respect, dialogue and the need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian situation in order to have peace and stability in the region.

"Although it is never clear that there can be a positive outcome from dialogue, one can only hope that the U.S. is not tone deaf to the signals."

The ongoing disputes between the factions in the region are over land, which he said influences everything that happens in the Middle East. The refugee camps created 60 years ago are now a kind of home to the descendants of the original Palestinians who were sent there. There are more than 400,000 refugees alone in Lebanon. The camps suffer from serious problems—lack of infrastructure, overcrowding, poverty and unemployment. Liebich called the Shatila camp in Lebanon the "most appalling situation" he'd ever seen.

He said the spokespeople of both Hamas and Hezbollah remained committed to resistance to the Israeli occupation, but didn't come across as the "fanatical terrorists that are portrayed in the West."

"One of the Hezbollah spokesmen I talked to is married to an American woman who insisted that her first child be born in New York City," he said. "His daughter, therefore, is an American citizen."

Everywhere the delegation traveled they were greeted warmly, Liebich said.

"People were so glad to see Americans," he said. "As mad as they are with our government, they love Americans. They want to take your hands and show you the way. (The election of) Obama made them hopeful. They say 'only in America.' The country really is still a beacon of hope. But they have a wait-and-see attitude. They recognize the difficulties."

Despite this Liebich said he didn't walk away with a lot of optimism.

"The road to peace runs through Jerusalem," Liebich paraphrased. "Without a settlement you can't solve it. It's on life support. The facts on the ground make it impossible. To understand the issues (you have) to get beyond the political posturing."

To hear more about the Liebichs' trip and learn about the issues, attend one of the two talks planned in January, at which Liebich will discuss why America can no longer play favorites.

Discussions on Middle East

Where: St. Thomas Episcopal Church

When: Sunday, Jan 11 approximately 11 a.m. after services

Where: Community Library, Ketchum

When: Thursday, Jan. 29 at 6 p.m.

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