At the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa, one of the exhibits in the reception area shows a rudimentary sketch of the Sinai with several arrows stretching across the desert. This map was sketched by Moshe Dayan and signed by David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres at the Sevres Conference in 1956, where Israel met secretly with Britain and France to plan the Sinai Campaign. After much contemplation, Ben-Gurion decided on the last day of the conference to proceed with the planned offensive. In the spur of the moment, Peres tore open a cigarette box on which Dayan sketched out the planned advance of Israeli forces towards the Suez Canal.
I was quite intrigued by this “power sketch”, as I like to call it. Just imagine: territorial borders, political mergers, and even wars have been planned in the same way that students draft their exam answers! Pressed for time, negotiators and decision-makers sometimes grab the nearest piece of scrap paper to draft basic contracts, jot down innovative ideas, and brainstorm solutions to conflicts.
Some of these sketches shook the world. These scraps of paper are later memorialised as the humble beginnings of momentous political events – as symbols of spontaneous political entrepreneurship.
Here’s a list of five other times leaders used scrap paper as a very unlikely medium for political discussions.
1. LKY pushing the envelope
In July 1963, in the heat of discussions between Singapore and Malaya on the topic of Merger, Lee Kuan Yew managed to obtain certain concessions from Tunku Abdul Rahman just two days before the agreement was to be signed. These concessions included minor parliamentary election rules and labour policy. With the deadline quickly approaching, PM Lee grabbed a used envelope, scribbled several points of agreement about interior and labour policy, and got the Tunku to sign it.
2. Abbas’ “napkin map”
According to the Palestinian Authority, in mid-2008, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert proposed a land swap arrangement in which Israel would annex more than 10% of the West Bank, including major settlements, in exchange for farmland along the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When Olmert showed President Mahmoud Abbas a map with his proposed land swaps, Abbas was not allowed to keep the map, presumably to ensure that the PA would not leak the proposal to the public. Abbas had to sketch a copy of the map on a napkin to discuss it with his team.
3. Another “mapkin” for Syrian peace
During peace negotiations between Israel and Syria in 2000, the Israeli final offer was sketched out on a napkin from the Knesset cafeteria. PM Ehud Barak was willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights down to the Sea of Galilee in exchange for peace. In his plan, Israel was to keep a “symbolic presence” on a small plot of land on the east of the Galilee, but would compensate Syria in a land swap. This plan was also sketched on a napkin and conveyed to the Syrian side.
4. More “napkin diplomacy” at Dayton
In Nov 1995, peace talks were held in Dayton between the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in a bid to bring the Bosnian War to an end. During lunch one day at an officers’ club, US negotiator Richard Holbrooke conducted a brief round of shuttle diplomacy between Serbian President Milosevic and Bosnian PM Silajdzic, who were seated at opposite ends of the same dining room. When Holbrooke started discussing several ideas with Silajdzic regarding the status of Sarajevo, Silajdzic sketched several options on (surprise surprise) several napkins, which Holbrooke presented to Milosevic. After walking back and forth between the two tables, Holbrooke brought the two leaders together for a discussion. These informal talks didn’t result in any concrete agreements, but they lay the groundwork for productive discussions later on in the conference.
5. Kazakh power nap-kin
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the issues that had to be resolved between Kazakhstan and Russia was the division of the Caspian Sea between the two countries. In pursuit of a solution, the President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan sat down with Russian President Boris Yeltsin for several hours, during which he sketched out his proposed delineation of the Caspian Sea on (you guessed it) a napkin. This was eventually turned into an official document which the two presidents agreed upon.