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Profile:
Yasser Arafat
The broken revolutionary 

By Robert Fisk

8 July 2000

 

When he appeared before the UN general assembly in November 1974, Yasser Arafat told delegates that he had come "bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun, do not let the olive branch fall from my hand". There was no danger of that.

 Arafat was never a democrat, never anything but a man with his eye on the main chance. Confronted by an experienced Israeli negotiating team in Oslo in 1993, he allowed his representatives to accept what might just be the most tragic, hopeless "peace" in modern Middle East history, a treaty whose only immediate result was the installation of Yasser Arafat as the president of a puppet state chopped into 16 fragments. His supposed guarantor was the US, the one nation he always publicly distrusted, and his intelligence services would be watched over by the CIA. In the new state, dissident voices would be crushed, protesters jailed, hostile publications censored.

"If you put a blank sheet of paper in front of Arafat," the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri jested, not long ago, "he would sign it." So how did the old man come to this? How did the "freedom fighter", the darling of the Palestinian people, the man who once told me that his only child was the revolution, who insisted to me that the Palestinians would develop "democracy among the guns", end up ruling over a rubbish tip in the West Bank and Gaza, and threaten an uprising if his declaration of statehood - the third in 12 years, though we are supposed to forget the earlier two - was not acknowledged?

Watch the eyes darting across his interlocutors with suspicion; the palsied hand; the reluctance to speak English; the desire to retreat more and more into the counsels of his most sycophantic supporters. This is not a revolutionary hero. This is no Guevara or Mandela. Arafat is neither hero nor philosopher. He is an insomniac. He always did his business by night.

I recall an interview with him in Beirut in 1981, when his "Fatah" revolutionaries were running West Beirut in much the same corrupt way that they are now pretending to run Gaza and the West Bank. After weeks of pleading vainly for a few minutes with the "chairman", I was summoned after midnight for a desperate race across the darkened Lebanese capital, where gunmen emerged from a shabby apartment block, a half-minute for them made the difference between favour and disgrace, wherein I would find Arafat, "kuffieh" scarf delicately, self-consciously wrapped round his face to illustrate mandate Palestine (look at it carefully and you will see the Sea of Galilee up near his forehead), eyes wide with concern and ostentatious friendship. How ironically my notes of that meeting now read. The Camp David treaty between Egypt and Israel had been "a conspiracy of self-rule". The rulers of Israel were "a terrorist military junta". The Americans could never be trusted to produce a just peace.

He was a man caught between emotion and rhetoric, his anger real enough, his suspicions clouding his attempts at cordiality. When I asked why Palestinian guerrillas so often killed or wounded Israeli civilians in their raids over the border, he blurted out: "It doesn't. They don't. Definite!... Why do you ask these questions?" Then his knee would bounce up and down against the table, a kind of lie-detector in which the knee would bang the table ever more violently as he became ever more agitated. "You have to ask these [Israeli] citizens why they are living in my homeland. They are participating in this tragedy. They are participating in this crime with their government, the Israeli military junta."

Now, of course, it is Arafat who is accused by his opponents of a "conspiracy of self-rule"; the "terrorist military junta" are now his partners in "the peace of the brave", the Americans his main, only but highly untrustworthy ally. But it should be no surprise. Weakness and ruthlessness have always been his allies. When Naji el-Ali, a Palestinian cartoonist who regularly savaged Arafat from the safety of London, enraged the PLO leader, he was shot dead in the street. Military commanders who challenged Arafat in Lebanon were liquidated. When he needed martyrs in 1976, he called for a truce around the besieged refugee camp of Tel el-Zaatar, then ordered his commanders in the camp to fire at their right-wing Lebanese Christian enemies. When, as a result, the Phalangists and "Tigers" militia slaughtered their way into Tel el-Zaatar, Arafat opened a "martyrs' village" for camp widows in the sacked Christian village of Damour. On his first visit, the widows pelted him with stones and rotten fruit. Journalists were ordered away at gunpoint.

Arafat was a survivor. Israel's cruel attempts to murder him during the 1982 siege of Beirut, Israeli planes massacred dozens of civilians in vain assassination attempts while the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was fantasising in a letter to President Reagan that Arafat in Beirut was Adolf Hitler in Berlin, came to nothing. Even an air crash in the Libyan desert left Arafat alive and his pilots dead; a subsequent blood clot in the brain was attributed to this near-disaster and may be the cause of his palsied hand today.

But Arafat's folly was almost as stupendous as his ability to survive. His addiction to rhetoric persuaded him that Saddam Hussein really was prepared to "liberate" Palestine, and, in just one visit to Baghdad after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, he deprived his people of the Croesus-like generosity of the Gulf States and ensured that tens of thousands of Palestinians in Kuwait itself would be ejected in poverty and humiliation from the land in which many of them had been born. Indeed, Arafat himself spent some of his early years as a businessman in Kuwait, his love of rhetoric briefly drowned by his love of fast cars. Arafat's bravery was beyond doubt. No one but a man inspired by his own vision could have so doggedly, so stubbornly, so self- confidently directed the PLO and clung on so tenaciously in Beirut through two months of Israeli siege.

Recognition was the aspiration he always clung to. Recognition of past wrongs. Recognition of the PLO. Recognition of the Palestinian people. Arafat had the odd habit of believing that if you went on saying things often enough, they would somehow come true. So he believed that he was a statesman rather than a terrorist, and, once he was offered the chance of a "peace" with Israel, his transformation from super-terrorist to super-statesman was accomplished in seconds. And the "peace" that wrought this miraculous conversion might yet prove to be his greatest folly. He had demanded first a state in all of mandate Palestine then, Arafat could occasionally acknowledge reality, a state in that part of Palestine that did not become Israel in 1948. Peace, if it was to be achieved in the Middle East, was to be had through UN Security Council resolution 242 of 1967, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territory seized in the Six Day War and the security of all states (including Israel) in the area.

But the secret Oslo agreement of 1993, which Arafat approved, was not based on 242. It did not insist on an Israeli withdrawal from all Arab land; it allowed the Israelis to continue building Jewish settlements on occupied Arab territory; it did not guarantee part of Jerusalem as a capital for Palestinians. Nor did it give Palestinians a "right of return", as they had always claimed under an earlier (and unbinding) UN general assembly resolution. Oslo, in fact, allowed the Israelis to renegotiate UN Security Council resolution 242. It reduced the "right of return" of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from a legitimate (if unrealisable) demand into a polite request. It permitted Israel to decide how much land should be returned to its Arab owners, to decide whether Palestinians should have any small quarter of Jerusalem as a capital, and to keep whatever settlements it wanted to keep, in violation of international law, the West Bank was no longer to be called "occupied", but "disputed".

Thus did Arafat, in return for his pumpkin "presidency" of a state that did not exist, sell everything his supporters had fought and died for over more than three decades. Arafat had been deluded once more by his own emotions. He was so grateful to the Americans for recognising him that he trusted them. He trusted the Israelis. He trusted anyone who talked about peace. His trust was not based on documents and written promises and signatures. That's why he called it a peace of the "brave". "Foolhardy" might have been a better word.

So when the release of prisoners was delayed and the timetables of Israeli withdrawals slipped by days, weeks and months, when the aspiration for a capital in Jerusalem was denied, totally, by the Israelis, Arafat appealed to his American friends. Sorry, Warren Christopher, and later Madeleine Albright, told Arafat. They could bring the "two sides" together. But it was up to "the parties themselves" to negotiate. Arafat was on his own. There are Israelis, brave, thoughtful men and women, who are as appalled at Arafat's surrender as they are by their own country's acquiescence in Arafat's collapse; at its refusal to allow the Palestinians the dignity of even a little bit of Jerusalem as a capital; at the Bantustan Palestinian "state" that now exists; and at the hegemony of the Jewish settlers living on occupied land.

But Arafat has undermined even the Israelis who supported him. Prisoners are tortured to death in Palestinian jails, Palestinian human rights activists beaten up by Arafat's thugs, the works of critical authors, Edward Said being the most brilliant of them, are suppressed. And now, at the eleventh hour, Arafat, his closest advisers mired in corruption along, so it is said, with some members of his family, realises he may have gone a surrender too far.

In the hot, fetid streets of Gaza, the Palestinians no longer care for his rule nor his false promises. They don't want a capital in a village and they don't want a life of economic deprivation, ruled and cantoned by Israeli military forces every time they wish to travel between their cities. They want prisoners released. They want an end to settlements. They want part of Jerusalem.

So Arafat, for the third time, promises to declare a state in two months' time. The Israelis threaten violence. If a state is declared, the Israeli Prime Minister, Barak, says Israel may have to annex the Jewish settlements, as if their existence is not de facto annexation anyway. The Israeli Foreign Minister, incredibly, threatens to send in tanks. Arafat's "peace of the brave" is turning rather into the peace of the desperate.

No wonder President Clinton, whose sheep-like refusal to criticise Israel has undermined any prestige Arafat may have retained, wants to host Arafat and Barak in the US this week. For unless he can extract yet more concessions from Arafat, his presidency may end not in a Middle East peace but a Middle East conflict that would unravel the entire Arab-Israeli "peace" process of the past seven years.

Of course, Arafat may stick to his guns and demand his statehood. But given his track record of folly, corruption and incompetence, he may be able to make another surrender. Delaying a declaration of statehood, for example. Or promising to redefine what statehood means. Or by giving the United States further time to "mediate".

By which time, there may not be much of Palestine left to negotiate.


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