Arafat and me
David Smith on the time he spent with Yasir Arafat, the former Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization
His supporters called him The Chairman. Many adopted Abu Ammar, the name that suggested lineage to the prophet Muhammed. The masses used the Arabic word, Ra’is, The President. His closest advisers termed him, endearingly, the Old Man. The man himself, in conversations with me that touched on the personal some days, thought of himself as The good General.
Yet on the other side of the divide that lies still at the heart of the Middle East conflict, his most bitter enemy was absolute.
Yasir Arafat, said Ariel Sharon, himself a General, then Prime Minister, was a “jew murderer”.
The journey with Arafat was never anything other than a wild, yet fascinating ride
The latest round of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians solved nothing. Except to remind us all that, six decades on from the birth of Israel as a much-wanted home for the Jewish diaspora after the Holocaust, there is a problem. And Yasir Arafat, for all his many failings, succeeded in making the Palestinians, and the Israelis, that problem.
From the moment I first met him, in the summer of 1982 when that nemesis of his, Sharon, ordered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to drive him and his fighters out, Arafat struck me as the kind of politician you underestimated at your peril. Beneath the neurotic, highly temperamental surface, his vanity was clear. But so too his savvy. You’d find him on a day of savage aerial bombardment, his bodyguards reeking of stress and fear, yet the leader dressed from head to toe immaculately, neat olive fatigues and the trademark keffiyah, hand-knitted Palestinian head-dress that he made a fashion statement ever since he built the Liberation movement, as an engineer in exile, in Kuwait back in the 1960s.
You might dismiss the platitudes-cum-placebos he offered in an interview as mere theatre. “I’m not asking for the moon,” I remember him telling me as darkness fell after 12 straight hours of Israeli bombing in August 1982. “I’m just asking for a home for my people.” But you didn’t discount the warnings that flowed when the camera was turned off, and he talked more calmly with you, before those bodyguards hustled him away to another abode in the early hours.
“The Israelis can kill us all, so they think, and yet come morning, a Palestinian with a gun in his hand will appear from under a rock, and say I’m here !” He savoured that moment and that thought, casting himself as just that fighter too. I wondered how well he slept, the assassination attempts legendary. “I can sleep, as long as I have a weapon,” he replied, touching the holster that you always noticed as you met him. He never slept two nights in the same place.
From Beirut, to Tunisia, to Algiers, to Amman, eventually back home to Gaza and the west Bank, the journey with Arafat was never anything other than a wild, yet fascinating ride, an odyssey with a man who perhaps understood something we didn’t: that his improbable journey kept the unlikely cause of the Palestinians alive.
I remember, in my youth, an Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, who concluded : “there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people.” Think of another PM, Menachem Begin, architect of that war in Lebanon in 1982: “The Palestinians are beasts walking on two legs.” Or consider Bibi Netanyahu in this period, building walls well before Donald Trump: “we must defend ourselves against the wild beasts.”
Well, Arafat defied the notion that his people didn’t exist. That they were animals ruining the neighbourhood. Or that they were unfit to sit at the table. From the moment he took the stage at the United Nations in the mid 70s, carrying that gun holster (empty, no weapon allowed there) and an olive branch of peace, the Chairman made the cause an indelible part of the landscape. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand,” he declared. A brilliant, if cynical, piece of winning theatre, masking his real tactics, given his sponsorship of plane hijackings, bus station bombings, and the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.
By the time I caught up with him again in Tunis, then Algiers, Geneva, Paris, Brussels, in the mid 1980s, a conversion of sorts was underway. From warrior to peace-seeker, the gun now in a velvet glove, Arafat worked overtime at suggesting the end of Israel didn’t have to be the goal, rather two states. Speaking to me just before he addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he reminded me of the responsibility that went with being The good General : “How can we come to accept the existence of Israel, and not have our own existence accepted?”
The Old Man pulled off what was once unthinkable: making the Palestinians a world problem
The peace deal that brought him home to Gaza in 1994, and the West Bank, as head of the Palestinian national authority, it should have been a triumph. Sadly, by then the Old Man was just that seen from my perspective. And too old. A veteran of yesteryear’s freedom fights, too far removed from the lives of people who had lived for a generation under Israeli occupation, so wedded to keeping control and his powerbase above all else. He bathed in the Nobel peace prize, but the shortfall was obvious. “We have no peace, just emergency agreements,” he told me, sarcastically adding : “and you know the Israelis decide what is an emergency.”
I watched, close-up from Washington DC, as Bill Clinton tried to hammer out a final settlement in the year 2000. As a former correspondent in Jerusalem, and the author of a book on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, I could see how close Clinton came to a historic, territorial compromise with the last moderate Israeli leadership, offering Arafat 90 per cent of the West Bank and a stake in Jerusalem.
The Chairman said No, and would carry that missed opportunity to his grave. I could think of the adage used by his enemies in Israel. Arafat and the Palestinians, so said the likes of Ariel Sharon, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But such condemnation missed Arafat’s unique passage, from standard-bearer of a people who didn’t exist, to tribune of a nation-in-waiting, built in his image. “The Palestinian who will give up our right to Jerusalem has not been born yet,” he told me defiantly, the last time we talked, evoking that memory of the fighter surfacing from the rubble all those years before. The Old Man was father to both, and in the process pulled off what was once unthinkable: making the Palestinians a world problem.
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