The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is back in the news over suspicions his death in 2004 was the result of poisoning, possibly exposure to polonium. The year before his death – on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq – Arafat was interviewed by ex-CIA analysts Kathleen and Bill Christison.
By Kathleen and Bill Christison
Editor’s Note: On March 19, 2003, the day before the United States began its invasion of Iraq, two former CIA analysts Kathleen and Bill Christison had the opportunity to interview Yasser Arafat, then president of the Palestinian National Authority, in his rubble-strewn bunker in Ramallah on the Palestinian West Bank.
The Christisons – traveling with a group called Voices in the Wilderness – had been denied entry to Iraq, possibly because of their past employment at the CIA where Kathleen had been a senior intelligence analyst on the Middle East and Bill had served as Director of the Office of Regional and Political Affairs, supervising 250 substantive analysts including those responsible for research and reporting on the Middle East.
They adjusted their plans and traveled to East Jerusalem where an associate arranged the interview with Arafat. The interview took place two days after 23-year-old American peace activist Rachel Corrie was run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer.
Arafat handed them photos taken by Corrie’s friends, showing her speaking into a megaphone moments before she was crushed and later lying in the sand bleeding. Arafat and his advisers expressed outrage that Washington had limited its reaction to asking for an Israeli investigation.
This interview was originally published by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of ex-intelligence officials who challenged the Bush administration’s claims used to justify the invasion of Iraq. The Christisons are members of VIPS.
Arriving at Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 19, 2003, we had a keen sense of the drama of the occasion. The meeting had been arranged from Amman, Jordan, without our asking, by a friend of friends of ours, a Palestinian in Amman who had known Arafat for years and set up the meeting through one of Arafat’s advisers.
We had seen the headquarters compound from the street earlier in the day: a large complex, to all appearances totally destroyed by Israeli tanks and aircraft during the siege of the West Bank a year ago. But now it was early evening, already dark. The day had been very cold and rainy, and a thick fog now enveloped the headquarters compound — so thick that we could not see more than a foot in front of us.
Our taxi driver knew the complex and entered confidently from the street, but then could only creep ahead slowly until he came to a guard post. He gave our names, the guard called inside, and we were waved in, weaving our way through a labyrinthine entry formed by earthen berms.
We passed a large pile of crushed and burned cars pushed off to one side — the one-time motor pool of Palestinian Authority headquarters. We were met at the entrance to the building where Arafat lives and works, the only building left standing in the compound, and were escorted past several curious guards to an upstairs office where an adviser to Arafat greeted us.
Moments later, we were taken to Arafat’s office, a long room dominated by a large conference table. Arafat, sitting at one end reading and signing papers stacked on a reading stand, rose to greet us and offered us chairs next to him, passing a plate of sweets and crackers.
Two of his advisers sat across the table from us, and a third was later summoned when we explained our interest in reporting the Palestinian situation and the Palestinian political position in articles sent back to the United States. The conversation was quite animated, Arafat’s advisers participating as much or more than he, everyone eager to explain the Palestinian position.
Arafat himself was subdued and occasionally returned to his paperwork when the conversation swirled in English, but he was clearly listening and rejoined the discussion at appropriate moments.
There was much discussion, largely by the advisers, of the war in Iraq, which was at that point expected to begin within hours. Echoing a widespread Palestinian belief, one adviser charged that Israel had dragged the United States against its interests into initiating the war.
Asked what he sees ahead for the Palestinians, Arafat said it was hard to know what lay ahead because the war could change everything. “It’s a new Sykes-Picot agreement,” he declared, likening the Bush administration’s plans for “transforming” the Middle East to the secret 1916 agreement, named after the diplomats who signed it, by which Britain and France arranged to draw new borders throughout the Middle East and carve up the area between them in the aftermath of World War I.
Arafat dismissed any possibility that the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon would ever implement the so-called “roadmap” for Palestinian-Israeli peace drawn up by the U.S. and its Quartet partners (the UN, the EU, and Russia) but never formally issued because of Israeli objections.
“This Israeli government will not implement any peace process,” he said angrily, almost shouting. “They didn’t implement the Tenet Plan, they didn’t implement the Zinni Plan, they didn’t implement the Mitchell Plan. They didn’t implement when Bush said ‘withdraw immediately, withdraw immediately, withdraw immediately’ [from the April 2002 siege of the West Bank].”
Clearly, Arafat sees little chance that the Bush administration will adopt a more even-handed approach that would include effective pressure on Israel.
We talked for almost an hour, much of the conversation a rehash of the Camp David summit in July 2000. Although Arafat was harsh in his criticism of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who he said planned from the beginning to “destroy everything,” he refused to be drawn into criticism of President Bill Clinton.
Some of his advisers discussed Clinton’s pre-summit promise not to blame Arafat if the summit failed, a promise Clinton broke immediately after the summit ended. But Arafat would say only that Clinton “did his best” but could not move Barak.
Reaction—in Hometown Newspaper…
We have been roundly criticized even for meeting with Arafat. Two letters to the editor in our hometown newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican, have labeled us supporters of terrorism and a “disgusting presence” who should never darken Santa Fe’s doorstep again. One acquaintance, calling Arafat a murderer and criminal, wondered how we could “even stand to be near that piece of filth.”
The other letter writer, a former member of the air force, offered to fly us over Iraq and give us parachutes “so they can float to their desired new homeland.” Nice that he’d give us parachutes.
For what it is worth, if we had been offered a similar opportunity to meet with Ariel Sharon, a man who easily fits the description of “murderer and criminal” himself, we would as readily have accepted. And let it also be known that we did turn down an opportunity to meet with a leader of Hamas. One must draw the line somewhere.
[Editor's Note: In retrospect, Kathleen Christison regretted writing the previous sentence and declining the chance to meet with the Hamas leader. But one must remember the hostility that faced any American who broke with the lock-step of super-patriotism in the early days of the Iraq War.
[On July 7, 2012, she wrote in an e-mail: “Bill and I later regretted having turned down this rare chance to meet with a Hamas leader. Our decision was a sign of the times. We were reacting out of fear regarding what then-Attorney General John Ashcroft might order done to us once we got back home, assuming we were allowed back into the U.S.”]
…and Among Palestinians
The kind of virulent anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab reaction expressed in these hometown newspaper letters is not at all unexpected. What we have found somewhat more surprising has been the reaction among Palestinians here to our meeting with Arafat. He is not widely popular, and we’ve found ourselves a little on the defensive as we explain the meeting.
Arafat obviously has his faults and shortcomings, but he will always be the symbol of the long Palestinian struggle for independence and recognition from an enemy and a world community bent on suppressing the Palestinian identity. He has been largely responsible for bringing the Palestinians to their present situation, where they can no longer be ignored.
It is ironic testimony to the profound difference between the idealism of revolutionary leadership and the hard realities of actual day-to-day government that it fell to us to issue reminders to the Palestinians of Arafat’s key contribution.
We couldn’t help thinking, of course, as we sat in Arafat’s office that many in Israel and the United States would regard our meeting as consorting with terrorists. But looking around at the advisers across the table from us, we were struck by the absurdity of the automatic assumption that, if you are a Palestinian and particularly if you are a Palestinian functionary, you are ipso facto a terrorist.
Remarks of the Deputy Minister of Planning
One of our interlocutors, Dr. Ahmed Soboh, the Palestinian Authority Deputy Minister of Planning, was summoned by Arafat to lay out for us the Palestinian position on peace negotiations. He invited us to his office a few days later for a longer meeting.
Soboh is a physician who says he was drawn into politics soon after graduating from medical school and served as a PLO emissary in Mexico and ambassador in Brazil before returning to Palestine in 1995, after the Oslo agreement and after the Palestinian Authority had been established.
Soboh is a very articulate, very savvy political spokesman who should have been at the forefront of the Palestinian public relations and information system from the beginning. The following quotes will give a flavor for this man’s thinking and his ability to address the concerns of Israelis and of the U.S.
“At the end of the day,” he began, “Israel cannot be without peace. Even Sharon cannot let himself be in a corner. Israel’s economy has been hurt, and this will force him and even the right-wing government to make peace, which will necessitate recognizing the rights of the other [Palestinian] side.”
“We understand the security needs of Israelis. When I was outside, I used to think they were exaggerating, but when I came back, I understood that they really feel they need security. They are educated by their government to be fearful of being killed by any outsiders, by Palestinians.”
“You cannot justify suicide bombings, but you can explain them. Targeting human beings in this way is never acceptable. But it happens when Israel humiliates people, when a young child sees his brother killed, his house demolished, his family living in poverty; when he cannot go to school. Why else does a 20-year-old go and kill civilians and kill himself?
“When a young person has employment, health clinics, education, no restrictions on movement, he won’t kill himself. Hamas and Islamic Jihad increase in influence as the peace process goes down. When the other, less violent side was delivering, Hamas was losing support.”
“The Palestinians suffered strategically by recognizing Israel, recognizing its security needs in the Oslo agreement without ever seeing an Israeli withdrawal. If you are really willing to exchange territory for peace, how can you be confiscating land, building settlements, moving Israeli settlers into the land you are supposed to be exchanging?”
“The Palestinians have made mistakes. The first mistake was not to explain ourselves well enough; the second was the intifada, in using weapons. Our strong point is in our weakness, and we should explain to the Israeli people what we endure, without using weapons.
“The Palestinians came back to Palestine after Oslo prepared to negotiate, not to fight, but Israel is forcing us to go back to the pre-Oslo days and become a resistance organization again.
“We were hijacked by extremists in 2001; 2001 was a very bad year. Our mistake needs to be debated and discussed, as is now happening. Initially, when President Arafat and the leadership condemned suicide bombings, we were a minority among the Palestinians, but now we have more support.
“We have to have a balance: to stop fighting altogether is giving into Sharon, but suicide bombs are against Palestinian national interests. We must send the message to the Israelis that we want peace, we want security for you. Peace can divide the Israelis. This is the message we are giving to the Palestinians who still support suicide.”
“We have been put under pressure to make Palestinian reforms. If pressure coincides with our interests, that’s good, and reform is good. It is important to have transparency [in government], to fight corruption, make the civil service more efficient, to share power between President Arafat and others.
“We need leaders to be accountable to parliament, which the new prime minister will be. But security reforms cannot be carried out while Israel has the Palestinians under siege and has destroyed the Palestinian security forces. You can’t make all your reforms when you are occupied.”
“Negotiations are the only way to reach a solution with the Israelis. But if they want peace and security, it is not good for them to have poor, undemocratic neighbors. In Gaza, the per capita income is $1,000 a year for Palestinians, but $20,000 a year for Israeli settlers.
“This doesn’t produce security for Israel. Insecurity will always be a problem for the Israelis if they don’t help end this disparity.”