Arafat: Tragedy & Hope
By Morgan Strong
November 17, 2004
I last met with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat about one year ago at dinner in his Ramallah ruins. He sat at the head of a table, barely touching his food, avoiding the conversation, dreadfully morose. His unusual reticence led me to think that he knew he was dying.
Over the previous two decades, I had shared many lunches and dinners with Arafat, sometimes just the two of us. Once in Baghdad, we had shared an impressive luncheon banquet; another time in the pre-dawn hours in Tunis, we ate a humble meal of Pita bread and hummus. Several years ago, in his Gaza beachfront headquarters, our lunch was interrupted when an Israeli gunboat offshore fired a round onto the beach.
In Ramallah last year, I was the only outsider eating with Arafat and about eight members of his staff. It was then that the thought of Arafats mortality crossed my mind, that this living symbol of the Palestinian national cause might soon be gone and that an uncertain future lay ahead. His dream of leading his people to their own independent state had already receded beyond his reach, as he finished his lifes journey as a virtual prisoner of the Israelis.
Indeed, Arafats forced internal exile within Palestine had driven him further from his nationalist cause than if he had remained in Tunis or some other distant place of refuge. Surrounding him in Ramallah, Israel determined his existence. If they chose, they could cut him off from outside contact, from food, from water, from doctors, and from family and friends. Arafat told me he lived in just three connected rooms: his bedroom, his office and the dining room where we ate.
Before his triumphal return to Palestine in 1994, I asked him if perhaps he was not trading his freedom for a vague promise of freedom for the Palestinians. He said his destiny was to lead his people to a country of their own and nothing could stop that dream from becoming reality.
But Arafats destiny had been denied. The Israelis let Arafat return to Palestine but the recurring cycles of violence left the peace process in shambles and Arafat confined to his battered headquarters. For Israeli hardliners around Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Arafats predicament was almost the best of all possible worlds. Not only did Israel not have to cede real control of Biblical lands to the Palestinians, but blame for the bloody stalemate fell disproportionately on Arafat.
After that dinner a year ago, I asked Arafat about President Bill Clintons assertion that Arafats rejection of a settlement offer from Israeli Prime Minister Ahud Barak at Camp David in 1999 had sunk the last best hope for the Palestinian people. As his face contorted in anger, Arafat waved his index finger at me, which was his custom when displeased by a question.
Arafat called Clintons assertion a lie and he said he didnt know why Clinton would say such a thing. The sticking point, Arafat said, was the holy city of Jerusalem, which Arafat said didnt belong to Israel, but to God.
The Palestinian leader was upset, too, about accusations that he didnt really try to stop terrorism against Israel. When I asked that question, as I always did, he responded with frustration and bewilderment. Leaning toward me in his chair, his eyes bulging slightly, his brows arched, he insisted that stopping terrorist attacks on Israel was beyond his power, especially after he was confined to his headquarters in Ramallah.
Arafat said he had succeeded in stopping dozens of planned attacks and arrested the fanatics. Though Sharon knew this, Arafat said, the Israeli prime minister wouldnt acknowledge these acts. But stopping all terrorism was impossible, Arafat said, noting that even the powerful United States couldnt eliminate terrorism, so how could he, especially when he was effectively a prisoner isolated from his people.
Because of his negotiations with Israel and the United States, Arafat also lost standing with some Islamic radicals, who came to view him as a traitor to the Palestinian cause. But the dominant view of Arafat inside the United States was similar to the contempt expressed by the Israeli government toward its longtime Palestinian nemesis, that he was responsible for terrorism and was primarily to blame for the failed peace process.
Regarding Arafat, the U.S. press has been overwhelmingly hostile, an attitude I have personally witnessed at CBSs Sixty Minutes and elsewhere. Indeed, one of the professional weaknesses displayed by the mainstream American news media is its tendency to pile on a foreign leader who is unpopular with the U.S. government and who lacks a strong constituency that will defend him. In such cases, objectivity and nuance are cast aside, opening the door to only the most negative presentation of facts and events.
That was the case with Iraqs Saddam Hussein, enabling the Bush administration to exaggerate the danger from Husseins supposed weapons of mass destruction with little dissent from the U.S. press corps. It was also the case with Arafat.
Sixty Minutes once did a show accusing Arafat of making billions of dollars by controlling monopolies for all goods and services sold in the West Bank and Gaza. There was some truth to the story which I had uncovered and helped develop. Arafats Palestinian Authority did control the sale of everything sold in the Palestinian territories and money did go into the PLOs general coffers. But how much Arafat and his cronies siphoned off, if they did, was anybodys guess.
Sixty Minutes left out some other relevant details, such as the fact that former elected members of the Israeli government and former general officers of the Israeli Army were partners in these monopolies. It was they, not the Palestinians, who effectively controlled the monopolies. The PLO only got a cut, while the Israelis cleared much more. Before the story aired, I protested that the story didnt tell the whole truth, but I was ignored.
A year ago, a week after I saw Arafat in Ramallah, Sixty Minutes ran another story, this time about his wife Suha living in luxury in Paris in a $16,000-a-day hotel suite, which is true. But its also true that Arafat had made several million dollars in the early 1960s running a construction company in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He had a sizable fortune when he became a leader of the PLO. His wifes family also is very wealthy.
Following Arafats death on Nov. 11, Sixty Minutes is planning an Arafat retrospective. Based on my conversations with the programs producers, its clear that the program will be an unflattering portrait of Arafat, focusing on his warts and more warts.
Though some analysts in the West hope that Arafats death will open a new path to peace, I fear that the terrible war may become even worse. While he was alive, I felt there was a chance for a just peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a view that I believe he shared.
Once when we met in Tunis, Arafat told me that he envisioned not only an end to the violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians but an economic alliance between Israel and Palestine, creating a center for business and innovation that would dominate the Middle East. While such a dream might seem farfetched today, at minimum Arafat still could act as a restraint on Palestinian extremists because of who he was and what he represented to the Palestinian people.
Now Arafat who personified both Palestinian hope and Palestinian tragedy is gone.
Morgan Strong is a journalist and served as a consultant to Sixty Minutes on the Middle East.
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