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take the exit ramp off the Bush presidency in November?
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Colin Powell's sterling reputation in Washington hides his life-long role
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Recounting the controversial presidential campaign
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The Clinton Scandals
The story behind President Clinton's impeachment
Pinochet & Other Characters
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Rev. Sun Myung Moon and American politics
Contra drug stories uncovered
How the American historical record has been tainted by lies and cover-ups
The October Surprise
The 1980 October Surprise scandal exposed
From free trade to the Kosovo crisis
Other Investigative Stories
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
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
Arafat’s 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 life’s journey as a virtual prisoner of the Israelis.
Indeed, Arafat’s 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
But Arafat’s 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, Arafat’s
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
Clinton’s assertion that Arafat’s 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 Clinton’s assertion a lie and he said he didn’t know why
Clinton would say such a thing. The sticking point, Arafat said, was
the holy city of Jerusalem, which Arafat said didn’t belong to Israel,
but to God.
The Palestinian leader was upset, too, about accusations that he
didn’t 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 wouldn’t acknowledge these acts. But stopping
all terrorism was impossible, Arafat said, noting that even the
powerful United States couldn’t eliminate terrorism, so how could he,
especially when he was effectively a prisoner isolated from his
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 CBS’s “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 Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, enabling the Bush
administration to exaggerate the danger from Hussein’s 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. Arafat’s Palestinian Authority did
control the sale of everything sold in the Palestinian territories and
money did go into the PLO’s general coffers. But how much Arafat and
his cronies siphoned off, if they did, was anybody’s 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
didn’t tell the whole truth, but I was ignored.
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 it’s 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 wife’s family also is
Following Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, “Sixty Minutes” is planning an
Arafat retrospective. Based on my conversations with the program’s
producers, it’s 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 Arafat’s 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
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