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Character Sketches: Yasir Arafat by Brian Urquhart

Yasir Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) addresses the UN General Assembly on the question of Palestine. (13 November 1974)
UN Photo/DB
Yasir Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) addresses the UN General Assembly on the question of Palestine. (13 November 1974)


In 2003, ten years after he was at last universally recognized as the President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasir Arafat seemed a less relevant figure than at any other time in his long and tumultuous career. With the second intifada, the advent of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister of Israel and George W. Bush as President of the United States, the collapse of the peace process, the suicide bombings in Israel, and the physical destruction of the Palestinian Authority, his position was threadbare, his authority and credibility in shreds. Surrounded by Israeli tanks, he barely survived in the ruins of his headquarters and of his hopes. He still, however, exercised a debilitating veto on the efforts of the other Palestinian leaders.

After the 1967 war, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza created yet another wave of Palestinian refugees. This new disaster caused Arafat and other Palestinian leaders to abandon the resigned posture that had characterized Palestinian leadership up to that time, and to represent the Palestinians to the world not as refugees but as a disenfranchised people whose rights must be taken seriously. They decided to seize the world’s attention by committing violent and shocking acts—assassinations, kidnappings, explosions, and aircraft hijacking. Dramatic headlines along with public shock and anxiety replaced comfortable and insincere lip service to well-intentioned but hollow UN resolutions that had done nothing to recover the rights or the lands of the Palestinian people.

As the international community began to pay attention, Arafat himself—although his rhetoric was often outrageous—became a moderate by comparison with the extremist groups of the Palestine liberation movement. In the world outside, however, and especially in the United States, most people accepted the Israeli picture of him as the worst of terrorists. He was treated as an outlaw and excluded from peace negotiations or any other sort of recognition. Both Israelis and Americans strongly disapproved of meeting with Arafat. It was no use saying that if you wanted to deal with a problem, it was a good idea to talk to one of the people most concerned, whether or not you approved of his behavior. It was even less use to point out that other now respected figures—Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Jomo Kenyatta and others—had started their political careers as “terrorists” in Western eyes. Until 1993, when Arafat suddenly appeared, beaming, on the White House lawn, contact with him was anathema both to the United States and to Israel, and the prospect of peace in the Middle East suffered irreparably.

In December 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, a Middle East Peace Conference chaired by the UN Secretary-General assembled in Geneva. It was a short-lived affair and dealt only with disengagement and withdrawal on the Israeli/Egyptian front. All our efforts to persuade the United States to accept Palestinian representation were rebuffed and, in the absence of the PLO, the Arab states refused to take part in further sessions of the conference on the other aspects of the Middle East problem. In 1973, there were no Israeli settlements in the occupied territories; the Israeli government was still firmly in the hands of Labor; and there was no Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, or Al-Aksa Brigades, the militant Islamic political organizations that later dominated the occupied territories. In retrospect, it is easy to see that the peace process started twenty years too late.

Of course, Arafat would not have been easy to deal with in 1973 or at any other time for that matter. For one thing, like Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin later on, he might easily have been killed by his own extremists for talking peace. But at least the process would have got started under far more promising circumstances, and its momentum would have been difficult to stop.

During our many talks with Arafat in the 1970’s, one might never have guessed that the PLO was not welcome at the peace negotiations. Arafat would pop up unexpectedly all over the place—Geneva, Tripoli, the government Guest Houses in Damascus or Beirut—kissing one on both cheeks and never failing to live in a dream world that totally ignored hard political realities. He talked as if he would be doing everyone a favor if he graciously agreed to attend the peace conference—though of course he would have to know and approve the agenda first. He told us that he would consider the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank instead of insisting on a secular state for Muslims, Christians and Jews in the whole of Palestine. His attitude was that of the master, not the suppliant.

It was difficult not to have a sneaking admiration for his dogged disregard of reality. The liberation leaders of that time (PLO, ANC, SWAPO, Polisario and others) all lived in a world of no compromise. With little immediate prospect of success, it was perhaps the only inspiration they could give their supporters. Indeed, Arafat’s extraordinary talent for survival had a lot to do with his unshakable fantasy, his grasshopper mind, and his refusal to be pinned down on anything. The latter quality, once he was at last negotiating directly with Israel, finally proved to be his undoing.

For all his unprepossessing appearance, his ill-fitting military clothes and unshaven face (a skin condition made it painful for him to shave), Arafat had a certain feline charm. He was physically courageous, or perhaps just fatalistic, living with daily threats to his life from many sources, and he seemed to have unlimited stamina and resilience. But as long as he was not admitted to the negotiating process, he was likely to be dominated in the end by the violent forces surrounding him. Without hope of progress, he was unable to opt decisively for moderation. In Europe, his statements were reasonable, but in the Arab world, they were often outrageous, and his credibility suffered accordingly. When, at the Camp David talks in 1999, he was offered a reasonable basis for a settlement, he was no longer capable of seizing what may well have been his last opportunity.

Arafat had a quixotic streak, or perhaps he just wanted to be liked. In Beirut during the civil war, he sometimes used his own highly efficient security force to help and protect beleaguered groups, including the city’s small Jewish community. He was generous with his valuable intelligence resources. Since, at the time, he was close to the Ayatollah Khomeini, he went immediately to Teheran to try to persuade Khomeini to release the American embassy hostages. When he discovered that an extremist Palestinian group was plotting to assassinate UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim during an ill-considered visit to Tyre in southern Lebanon, he at once sent members of his security team to head off the assassins, which they managed to do at the very last minute. But the image Arafat presented to the Western world--his unkempt appearance, his Castro jacket and pistol, and his wild and contradictory pronouncements--was not likely to win the hearts of comfortably established politicians with no experience of, and little sympathy for, the agonizing dilemmas of a liberation leader in exile.

In March 1978, after the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon, a UN force (UNIFIL) was deployed in the south of the country. At that time, the PLO was virtually a state within a state in Lebanon. Its activities in the south—which were the main pretext for the Israeli army staying on there – were a major problem for us, and I had to see Arafat regularly. He was very friendly but remarkably unhelpful. He was determined to maintain his right to keep his PLO fighters in southern Lebanon regardless of the fact that the Israelis would certainly not withdraw as long as they were there.

Visiting Arafat in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war was a time-consuming and sometimes nerve-wrecking exercise. His personal security was very tight, and he never slept more than one night in the same place. After much obfuscation and delay, the time for a meeting – usually late at night or in the small hours – would be fixed with one of his liaison officers. At the very last minute, you would be told where to meet the PLO escort and you would make your way through war-ravaged and deserted streets to the rendezvous, where your UN escort would be dismissed. Then, in a battered vehicle full of gun-toting young fighters, at unnecessarily high speed through strange byways and unfamiliar streets, you would be rushed to see the Chairman. Sometimes his quarters would be Spartan and improvised, sometimes quite luxurious, with plentiful food but of course, no drink. Meetings usually lasted for at least three or four hours.

As his situation in Beirut deteriorated, Arafat became increasingly friendly but remained given to flights of fancy. At one meeting, he told me dramatically that the Israelis were using nerve gas in southern Lebanon. “This is very, very important,” he insisted. I agreed that, if true, it certainly was important, but I wondered how such a historical first could have taken place without anyone else, including our soldiers, noticing it. He repeated the charge periodically throughout the meeting and, at the end, I asked one of his excellent military advisers for more information. A long colloquy in Arabic ensued, after which, with a perfectly straight face, the adviser said, “It is quite true what the Chairman says. The Israelis are using tear gas in southern Lebanon.”

Arafat often called me in New York as well as seeing me in Beirut. This proved useful in 1981, when Israeli raids on Lebanon intensified, one air raid on Beirut killing 300 people in an effort to hit Palestinian targets. We made desperate efforts to get a cease-fire and I spent much time urging Arafat, in spite of the Israeli attacks on the PLO, to refrain from firing rockets and artillery from southern Lebanon into Israel in reprisal. Arafat, who believed that the long-expected all-out Israeli attack on the PLO had started, was reluctant to agree to this. It is very difficult to urge moderation on people who believe they are facing extinction.

A Security Council appeal for a general cease-fire gave us more convincing grounds for persuading Arafat to stop shelling Israel. Neither Philip Habib, the US negotiator, nor the Israelis would speak to Arafat, so I had to establish the essential elements and timing of the cease-fire with him in telephone calls from New York in the early hours of the morning or through General Bill Callaghan, the excellent Irish commander of UNIFIL. Arafat finally agreed to the cease-fire, provided the Israelis also accepted it. The Israelis were able to say that the ceasefire had been negotiated by the United States. The PLO said it had been negotiated by the United Nations. Honor and face were saved all round, and southern Lebanon remained relatively quiet until the Israelis invaded it again the following summer.

Most Lebanese hated Arafat for having brought civil war and Israeli invaders to their country, and Arafat believed that the Syrians were trying to assassinate him. He asked me to give a message to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and to

the Americans as well, if I thought fit. He disliked violence as much as anyone, he told them, but before the Palestinians took up the sword, no one had paid the smallest attention to their plight. He was totally committed to the ceasefire in Lebanon. He had declared, at great risk to himself, that the PLO would agree to a Palestinian state in the occupied territories—the West Bank and Gaza—rather than the traditional Arab claim to a secular state in the whole of Palestine.

Why did no one take this seriously? As the Palestinian leader, his life was now in grave danger, and the Americans and Israelis would find any Arafat successor far more difficult to deal with. The recipients of this message seemed to regard it more as a curiosity than as a serious approach. It took another eleven years of violence and embitterment, and the demise of the Soviet Union, before they could bring themselves to think of Arafat as something more than a terrorist.

After Israel invaded Lebanon again in 1982, it became clear that the ensuing Israeli bombardment of Beirut would only cease when the PLO fighters left the country. Arafat left for Greece on August 30, and the last PLO fighters pulled out on the following day. Arafat embarked on yet another personal diaspora, finally settling in Tunis. His life was still in danger from extremist Palestinian groups, but the Israelis never targeted him personally. What they did do was to assassinate his two ablest colleagues, thus fatally weakening the capacity of the Palestinian Authority, when the time came, to exert leadership and take responsibility.

Ten years later, in 1993, Arafat at last got what he had most wanted: recognition by the United States and a place at the negotiating table. In the last months of 2001, with the active involvement of President Bill Clinton and the courageous concessions of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a settlement seemed at last to be in sight. But Arafat was still playing hard to get when Ariel Sharon replaced Barak and George W. Bush replaced Clinton. He had missed the last bus. His congenital inability to commit himself firmly to a single course of action, the change in Israeli and US leadership, the second intifada and the ever-escalating level of Israeli-Palestinian violence now made the hopes of Oslo seems hollow indeed. Quite apart from Ariel Sharon and an unfriendly and aloof administration in Washington, Arafat – if he was to reestablish any credibility – would have to bring under control the suicide bombing campaign of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups. He proved unable – perhaps unwilling – to do this. Confined to the ruins of his headquarters in Ramallah, even he could not pull off one more breathtaking comeback. The final act of Arafat’s long struggle was a tragic descent into futility and irrelevance.

Although he himself never saw the functioning Palestinian state – with its capital in Jerusalem – that he devoted his life to attaining, Arafat gave the Palestinians leadership, national pride and identity in their most hopeless hours. As a liberation leader, he fought hard and courageously, and the validity of his goal of a Palestinian state was eventually recognized, even by Israel. Even so, when the world finally accepted him as President of the Palestinian Authority, he proved unable to assert his control over all his people and to make the necessary compromises to secure their future. In the end, Yasir Arafat was defeated not only by Israeli intransigence but by his own shortcomings as a statesman.