Visit Arafat? For God’s Sake, Why?

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“Have you gone mad? Now? He is irrelevant! He’s finished!” These were the reactions of some people when Israeli TV showed my meeting with Arafat in Ramallah this week.

Is Arafat “finished”? If so, he has not heard about it. I found him in splendid shape. At some of my meetings with him over the last few years he frequently looked tired, even distant and self-absorbed. This time he was in good spirits. He talked energetically, reacted rapidly, poked gentle fun at his assistants and made some biting remarks.

(For example: when we spoke about Sharon’s demand that Abu-Mazen conduct mass arrests, he laughed: “But the Israelis have destroyed all our prisons, except the one in Jericho. And if we want to transfer a criminal there, we must ask the Quartet for a car, so as to be able to pass the Israeli checkpoints!”)

One can understand his lively mood. For the last year, his life has been hanging on a thread. Sharon could have sent his men to kill him at any moment. (Several times this danger seemed so close that my friends and I found it necessary to rush there as a human shield.) One of the Israeli officers boasted this week that “only a thin wall separated me from him.” Now this danger has been rendered more remote – even if Arafat is still confined to his small building, amid surrealistic ruins.

During the last 45 years, his life has been in danger many times. Dozens of attempts have been made on his life. Once his airplane crash landed, killing several of his entourage. He survived it all. This time, too. His sense of relief is understandable.

There is also physical relief. Since he returned to Palestine, his workload has been incredible. As he insisted on attending to practically everything himself, big things and small, he worked inhuman hours, often until the early hours of the morning. Now he is free of a substantial part of the routine work, and the results are obvious.

But the main thing is that Arafat’s standing with his own people is now stronger than ever. Curiously enough, it is the appointment of a Prime Minister that has caused this. The appointment of Abu-Mazen, which was intended by Sharon and Bush to “weaken” Arafat and to “push him aside”, has had the opposite effect.

This requires an explanation. For years now, a continuous and concentrated campaign to demonize Arafat has been conducted in Israel and the West. In the ten years since Oslo, millions of words have been spoken and written about him in the Israeli media, and I don’t recall one single word of praise. He has been systematically described as a terrorist, tyrant, dictator, corrupt liar, a cheat and what not. In particular he was represented as the man who said “no” to the unprecedentedly generous offers of Ehud Barak and President Clinton, which “proves” that in reality his aim is to destroy Israel.

Those who have been fed with this propaganda cannot understand why Palestinians adore him. The answer is: for the very same reasons.

In the eyes of the Palestinians – almost all of them – Arafat is a fearless leader, who stands firm in the most difficult circumstances; a man who has the guts to say “no” to the demands of the mighty of the world to betray fundamental rights of the Palestinian people. He has confronted the rulers of the Arab world without flinching; at Camp David he stood up to immense pressure from Clinton and Barak without yielding; he held out in the terrible conditions of the siege of his Ramallah compound without breaking.

Palestinians, like all Arabs, like all peoples, admire personal courage. Arafat has proven his courage in conditions that no other leader in the world has had to face. He has come to symbolize the steadfastness of the whole Palestinian people. That is the source of his authority, even in the eyes of his many critics on the right and on the left.

This authority is essential for Abu-Mazen’s political effectiveness. Unlike Arafat, Abu-Mazen is popular in the West. He radiates moderation and readiness for compromise. This is the face the West wants to see. The two of them are a bit like Ben-Gurion and Sharett in the early days of Israel. Ben-Gurion was the idol of the Israeli public, while Sharett was popular on the international stage.

Abu-Mazen is accepted by the Palestinian public. If another person had assumed office under such circumstances, he would have been suspected of being a collaborator. But Abu-Mazen is known as a Palestinian patriot, and is respected as one of the founders of the Fatah movement. Even in extreme demonstrations, I did not hear shouts of protest against him. However, he is not a charismatic leader and has no solid political base.

That is why Abu-Mazen needs Arafat. Without his solid backing, Abu-Mazen will neither be able to make concessions abroad nor to act forcefully at home. More than ever, Arafat is essential for progress on the road to peace.

But does Arafat really want peace? Most Israelis are unable to imagine such a thing. How could they? Did they ever hear the true story?

From my personal experience, I can recount this: At the end of the October 1973 war, Arafat concluded that if the armies of Egypt and Syria were defeated after their unexpected brilliant initial successes, then there is no military solution to the conflict. As usual, he decided quickly and decided alone. He instructed his trusted aide, Sa’id Hamami, to publish an article in London calling for the attainment of a peace settlement with Israel by political means. (This induced me to meet with Hamami in secret, and since then I have followed Arafat’s moves closely.)

For the Palestinian national movement, the proposed change was radical. A political process instead of the sole reliance on “armed struggle”. A peace settlement with Israel, which had taken possession of 78% of the Palestinian land and expelled half of the Palestinian people from their homes. That necessitated a mental and political revolution, and since 1974 Arafat has promoted this revolution cautiously and with determination, step by step. (I witnessed these steps – first through Hamami and Issam Sartawi, later in personal contact with Arafat.) in 1988 the Palestinian National Council at long last adopted this line explicitly, after a series of ambivalent resolutions. Abu-Mazen was closely connected with this process right from the beginning.

Throughout this period, Yitzhaq Rabin and Shimon Peres actively opposed this development. (On this, too, I can bear personal witness, since I conveyed several messages from Arafat to Rabin.) It must be stated clearly for history’s sake: Not Rabin and Peres were the spiritual fathers of Oslo, but Arafat and Abu-Mazen. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Peres and not to Abu-Mazen was, therefore, a gross injustice.

Sharon, of course, does not want peace that brings with it a viable Palestinian state in all the occupied territories and the evacuation of the settlements. But he is far too shrewd to openly obstruct Abu-Mazen, the protégée of the West. Therefore he is concentrating all his efforts on breaking Arafat – knowing that without Arafat, Abu-Mazen would be ineffective.

That is the crux of the matter. Arafat is essential for the peace effort. That’s why I went to visit him.

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