Archive for Thursday, November 11, 2004

Arafat leaves trail of lost opportunities

November 11, 2004


When Yasser Arafat finally passes from the scene, the headline on his obituary should read: "He just couldn't close the deal."

In 30 years of covering the Middle East, I watched time and again as the Palestinian leader blew opportunities that could have brought his people a state. He put the Palestinian issue on the map, but couldn't make the leap from guerrilla leader to father of Palestine.

The big question now is whether his death will open new possibilities for the two-state solution that he wasn't capable of achieving during his life.

In my reporter's notebooks are so many examples of opportunities that Arafat missed. In December 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, fresh from his historic trip to Jerusalem, met with Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin at the Mena House hotel beside the pyramids of Giza. Sadat was pressing for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza (which I think would eventually have led to statehood). I watched as a seat was set up for the Palestinians. No one showed up.

In 1979, Mahmoud Abbas, now an heir presumptive to Arafat, told me the Palestinians would long regret not having gone to Mena House.

I first interviewed Arafat in 1979 in Beirut. The routine was this: The call came in the middle of the night, a car whisked the journalist to Arafat's Spartan headquarters in a West Beirut slum, where he would be signing checks while dispensing slogans on the struggle with Israel. The performance never changed.

In 1982, I interviewed Arafat in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon after Israel's military had driven him out of Beirut. Virtually alone and under siege by the Syrians, he railed for hours against his brother Arabs, denouncing each Arab leader by name. But he survived, taken by French ship to Algiers.

In early 1983, at a Palestinian conference in Algiers, I watched Arafat's more moderate advisers urge him to break with Palestinians who rejected the Jewish state. Instead, he praised his "victory" in Beirut. Issam Sartawi, a Palestinian activist who had held secret meetings with prominent Israelis, told me: "Another victory such as this and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) will find itself in Fiji." Sartawi was assassinated by Syrian agents later that year.

In 1988, Arafat finally called for two states. In 1993, he signed onto the Oslo peace process. But he still wouldn't break with the rejectionists.

In 1995, I sat in Gaza refugee camps with activists from Arafat's Fatah movement who had spent years in Israeli jails. They told me they were eager to crush Hamas activists who wanted to destroy Israel. Arafat denied them the green light.

Hamas bus bombs ultimately led to the defeat of the Labor Party in 1996. Ever the survivor, Arafat got another chance for two states with the election of Labor's Ehud Barak in 1999.

Many say Arafat's biggest mistake was contributing to the breakdown of talks at Camp David II in the summer of 2000. Indeed, Arafat should have presented an alternative to Barak's proposals (which weren't as forthcoming as many claim).

But I believe his most costly mistakes came later. When the second Palestinian uprising erupted that fall, Arafat failed to put it down; he could have. Instead, he chose to talk and fight (so I was told by his right hand man, Marwan Barghouti, now in an Israeli prison).

Still, the talks went on, brokered by Bill Clinton and climaxing with an outline of a deal at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001. Arafat and Labor Party stalwart Shimon Peres were supposed to endorse these proposals at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Thus, even if Barak lost the upcoming Israeli election and even though Clinton's term was ending, the Taba proposals would have become a template for future negotiators.

Instead, Arafat turned on Peres at Davos -- in front of 1,000 astounded dignitaries -- and denounced Israel for killing Palestinians. At a small news conference -- delayed to the wee hours as if we were back in Beirut -- I asked Arafat why he had blown this chance. He repeated his denunciation.

This was a leader who never mentally left his days as resistance commander in Beirut. He couldn't make the transition to statesman; he couldn't bring the struggle to an end.

But now he is history. Abu Mazen, who recognized Palestinian errors and called the second intifada a mistake, is waiting. Other moderates are, too. Will George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon be able to make the mental leap to a Palestinian present in which Arafat no longer plays a role?

-- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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