Missing Arafat

Uri Avnery has accomplished quite a lot in his 81 years. He fought for the pre-state underground group Lehi, then in the War of Independence in the “Samson’s Foxes” unit, he wrote the most important real-time books about that war (“In the Fields of the Philistines” and “The Other Side of the Coin”), he was the editor of the weekly magazine that changed the face of Israeli journalism (Ha’olam Hazeh), he established the political movement that shaped the face of the Israeli left (“Ha’olam Hazeh – Koah Hadash”), he was one of the leading spokesmen of Arab-Israeli culture. However, above all, Uri Avnery performed one crucial political act: He brought Yasser Arafat into our lives.

In 1974, Avnery became the first Israeli to start conducting talks with Arafat’s representatives. In 1982, he was the first Israeli to meet with and interview Arafat. In 1994, he sat at Arafat’s side when the Palestinian leader returned to the Gaza Strip. For 30 years, Avnery was the most enthusiastic espouser of the Arafatist political option. Even when others on the left despaired of the chairman and abandoned him, Avnery continued to make pilgrimage to the Muqata, Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. Even during the most trying times he acted as Arafat’s human shield and advocate. Loyally, tenaciously, at risk to his life, the radical Israeli journalist fought the battle of the leader of the Palestinian national movement.

Avnery is an emphatically unemotional person. Rational, cool, precise. Always carefully turned out, always elegant, always that lingering German accent. But on Tuesday night, when the Palestinian leadership admitted the rais [head] was dying, the drama of Arafat’s death suddenly gripped him. In the living room of his Tel Aviv home, Avnery looked sadder and more vulnerable than ever. At times it seemed that true human grief was welling up in his metallic-blue eyes.

One great mistake

Uri Avnery, as someone who was close to Arafat, don’t you feel that there is something humiliating about the way death came to him?

Avnery: “Regrettably, Suha [Arafat's wife] did not meet the test of history. She was Arafat’s great mistake. He married her in a moment of weakness, when he suddenly, after all, wanted to be a family man. But that desire passed very quickly in the light of the opposition the marriage aroused. People couldn’t understand why the man who was married to the revolution suddenly got married. And not to a Muslim Arab woman, but to a Christian. To a modern woman, an outsider, a blonde. He realized he had to keep his distance from her and she remained bitter. The result was the end we have just seen, which was not appropriate and which definitely hurts me. Very much so. Arafat deserves something different. But in a few weeks all this will be forgotten; what will remain is a death that carries huge symbolic value.

“In the final analysis, what will enter Palestinian history is that the person who led them for almost 50 years died abroad. Like most of the Palestinian people. And what will be enshrined in the Palestinian and Arab national myth is that the leader of the liberation movement died on the brink of Palestinian independence, but without entering it. That will take on symbolic significance that will intensify from year to year, like the stature of Arafat himself.”

What you are saying, then, is that Arafat will be remembered as the Palestinian Moses, nothing less.

“There is a great similarity to the death of Moses, who removed a people from slavery and led its march to freedom for 40 years, almost exactly like Arafat. There is also a similarity in the fact that Arafat too reached the gate of the Promised Land, saw it from afar but did not enter it. I have been thinking about that a great deal in the past few days. The symbolism here is very great, and because of it the dead Arafat will be even stronger than the living Arafat.”

Do you really believe that Arafat was a giant historic leader?

“A giant. Yasser Arafat will be remembered as one of the greatest leaders of the second half of the 20th century. He is sometimes compared to Nelson Mandela. But Arafat’s task was a thousand times more difficult than that of Mandela, who spent 28 years in prison and so remained totally untainted by external struggles and internal struggles and of any association with terrorism. And in the end, he received an existing state. One day he was the leader of a liberation movement, the next day he was president.

“Arafat, in contrast, received a widely scattered refugee people, all of whom were living under Arab dictatorships. A nation whose leadership was pursued by the secret services of half a dozen countries, including Israel. As a result, Arafat was compelled to lie, sometimes to this Arab leader, sometimes to that one. He had to resort to ambivalence and needed the ability to maneuver. That ability is perhaps one of his most prominent qualities.

“Arafat also had to create a state ex nihilo. To establish a state where there was no infrastructure, no economy, no instruments of government. And he had to bridge the tensions between the veteran leadership from Tunisia and the young local leadership. And between Christians and Muslims. Between woman and men. Between hamulas [clans]. Between refugees and residents of the territories. He had to hold that whole package together, almost on his own, under unbelievable conditions. And he succeeded. He also succeeded in not giving in. He stood up to Clinton and [former Israeli prime minister Ehud] Barak and did not capitulate. So there is no doubt in my mind that he will become one of the major heroes of Arab history. He will enter the pantheon of symbolic Arab heroes, like the Caliph Omar and like Salah a-Din.”

Do you really think so – when, after all, he was only the leader of a quite problematic national movement of a small Arab nation?

“That small nation became the symbol of the entire Arab world. Because the Arab world today is in a humiliated state. Its whole thrust is against Western expansion. When an 18-year-old in Cairo or Riyadh or Damascus looks around today for a figure to cling to, he sees only Arafat. Every Arab who feels the humiliation of the Arab nation identifies with Arafat as a person who was not vanquished. As a person with courage and who, contrary to all the vilifications, remains untainted. In all these senses Arafat is completely different from all the other leaders in the region. He towers above the ugly and wretched images of people like Mubarak, Abdullah or Assad. In fact, the only figure that competes with the image of Arafat is Osama bin Laden. And the two of them represent polarities in the Arab and Muslim world.

“Arafat was religious, yes, but his leadership was secular. He represented an essentially secular national movement. He represented Arab nationalism in a European format. Bin Laden, in contrast, represents anti-national Islamic fundamentalism which rejects Arab nationalism just as Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] Judaism rejects Israeli nationalism. Therefore, both Israel and the United States made a terrible mistake by not entering into an alliance with Arafat. Because henceforth all the Arab revolutions will be fundamentalist in character, whereas Arafat was the last chance for the victory of Arab nationalism in the Western format. He was the last barrier to the extremist Islamic forces.”

I’m not sure I follow that – could you elaborate?

“The greatest danger facing Israel is the danger of Salah a-Din: of a counter-Crusade in which the Arab world unites under the Islamic banner. That is a true existential danger for Israel. Arafat was the total opposite of that, both in the small Palestinian arena and as a symbol for the entire Arab world. So, as the Egyptian thinker Mohammed Sid Ahmed said, if Arafat didn’t exist, Israel would have had to invent him. Arafat was a natural partner to ensure Israel’s future. But we behaved foolishly. We broke him. We didn’t understand that he was a critical element in the wall against fundamentalism. We didn’t understand that Arafat was the only counter-pole to bin Laden, his associates and his successors.”

Are you arguing, then, that the anti-Arafat policy adopted by Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush was calamitous?

“Sharon is an ignorant man and so is Bush. That is the connection between them. They are both appallingly primitive people who are incapable of grasping broad historical contexts. The joint effort by the two of them to break Arafat represents historical shortsightedness of a-historic people. People who do not understand history and do not live history. Both of them have effectively left the field to bin Laden. By Bush’s destruction of Iraq and by the fact that the two of them broke Arafat, they have inflicted a disaster on both America and Israel. But America will be able to cope. Even if the result is the destruction of another hundred towers and the transformation of the United States into a fascist dictatorship, America will ultimately recover and be healed. For Israel, though, this is an existential problem. In breaking Arafat we made a historic mistake, which we will probably not be able to rectify.”

Gentle and warm

Let’s leave the judgment of history for a bit. You met Arafat dozens of times and spent hundreds of hours with him. What sort of person was he?

“Arafat is always a surprise for everyone who meets him for the first time. How so? In that the gap between his television image and reality is astonishing. First of all, the beard. On television it always looks like it’s a two-day growth. But in reality the beard is groomed, black and white, part pepper and part salt. Then the eyes. On television they look a bit mad, a bit fanatic. In reality, though, they are exactly the opposite: very gentle, even feminine.

“All in all, Arafat is a very gentle person. His hands are gentle, his body language is gentle. And he is a very warm person. Very much so. Filled with empathy. Because of that he has an incredible capacity to forge personal contact. He is direct, informal, emotional. He is not a person of abstract ideas but of feelings; not analytical but intuitive. Much of his dialogue takes place not in words but in gestures. He is very fond of gestures.

“He had a phenomenal memory and he was an incredibly quick study. He could grasp a situation in a thousandth of a second. At the same time, he was definitely not an intellectual person. I don’t think he read books. I don’t think he read at all. He is one of those leaders for whom synopses are prepared. But he had a tendency to go into great detail. And he had the ability to make bold decisions with lightning speed. Because of those two traits he found it difficult to delegate powers. He was always very centralistic. He kept his cards close to the chest. When you saw him sitting with Abu Mazen and Abu Ala, they were like small children in comparison. He was the one who decided. He alone decided. That’s why I think he is irreplaceable. There is no one else in the Palestinian arena who is capable of making decisions as he did.

“He had a sense of humor. He liked to joke. Sometimes he joked at the expense of his aides. But he wasn’t pretentious and he wasn’t remote. He let people interrupt him and correct him. The atmosphere he created was that of a Hasidic leader in his court.

“In the last analysis, I think his most outstanding trait was his total identification with his role. He himself, Arafat, was the Palestinian war of liberation. Hence the feeling that he cannot be replaced. That only he could do it. And there was also the feeling of personal providence when he miraculously survived the crash-landing of his plane in the Libyan desert. Like Arik Sharon, Arafat was totally convinced he held the fate of his people in his hands. But unlike Sharon, who is the most secular of the secular, in Arafat that sense always had a religious dimension. In that sense he truly was a believing Muslim.”

Were the two of you genuinely close?

“There was complete mutual trust. I will give you one example. When we met in Tunis, he did not cover his head. I have a photograph in which he is seen without a head covering, peeling an orange for me. And doing it meticulously, totally focused on that. But without the kaffiyeh, and looking very much like his brother. Arafat know I would not publish that photo. He knew that even though I was a journalist I would never publish anything that should not be published.”

Historic concessions

Is Arafat’s death natural or did Israel have a part in it?

“Conspiracy theories always spring up in situations like this. I don’t have a conspiratorial mind, but sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be right. What I can say in the way of personal testimony is that when I saw him, just three weeks before he took sick, he was healthy. More healthy than I had seen him in the past.

“One thing is certain: Israel is to blame for holding him for two and a half years in two or three rooms without air and without sun. Even a convict who is condemned to death has the right to an hour’s walk in the prison yard every day. Arafat, though, did not leave the Muqata building for years. Israel is responsible for that. It is responsible for not allowing a 75-year-old person to walk at all for a long time.”

Did Sharon want to kill him?

“Without the slightest doubt.”

Do you have suspicions?

When a person has a sudden, inexplicable collapse in these conditions, suspicion is automatic. But I have no proof one way or the other. I can only tell you that Arafat was convinced Sharon wanted to kill him. He talked a lot about that.”

So in the end General Sharon vanquished General Arafat after all?

“I don’t think so. The dead Arafat vanquishes the living Sharon.”

What do you mean?

“Two things. Twenty years after Sharon is gathered unto his forefathers, no one will remember him. In contrast, Arafat will be remembered even in another hundred years and five hundred years. Maybe even a thousand years. Every Arab remembers Salah a-Din eight hundred years after his death. They will remember Arafat, too.

“But there is something else, too, more immediate. The heritage that Arafat is leaving after him will prevent the Palestinian people from capitulating to Sharon’s plan. It is precisely by his death that Arafat is consolidating the boundary of the Palestinian concessions. Now no Palestinian leader will dare to cross that boundary. The dead Arafat will not permit the concessions that the living Arafat might have made.”

Did Arafat really make any concessions? Did he really internalize the idea of two states and all that entails?

“Arafat made two historic concessions: He recognized Israel and he recognized the Green Line. In doing that he accepted our presence here as legitimate and gave up 78 percent of the territory that constituted pre-1948 Palestine. Those are monumental concessions. Every additional concession beyond them was actually impossible. Nevertheless, at Camp David, Arafat made three more concessions. He agreed to a limited exchange of territory, he agreed to accept the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and he agreed to Israeli control of the Western Wall. But those concessions were made orally, not in writing, and his successors will find it very difficult to implement them.”

In other words, we are going back to the situation of “to the last inch,” to the Green Line itself?

“I think so. That’s what happened with Sadat and also with Hafez Assad. Do you see an Arab leader who will be able to concede what Arafat did not explicitly concede? There is no doubt that a compromise on the Temple Mount is now impossible.”

If so, what can we expect now? Will Abu Mazen and Abu Ala be able to stabilize the situation? Will they be able to reach some sort of settlement with Israel?

“I have known Abu Mazen for 20 years and Abu Ala for 15 years. They are both good people, honest and decent. But if you are a young Palestinian in Jenin with a rifle and you hear their names, your reaction is, `Who are those guys, anyway? Who are they to tell me what to do?’ So their authority will be very superficial. It’s possible that for the time being they will get support, because the Palestinian people does not want a civil war. The trauma of the 1930s is engraved deep in their memory. But this quiet will necessarily be temporary. It will disappear the moment the leadership makes some sort of decision. That is the real problem of Abu Mazen and Abu Ala: They will not be able to make decisions.”

Fundamentalist wave

So what you are saying is that Arafat’s death is liable to open the gates of hell?

“Two or three good people who are somehow trying to hold one another’s hand and create a human chain that will prevent this development are not a solution. So I foresee two possibilities. The one that frightens me more is a fundamentalist wave in the Arab world that will wash over the Palestinian people. That is the most serious concern. But the timetable for that development is not clear. The Islamic revolution might break out in another 20 years or it could break out tomorrow morning. It might break out in Saudi Arabia or Egypt but it could also break out in Gaza or Ramallah. There’s no way to know.

“There is also another possibility, of a more immediate character. Already today the Shin Bet [security service] is telling us that there are hundreds of Palestinians who are ready to become suicide bombers on any given day. That is the case with Arafat still here, with his restraining influence. But without Arafat there won’t be five or six militant organizations but 50 or 60, or maybe 500 or 600. And no one will be able to control them. There will be no restraining entity to curb them. A chaotic situation of that kind will be terrible for the Palestinians first of all. But it will also make the lives of Israelis hell.”

Aren’t you completely ignoring the fact that the man was a terrorist?

“I was a terrorist, too. When I was 16, if my commander in Lehi had given me an explosive belt I would have taken it and I would have blown myself up amid civilians without any problem. So I don’t have a sentimental attitude toward this matter of terrorism. I understand what violence is. And I know that a nation that is not offered a political solution resorts to violence. Therefore it was always clear to me that Arafat would resort to all means to realize the longings of the Palestinian people. He was not a violent person. I think he was a nonviolent person. But it was always clear to me that, as a national leader, he would resort to violence if the road of peace was blocked for him. I find that self-evident.”

Don’t you think that there was something especially violent in the Arafatist struggle? Wasn’t there something pathological in the way the Palestinian national movement used violence, killing women and children?

“The only pathology is that allegation. The Algerians, for example, killed only civilians. Half a million people were killed in the war for Algeria. Immediately after the liberation 200,000 people were executed as collaborators. A million French citizens were expelled within days. So in comparison to the FLN, the war fought by the PLO is almost sterile. The Mau-Mau in Kenya also went from farm to farm, slaughtering families of whites. Not to mention Malaysia. And the Kurds. And the Irish. There is nothing exceptional in the Palestinians’ methods of combat.”

What about the suicide bombers? What about Arafat’s talk of a million shaheeds – martyrs for the cause – marching on Jerusalem?

“I take a realistic view of that phenomenon. I ask myself two questions. Was there any other way? Could Arafat have prevented it? My answer to both questions is negative.”

And the tragedy of Camp David? Does Arafat not bear any responsibility at all for the collapse of the peace process?

“It is Ehud Barak who bears that responsibility. Barak is the arch-idiot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is also the arch-criminal. A normal statesman, a statesman who is not a psychopath, would not say after the failure of the conference that there is no partner. He bears the main responsibility for the terrible loss of human life in the past few years. He is worse than Sharon.”

You are generally a very critical person. Yet when it comes to Yasser Arafat you have no criticism at all. Did you never have any doubts of any kind about him? Did you never suspect that he might be using you?

“Of course he used me. I was perfectly aware of that. In various situations it was convenient for him to have an Israeli like me by his side. But, after all, that is why we met: so we could used each other for the cause that both he and I believed in.”

Did you love him?

“I don’t think love is the right word. But there was quite a deep connection between us.”

Did you admire him?

“I held him in very high regard. As a human being, too. I like patriots. I hate traitors. And the fact that Arafat is a great Palestinian patriot went a long way toward determining my attitude toward him. We never talked about this, but underlying our relationship was the fact that we both knew what it is to kill as part of a national struggle. We both did that. He gave orders that caused the death of Israelis, and I was an Israeli soldier who killed Arabs. But in some way we met at the midpoint between the two armies. Like those soldiers in the First World War who came out of their trenches on Christmas Eve and celebrated together and then went back and killed one another.”

Is there any connection between the fact that in 1948 you took an active part in the expulsion of Arabs and the destruction of Arab villages, and your later need to link up with Yasser Arafat?

“Definitely, definitely. I am very much aware of the fact that the State of Israel, which I helped establish, is built on a terrible historic injustice. I also know what I did in the war. I do not deny what I did in the war. And when I meet a Palestinian I always ask what village he is from. That is a totally compulsive question for me. And the response I get often mentions the name of a village in the conquest of which I took part, and I remember how it looked immediately after the conquest, when the stoves were still burning and the food on the table was still hot.

“Yasser Arafat is connected with this because he had pathos. He embodied the pathos of the Palestinian situation. I had an emotional closeness with that pathos. Because I, too, like Arafat, do not really have a private life. I have no life outside political life. And I see the pathos of this conflict. I see the two nations holding each other by the throat, unable to let go, not willing to relax their hold. And I want to undo that embrace of death.”

Did you really think Arafat was a partner to that? Did you really think that he would be the person to end the conflict?

“It would have been possible to conclude matters with Yasser Arafat. Believe me, it could have been concluded. And I knew how. I knew what the conditions were. I am absolutely convinced that a person like me could have sat with Arafat for a month and emerged with a peace agreement. That is why I now have a feeling of a terrible missed national opportunity. I was certain he would live another 10 years. And for the past four years he sat here and we let the time go by. We let the opportunity go by. We lost an opportunity that will not recur. It is a terrible loss.”

Final words

If you had a chance to hold a farewell conversation with him in Paris, what would you say to him?

“I would say a few things. I would tell him, You are a great leader. You did something for your people that no one else did. And I would say to him, Rest in peace. If he would wake up for a second and tell me that the thanks to him the Palestinian people will reach the land of peace and plenty, that might ease death for him.”

Is there a sentiment of “farewell, friend”?

“Yes, absolutely. He is a sentimentalist, you know. When he was getting into the helicopter and blew kisses to the masses, Rahel [Avnery's wife] didn’t like it. She thought it was ridiculous. But I thought otherwise. Because he already knew he wouldn’t come back. That this was the end. And the kisses he blew to his people symbolically was his farewell. People who were there had tears in their eyes.”

Are there tears in your eyes, too?

“I never cry. I didn’t cry when my father died. I didn’t cry when my mother died. But if I were a crying person, I would cry.”

You are generally a very cold person, but in the past few days the grief suddenly grabbed you, didn’t it?

“Without any doubt. We did so much together. And an emotional bond was formed that isn’t easy to describe. So yesterday I found myself quoting what Hamlet said about his father: `He was a man, take him for all and all, I shall not look upon his like again.’”

So that is the feeling now? Missing him?

“When Issam Sartawi [an adviser to Arafat who held talks with Israelis in the 1970s] was assassinated, [Austrian chancellor Bruno] Kreisky told me, `It is very tragic when a friend dies, because at my age one doesn’t make new friends.’ And now a friend has died. But beyond that, I know there will not be another like him. There will not be another with whom I will have the same relationship. We will go on working. We will work with the new Palestinian leadership. But it won’t be the same thing. The world without Arafat will not be the same world. Not for Israel and not for me.”

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