Sunday, October 7, 2007

Face to Face (Almost) with Yassir Arafat

I wrote this October 24, 1995, during the early days of Oslo when it was not yet clear the process would be an abject failure. I thought it was interesting, at least to me, to ponder what I thought a dozen years ago. At the time, I thought I was realistic and even somewhat cynical; in retrospect, I was clearly exceedingly over-optimistic.

Note: The organization which then had the acronym NJCRAC currently has the acronym JCPA.

It's not often that one is offered the opportunity to meet face to face with evil incarnate.

My first reaction, when presented with the opportunity by Rob Zwang, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Waterbury, was that I couldn't, since I had classes to teach that day at The University of Connecticut. But the opportunity to witness history in the making, one of the first, if not the very first, appearance in the United States of Yassir Arafat before a large group of Jewish leaders, was too tempting to pass up once I realized that I could easily reschedule the class time missed.

The opportunity was a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC) Monday afternoon, October 23. The last item on the agenda was, simply, Yassir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Before Oslo and Madrid, such a meeting with the terrorist leader would have been unthinkable; today, it was reality. A call had come into the Jewish Federation asking whether any of its leadership wanted to attend, and so I found myself, along with local attorney Gary Broder, driving into New York City on Monday morning.

By 1:00 P.M., we were outside B'nai Zion, the American Israel Friendship Institute on East 39th Street, where the NJCRAC meeting was being held, and immediately saw fellow Waterbury area residents Doris and Joel Abramson, Bert and Sylvia Albert and their daughter-in-law Jan, and Robin Horwich, the assistant director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Waterbury. Mr. Arafat's appearance was scheduled for 2:00 P.M., but we had been advised to get there early because of the tight security arrangements and the fact that the NJCRAC executive board also had a full agenda to go through.

After passing through the security check, we found ourselves seated in a room roughly double the size of the room in my sister's home where my family gathers each year for a seder on the second night of Passover. In other words, it was a surprisingly small room which I estimated to be perhaps fifty feet wide and a hundred feet deep.

About eighty executive committee members and NJCRAC staff were seated around tables in the front of the room, sixty guests such as ourselves seated on chairs further back, ten photographers along the side, and perhaps twenty-five security personnel, apparently Secret Service, Israeli and New York City police, scattered around the room.

We were surprised that there were so few people there, although the room was crowded, and marvelled that we were among the select.

As NJCRAC went through its agenda, including the unanimous approval of a resolution expressing its support of the peace process, most minds clearly were distracted by the final agenda item. As Yassir Arafat entered the room from the only entrance, in the rear, only a few minutes past 2:00 P.M., the room became hushed.

He walked slowly up the center aisle, surrounded by an entourage but clearly visible, wearing his traditional kefiyah. I was sitting one seat from the aisle as he passed within five feet. If Robin Horwich, who had the aisle seat next to me, had decided to stick out her leg, he would have tripped over it. (I wondered how she suppressed the urge.)

After a brief introduction and light applause, Mr. Arafat began his prepared speech, but was almost immediately interrupted by a protestor who jumped up, screaming, to call Arafat a murderer. The security detail immediately intercepted him and ushered him out of the room. (If they had relaxed at all before then, the security detail relaxed no more. A bit later, after moving out of my seat in order to take a photograph, I was told that the security people had virtually jumped when I had stood up, and it was suggested to me that I move more deliberately the next time I take out my camera.)

Arafat began in his standard rambling fashion, talking about being the past, the present and the future, and that we are "not only cousins, but partners" in the process of building peace, and then almost immediately and theatrically put away the paper he was reading from, saying "insist to speak from my heart." (The direct quotations are verbatim, syntactical errors and all, in an attempt to better share the atmosphere of the event.)

Arafat spoke of the difficulty of overcoming the past, and asked us "not [to] forget we are overcoming what was done in the British Mandate," apparently trying to blame all the problems on Great Britain and expecting us to forget that Arab attacks on Jews in Palestine began long before the start of the British Mandate in the early 1920s.

"Since I have left my country--and you can't say it is not my country." Such was a typical sentence fragment, as most of his speech seemed to be standard sound bites; I kept listening to see if he would ever completed a sentence; such events were few and far between. He seemed to be playing for our sympathy, while also apparently hoping we were ignorant of fairly common facts, such as his being born in Cairo, not Palestine, making him about as much a Palestinian Arab as the Austrian born Hitler was a German Aryan.

"At the end we decided, from the beginning, to seek peace." He begged for sympathy, envying Rabin for only having one opposition, while he--Arafat--has "four opposition[s], at least." He explained "Peace of the brave because we know, from the beginning, [it is] not an easy target."

He played for our sympathy by telling us "you do not know the meaning of the Palestinian tragedy," and followed that up by trying to connect with us emotionally, "Did you forget that we have been kicked out of Spain together," referring to the Inquisition.

Arafat pledged, "in spite of all the obstacles," that he would continue the peace process, because there are "no alternatives." While his reason was not one to raise admiration or trust, it was worthwhile to once again get such a commitment on the public record.

Similarly, while he said nothing new in his speech, nor afterwards, and much of what he said could be considered an insult to our intelligence, the impression he gave was of someone who, regardless of his past, regardless of his evasions and distortions, regardless of his sincerity and for whatever reasons, was putting himself on record as committed to building a different future. The overall atmosphere was surprisingly low key, with little of the electricity I had expected. I consider that a good omen.

Following his speech, Arafat took written questions from the audience. I wrote down a couple of questions, but the NJCRAC staff that was reportedly circulating to collect them never appeared within my view, making me wonder whether all the questions had actually been prepared in advance. Nevertheless, the questions were appropriate ones, not the powderpuffs Arafat has often been treated to during interviews with a fawning press.

The first question asked about the difference between Arafat's rhetoric before Western audiences and his speeches, in Arabic, to his own people, particularly his repeated calls for Jihad, or Holy War. His explanation was that we misunderstood his Arab terminology, that "the Grand Jihad is building the state." That was the Jihad he was calling for, dealing with your neighbors "to establish, after the war, the new state." This answer, like most of his others, did little to inspire confidence in his honesty, especially for those who were familiar with his speeches.

The next question referred to the fact that he has yet to act on his commitment to have repealed those portions of the PLO Charter calling for the elimination of Israel. His original understanding with Israel had called for their repeal before the Madrid agreement was signed, but he had pleaded lack of time before the scheduled White House ceremony, pledging to take the promised actions shortly thereafter. The fact that he has made no movement in that direction two years later is perhaps the greatest sign to skeptics that he is not sincere.

Arafat replied by repeating something he had said before, that the provisions were "caduq," null and void. Anyone who has read the Charter, however, knows that such a declaration is meaningless, since the Charter itself contains explicit provisions for its amendment. Its provisions can certainly not be nullified by a simple statement by anyone, even the PLO chairman.

He further asserted that they were caduq "since '88, since '74," and had been accepted before he was chairman of the PLO, apparently arguing that nothing voted on before he became chairman was valid. Arafat said that the 1974 statement made by the Palestine National Council (in which it said the Palestinian Arabs were ready to establish a Palestine National Authority in any area withdrawn from by Israel) made the provisions caduq. Since that policy decision was part of the general policy of "stages," in which the PLO would attempt to dismantle Israel stage by stage, such an explanation by Arafat was not very convincing.

The next question tried to pin him down, and he replied that "definitely" the PNC would be convened after the autonomy elections and those provisions would be repealed as part of the rest of their agenda.

Asked about what he was prepared to do to have the Arab states stop their boycott of Israel, a boycott which began even before the reestablishment of Israel in 1948, he sidestepped and said "[we] want to ask the Israeli government to stop the boycott of us," referring to the closures of the Gaza Strip for security reasons following some of the bloodier Arab terrorist attacks on Israelis. "So please tell Mr. Rabin to stop the boycott of the Palestinian [Arabs]." He also pleaded, quite correctly but also disingenuously, that the termination of the boycott was not a decision for the Palestinian Arabs, but rather a decision for the Arab people as a whole. Since everyone in the room knew how Arafat has been lobbying against the end of the Arab boycott of Israel at the same time that he has signed agreements with Israel and Israel has been actively lobbying other nations to give substantial economic assistance to the Palestinian Arabs, that was not a very satisfying response.

Perhaps Mr. Arafat's most incredible response came when asked to describe the PLO's reported agreement with Hamas to stop terrorist attacks on Israel. He said that "there is no agreement," despite the fact that he "tried to obtain [an] agreement," but then complained about alleged cooperation between Arab and Israeli rejectionists and implicitly accused the Israeli army and government of collusion in Arab terrorist attacks on Israelis by referring to one bus bombing that killed twenty one Israeli soldiers, insisting that the terrorists had to pass through six different Israeli army roadblocks and could not have possibly done that without the collaboration of the army!

The last question asked about the efforts being made to reorient the Palestinian Arabs towards peace. "Remember, when we went off to Madrid, our people started to offer flowers of peace to Israeli soldiers?" He further averred that "the majority of our masses--not all of them--are with the peace process," but never quite got around to mentioning any concrete actions being taken. He also said "and we will have the elections," implying that the will of the people will be heard in the elections, the will is for peace, and the minority will abide by it.

As he finished, the audience responded with polite applause, and he walked down a side aisle, shaking some hands before being whisked outside, and leaving us to ponder the meaning of his appearance and words.

For those loudly demonstrating outside, there was little to ponder. All during Arafat's appearance, the sounds of a protest being conducted outside filtered in. LeMa'an Tzion, Ateret Kohanim and the Jewish Action Alliance had organized a rally, with speakers repeatedly screaming the words "murderer," "we will never forget," and "shame on you," the latter directed at NJCRAC for hosting Arafat. There were also numerous signs, one a reminder that "appeasement never wins," a reference to Neville Chamberlain at Munich, with others calling Arafat a murderer and Rabin and Peres suicidal fools.

But for those of us emerging, the questions were more complex. Certainly Arafat is a murderer, and blind justice would see him convicted before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. But Judaism is a religion of action and mercy, and practicality, more than of either words or beliefs. Arafat's words did nothing to convince me of his honesty or sincerity, but sometimes circumstances can create a new reality. Whether it is circumstance or a newfound humanity that is responsible, Arafat is acting differently now than in the past, and is, however reluctantly, bringing about changes in the behavior of Palestinian Arabs. The gamble that these changes in behavior will ultimately result in a change in attitude, and a new Middle East in which Arabs and Jews live together not as reluctant neighbors but as friends and allies, is one worth taking.

At the same time, the protestors serve a valuable purpose by making it clear to Arafat that his words and actions are under scrutiny, that his lies and evasions are not going unnoticed, and that the Jewish people may be pragmatic but are not fools who will either forgive or forget the evil he has spread in his lifetime.

By 3:00 P.M. we were back to the parking lot, prepared to tackle the gridlock conditions caused by the United Nations commemorations just blocks away (the very event that brought Chairman Yassir to New York) and to further wonder about the future of the process that is so changing Israel and its neighbors.

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