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A Dreamer Who Forced His Cause Onto World Stage

The uprising caught Arafat and the PLO in Tunis by surprise, but gradually they were able to harness it somewhat and use it to reassert their leadership. As the street battles raged, the Israelis, convinced the uprising was organized by the PLO, sent a commando team to Tunis to assassinate Arafat's military commander and closest aide, Khalil Wazir, known as Abu Jihad.

In December 1988, a year after the uprising began, Arafat reversed PLO policy of almost 25 years and, in a speech to a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva, recognized Israel's right to exist. In so doing, he bowed to the interests of those in the West Bank and Gaza who were pressing for the PLO's recognition of Israel as a way toward peace talks. At the same time, he said the PLO "totally and absolutely" renounces "all forms of terrorism." The shift opened the way for the first official dialogue between the United States and the PLO. Israel, however, was less impressed, and many Israelis doubted Arafat had really changed. Their doubts were confirmed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Arafat openly sided with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein even as Iraq fired Scud missiles at Tel Aviv.

In 1999, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat clasp hands after signing a land-for-security agreemen. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright offered applause. (Ruth Fremson - AP)

The United States seized on its victory in the Gulf War to launch a diplomatic push for peace in the Middle East. At Israel's insistence, Arafat and the PLO were excluded from a major peace conference convened at U.S. initiative in Madrid in October 1991. But Arafat pulled the strings from behind the scenes, instructing the Palestinian delegation and using the talks to ingratiate himself with the Americans, whom he regarded as a lever to move Israel.

On April 7, 1992, Arafat had his closest of many brushes with death. His small plane ran into a sandstorm over the Libyan desert, lost its way and was forced to crash-land. Arafat, alerted by the pilot, had time to change from a jogging suit into his customary military garb, and to don his signature checkered headdress. His bodyguards wrapped him in blankets and pillows and strapped him in. The crash killed those in the cockpit, but Arafat survived with minor injuries.

Encouraged by the new, moderate Israeli government of Prime Minister Rabin, Arafat authorized a secret negotiating channel with the Israelis. Under Norwegian auspices, the secret talks intensified in 1993 in and around Oslo and culminated in a peace deal and a dramatic signing ceremony in September at the White House, with President Bill Clinton presiding and former presidents George H.W. Bush, Carter and much of the world as witnesses.

"My people are hoping that this agreement which we are signing today marks the beginning of the end of a chapter of pain and suffering that has lasted throughout this century," Arafat said. The Declaration of Principles, as the agreement was known, cleared the way for the return of Arafat and the PLO to the occupied territories, the creation of a Palestinian police force and the election of the first self-ruled Palestinian government.

Israel pulled some troops back from the Gaza Strip and the sleepy West Bank town of Jericho, turning over power there to the newly created Palestinian Authority.

When Arafat set foot in Gaza on July 1, 1994 -- his first return in 27 years to what had been Israeli-occupied territory -- he knelt and kissed the ground. Hundreds of thousands of delirious Palestinians wept and danced in the streets, greeting him as a conquering hero.

His relations with the United States warmed for a time, and some Israelis began to view him as a pragmatist. In 1994, the man once regarded in the West as a master terrorist -- widely photographed in the early 1970s with his thick mustache, dark glasses, AK-47 assault rifle and pearl-handled pistol -- shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Still, some Palestinians, including some of Arafat's oldest comrades-in-arms, viewed the accord as a sellout that did nothing to recover what had been Palestinian homes, villages and towns before Israel's founding in 1948. Others, hopeful at first, soured over time as the promise of the peace agreement was only partly fulfilled.

Israeli troops did pull back from additional, disconnected chunks of the West Bank, including large Palestinian population centers. But in many ways the Jewish state continued to control the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, whose travel, work and movements were still subject to Israeli permission. The fate of a couple of million Palestinian refugees, and the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem, which both sides claimed as their rightful capital, remained uncertain.

In the Palestinian-controlled territories, an ascendant group called the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, denounced the peace deal and carried out terror attacks and suicide bombings against Israelis. In Israel, a right-wing Israeli fanatic opposed to the peace accord assassinated Rabin. And the election of a new, hard-line Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, ushered in a period of stagnation in the peace process.

'Yes-Men and Mediocrities'

Arafat, by now not only PLO chairman but also president of the self-governing Palestinian Authority, began to lose some of his appeal. Within a couple of years of his return to Gaza, it was apparent that his gifts as a revolutionary and political magician were not matched by a talent for administration. His government, beset by cronyism, corruption and mismanagement, was widely disdained by its own people. Its shadowy, ever-multiplying security services acted brutally toward Palestinians and were despised. Disorganized, erratic and heavy-handed, Arafat surrounded himself with aides described by the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said as "sycophants, yes-men and mediocrities." Even his wife, Suha -- a tall, blond, aristocratic, French-educated Palestinian Christian 34 years his junior, whom Arafat had married quietly in 1990 -- became the subject of derisive jokes.

Pressed by Clinton, Arafat agreed to meet his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Netanyahu's successor, in a U.S.-brokered summit at Camp David in July 2000, an event that represented not only the climax of the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts begun in 1993 but also the denouement of Arafat's own national aspirations. In talks that began there and ended months later in the Egyptian resort at Taba, the Israelis dangled before Arafat what seemed like a stunning deal: the return of all of Gaza and about 95 percent of the West Bank; control of Arab sectors of East Jerusalem; and sovereignty at the most contested spot of all -- the elevated plaza in Jerusalem's Old City, holy to Israelis and Palestinians alike, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Arabs as Haram Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. As for Palestinian refugees, they would be allowed to return to the West Bank and Gaza, but not to Israel itself.

It was a moment of truth, and Arafat, who deeply distrusted Barak and the Israeli negotiators, appeared to balk. Arafat and his lieutenants said later that the Israelis had never placed a firm written offer on the table, that the summit had been poorly prepared and forced prematurely by Clinton, that the deal itself was fatally flawed and that the broader Arab world would not support it. He even told Clinton that to agree to the Israeli ideas would be to invite his own assassination, just as Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, had done by making peace with Israel a generation earlier at Camp David.

But whatever Arafat's protestations, he never presented a clear counterproposal. To Israel and the United States, he had proved himself incapable of making a historic compromise for peace, of redefining himself from militant to statesman. Arafat, said Clinton at Camp David, has "been here 14 days and said no to everything."

Even as the negotiations sputtered on after Camp David, in September 2000 a bloody new Palestinian insurrection erupted at the very site that had been central to the talks -- the Temple Mount -- following a visit there by Arafat's longtime nemesis, Sharon, then the Israeli opposition leader. The new intifada spread, with Arafat's blessing or consent, and in the process it destroyed his dreams of self-determination in the near term for his people.

Provoked by Palestinian suicide bombers and other attacks, Israel reoccupied large swaths of the West Bank, inflicted thousands of casualties, destroyed much of the Palestinian economy and started building a security barrier intended to deter the suicide bombers from entering the country -- even as it separated thousands of Palestinians from their own land.

Declared officially "irrelevant" by Sharon, who had by then become prime minister, Arafat was shunned by the Bush administration and confined by Israeli troops to the bomb-blasted rubble of his once-grandiose presidential compound in Ramallah, the West Bank's main city. His globe-trotting days finished, his health in decline, his aspirations shattered, Arafat had become a prisoner in his own land.

Risking an Israeli assassination attempt or forced exile if he left the compound, he passed his days in isolation, receiving foreign diplomats and issuing pronouncements that seemed increasingly divorced from events. His influence waning and his profile at home and abroad in decline, he lived on more as a symbol than an actor in Palestinian affairs. And his lifelong dream -- self-determination for the Palestinian people -- remained elusive.

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