Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat escalated their rhetorical war over the weekend, with the Israeli press as the battlefield.
On Friday, Israel’s largest-circulation daily, Yediot Achronot, published a lengthy interview with Arafat, in which the Palestinian leader defended his role in the peace process. This was Arafat’s first interview with a mainstream Israeli newspaper.
Rabin fired back on Sunday.
Addressing Israeli editors and journalists, the prime minister repeated his contention that Arafat constitutes “the major obstacle” in the Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, which are due to resume in Washington next week.
But Rabin discomfited his audience by drawing an analogy from Israeli history to explain why Palestinian autonomy in the administered territories would inevitably eclipse the PLO.
Arafat’s organization, said Rabin, “would become like the World Zionist Organization,” which had acted as the de facto Jewish government in Palestine prior to the creation of the State of Israel, but has since been a minor ideological and philanthropic appendage.
After eyebrows were raised and chairs self-consciously shifted among his Tel Aviv audience, Rabin added: “Lehavdil,” the phrase used by religious Jews when emphasizing the difference between the sacred and the profane.
The premier sought by this analogy to explain why it was “readily understandable” that Arafat sought to block the talks on autonomy.
Later, he added by way of further explanation that Arafat would be as impotent regarding policy-making in the autonomous areas as the WZO became for policy- making in Israel once the sovereign Israeli government was established.
Rabin was speaking at the annual Editors Committee luncheon marking Nov. 29, the day in 1947 when the U.N. General Assembly voted to partition Palestine.
In a somber, almost ominous tone, Rabin castigated the present-day Palestinians for “not learning from history.”
“Are they in danger of repeating their historic mistake” made when they rejected partition? Rabin asked. “Have they learned nothing?”
The premier devoted much of his address to economic issues, stressing his determination to sell government companies, most of which, he declared, are inefficiently run.
He spoke angrily of bureaucratic complexities holding up key road-building projects in the center of the country, thereby perpetuating a situation in which drivers spend hours each week wasting their time in traffic bottlenecks.
But his focus on Arafat and on the perilous state of the negotiations with the Palestinians – as well as his instantly controversial analogy with the WZO – served to draw attention to the intricate situation on the “Palestinian front” of the peace process.
Both the Palestinian negotiators and the PLO leadership are threatening to quit the talks unless Israel softens its stance, and are vociferously yearning for energetic American intervention after President-elect Clinton takes office Jan. 20.
Rabin, for his part, seldom lets a day go by without attacking Arafat for doing his best to thwart the chance of progress.
And now Arafat, in a radical departure, has given a lengthy interview, in his headquarters in Tunis, to two leading Israeli journalists with Yediot Achronot.
Plainly, the PLO chief’s purpose is to reach out to the Israeli public and convince them that his role in the process is not only as a spoiler, despite Rabin’s claims.
“Who is to meet with Rabin if not I?” Arafat asked rhetorically, in his two- hour, after-midnight conversation with Nahum Barnea and Semadar Peri.
“Does he intend to make peace with a ghost?”
The two reporters wrote that they found the PLO chairman intelligent, quick and charming – quite unlike the distasteful cartoon figure often depicted in media here and elsewhere. He was surrounded by advisers, including his wife Suha, who kept slipping him notes as to what they thought he should say and refrain from saying.
Barnea and Peri wrote that security surrounding Arafat’s suburban Tunis villa was surprisingly light. A police truck left after midnight, and relatively few PLO men could be seen guarding the villa.
During the early days of the Lebanon war, Arafat gave an interview in his Beirut bunker to Israeli journalist Uri Avneri, publisher of the left-wing Haolam Hazeh. However, this latest interview was printed in Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper.
Barnea and Peri met with other top PLO officials during their visit to Tunis.
(A legal ban on all such meetings with PLO officials, even when there is no intent to harm state security, is expected to soon be lifted by the Knesset.)
“I am sad to say that Rabin seems to be going in the way of Shamir,” Arafat declared in the interview.
“Nothing was achieved in the two rounds of talks since he came to office. In fact, nothing has been achieved in all the 13 months since Madrid.” Continued Arafat: “Rabin, like Shamir, is trying to hide the sun with his finger. During the election in Israel, I watched as Rabin said to Shamir on TV, ‘You are duping the public when you say you do not negotiate with the PLO.’”
“But now Rabin is copying Shamir.”
In his address Sunday to the editors, and in other recent speeches, Rabin has accused Arafat of simply ignoring the fact that the Madrid peace process is based on the two-phase solution laid down in Camp David whereby the first phase, currently to be negotiated, is a five-year interim period of Palestinian autonomy.
And indeed, in his interview as reproduced in Yediot, Arafat made no mention of the two-phase approach or the interim period.
Rather, he kept returning to his own basic contention: that Israel is seeking, vainly, to circumvent the PLO, which is the authentic leadership of the Palestinian people.
Arafat received powerful backing for this viewpoint in recent days, with French President Francois Mitterrand’s statements, both in Jerusalem and in Amman, urging Israel to deal with the PLO.
Rabin, for his part, in a public statement Saturday night, publicly differed with Mitterrand.
The French statesman has a right to his opinion, said Rabin, but Israel does not share it.
“Nor, fortunately, does the U.S. Even Russia favors sticking to the framework determined by the letter of invitation to the Madrid conference,” said the prime minister.
Arafat, asked for his view of Rabin, called the Israeli leader “intelligent; but he still thinks like a general, with brawn instead of brain.”
The PLO chief said that Rabin “knows I am the leader who can lead the Palestinians to peace, but he persists in seeking someone else, who will lead them to surrender.”