Syrian anger at the Palestinian leadership erupted into a full-frontal assault when Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas described Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as the “son of 60,000 whores.”
The outburst by the veteran Syrian minister came during an address Monday at Ras al-Ain, in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, during a ceremony marking Syrian and Lebanese “Army Day.”
London-based Arabic newspapers deleted the expletives from their headlines this week as they reported the stream of abuse hurled by Tlas.
Referring to Arafat, Tlas exclaimed: “You son of 60,000 whores. You should not have been so cowardly and submissive at the White House.
“You should have said that Jerusalem is the unified capital of the future Palestinian state. But you just stood there like a black cat and didn’t dare say a word, either about Palestine or Jerusalem.”
Tlas went on to compare Arafat to a stripper.
“In his concessions to Israel, Yasser Arafat resembles a striptease dancer who removes more of her clothing whenever she ascends the stage,” he said.
“Look at him when he is on stage. He moves from concession to concession like the stripper, except that she becomes more beautiful with every layer she removes, while Yasser Arafat becomes uglier.”
Spokesmen for Arafat have not replied to the outburst, with one aide telling the London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi that Arafat believes “the best response is not to respond.”
However, one of Arafat’s ministers, Hassan Asfour, said Tlas’s behavior was disgraceful and that Syrian President Hafez Assad should “sack him immediately.”
Tlas’s remarks were also condemned by Israeli Arab legislator Azmi Beshara, who is currently visiting Damascus.
In a statement Tuesday to the official Syrian news agency SANA, Tlas acknowledged that he had criticized the “policy of negligence” pursued by Arafat since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accord, but he denied uttering “any obscene or improper word against him personally.”
Arabic papers, however, noted that his speech had been filmed by local and international media.
Analysts believe that two recent developments could have upset Damascus and triggered the caustic comments.
The first was the warm and politically loaded reception given by Arafat in the Gaza Strip last week to Sumer Assad, nephew of the Syrian leader and son of former Syrian vice-president Rifa’at Assad.
The second is Arafat’s reconciliation in Cairo this week with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a senior member of the Damascus-based Palestinian rejectionist front, which is united in its opposition to Arafat’s leadership and to the Oslo peace process.
Ever since he launched the Oslo process with Israel, Arafat has been persona non grata in Damascus, where Hafez Assad hosts several militant Palestinian groups.
Sumer Assad, who has extensive media interests in Britain and France, is perceived as a potential rival for succession to Hafez Assad’s son Bashar.
Sumer Assad’s visit to Gaza has been perceived as a challenge to the authority of his uncle.
It was also seen as a challenge to Bashar Assad, who is reportedly having difficulty mastering the leadership skills he will need to succeed his father, who is said to be in poor health.
No official explanation was given when Hafez Assad dismissed his brother Rifa’at in February 1998 as one of three Syrian vice presidents, but the dismissal effectively ended Rifa’at’s aspirations to succeed his brother.
There are suggestions that Hafez Assad sought to weaken his brother in the event of a struggle for succession between second-generation members of the family — particularly between Bashar and Sumer.
Relations between Hafez Assad and Arafat appear to have taken a turn for the worse since the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Assad reportedly rejected appeals by Arafat to meet and coordinate their approaches to Israel in advance of peace talks with Barak.
The Palestinian leader is reported to be concerned that renewed negotiations between Israel and Syria would leave him isolated and sideline the Israeli- Palestinian negotiating track.
Syria, however, insists that it was Arafat who first broke ranks with other Arab parties by signing the 1993 Oslo Accord with Israel — a move, say Syrian officials, that severely weakened the negotiating position of Damascus.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.