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From Pariah to Partner and Back: Jews Reflect on the Legacy of Arafat

November 12, 2004
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Yasser Arafat may be remembered as a revolutionary or a statesman, a peacemaker or an arch-terrorist, the man who put Palestinian aspirations on the international map or the man who most harmed them. But among Jews, both Arafat’s friends and detractors say the Palestinian Authority president — who died Thursday at age 75 — will be remembered as Public Enemy No. 1.

“He will go down as the largest mass murderer of Jews since Hitler,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “His life was devoted more to killing Jews than to the welfare of his own people.”

A Nobel Peace Prize winner who often issued formal condemnations of violence but never ceased using it, Arafat was snubbed by both Israel and the United States by the end of his life.

In the three years leading up to his death, the aging symbol of the Palestinians’ national hopes found himself quarantined in his Ramallah compound by an Israeli government that viewed him as both “irrelevant” and as the ultimate obstacle to Mideast peace.

In contrast to the frequent White House invitations extended by President Clinton to Arafat, President Bush treated him as a pariah, never once asking him to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Arafat’s sidelining and virtual house arrest capped a raucous progression of more than three decades during which the mainstream Jewish community, both in Israel and the Diaspora, moved from revulsion at the terrorist revolutionary who addressed the United Nations with a pistol on his hip to cautious optimism about the putative peacemaker who shook the hand of a reluctant Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn to profound disappointment and resentment at the intransigent old man’s inability to abandon terrorism as a political tool and end his people’s conflict with Israel.

“History will judge him as never able to make the transition from revolutionary diaspora leader to a leader who is capable of governing with accountability and transparency with respect to the rule of law and capable of negotiating,” Aaron David Miller, president of the Seeds of Peace program and an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations to six U.S. secretaries of state, told JTA in a telephone interview.

But if Arafat was unable to change from terrorist to statesman, the mainstream Jewish community did undergo transitions in its attitude toward Arafat. The shifts, said Kenneth Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, “reflected what was going on in Israel” at any given moment.

As long as Arafat refused to recognize Israel, dealing with him was seen by many Jews as taboo, Jacobson said. When Arafat accepted U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 in 1988, implying Palestinian recognition of Israel and at least formally renouncing terrorism, it appeared that some sort of rapprochement was in the offing.

But “the community as a whole didn’t buy it,” Jacobson said.

In 1993, the Oslo accords changed all that.

“I think Rabin’s famous reluctant handshake on the White House lawn typified the way the community felt,” Jacobson said. “We didn’t necessarily trust him, but this was an opportunity.”

With that opportunity, Arafat’s stature in segments of the Jewish world changed. When a group of American Jews met him in Stockholm in 1988, the encounter sparked an uproar. But after Oslo, meetings between Arafat and Jewish groups were not unusual.

He met with a group of past chairmen of the Presidents Conference and also with the American Jewish Committee, among other organizations. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs hosted him at a meeting of its board in New York City.

“For us, as supporters of the Oslo initiative, we felt that it was important to open a new chapter with the Palestinian leadership,” said Martin Raffel, JCPA’s associate executive director. “If Rabin could do it, our thinking was, there was no reason why the organized Jewish community shouldn’t as well.”

But skepticism quickly re-emerged, especially when Arafat refused to seriously confront Palestinian terrorists even during the peace process and continuously sent signals to the Arab and Muslim world that he did not take his commitments to Israel seriously.

The final break came in the summer of 2000, after Arafat refused the peace plan proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Camp David summit. When the second intifada erupted a few months later, Jacobson said, Jews felt the promise Arafat once seemed to offer had been squandered.

Two years later, Bush came to agree with the Israeli view that Arafat was not a credible peacemaker, and that the Palestinians would have to find other leaders not “compromised by terror” if they wanted a state.

According to Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former U.S. Middle East peace envoy, Arafat “will go down historically as someone in whom hopes were placed — but they were misplaced.”

“Yasser Arafat, ultimately, was a decision avoider, not a decision maker,” Ross — whose book, “The Missing Peace,” chronicles the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — told JTA. “He succeeded much more at being a symbol than being a leader.”

Jewish criticism of Arafat revolved principally around the contention that he was two-faced and opportunistic: recognizing Israel — and basking in the international recognition the move afforded him — but refusing to halt terrorism against Israelis; speaking about peace in English, but inciting Palestinians against Israel in Arabic.

“While he at different times said the right things, it didn’t matter,” said Menachem Rosensaft, a former national president of the Labor Zionist Alliance who took part in the 1988 Stockholm meeting with Arafat.

Ultimately Arafat “had neither the vision nor the courage to follow through and implement the steps necessary to create a true peace with Israel,” Rosensaft said. “He was never prepared to crack down on terrorists.”

Stephen P. Cohen, an Israel Policy Forum scholar and president of the Institute for Peace and Development in New York, said Arafat’s legacy will be two-fold.

“He was the first official leader of the Palestinian national movement who ever began to define the Palestinian political goal as negotiation with Israel and actually crossed that Rubicon,” Cohen said. However, “He continued the history of not being able to carry out an actual full-scale agreement with Israel.”

Muhammad Abd ar-Rauf al-Qudwah al-Husseini — Yasser is a nickname — was born in Cairo in 1929. He spent the majority of his youth in Egypt, though he lived with an uncle in Jerusalem between the ages of 5 and 9.

In the late 1950s Arafat founded the Fatah movement, dedicated to armed struggle against Israel. In 1964, the PLO was founded and Fatah soon became its core group. In 1969, Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO’s Executive Committee.

Throughout the 1970s, Palestinian terrorists carried out a series of audacious attacks against Israelis, including shootings, bombings and hijackings. In 1972, a group calling itself Black September, thought to be under the direct control of Arafat’s Fatah movement, killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games.

In 1974, PLO terrorists infiltrated Israel from Lebanon, taking students in a school hostage and eventually killing 26 people, including 21 children.

Palestinians hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, shooting a wheelchair-bound American Jew to death and throwing him overboard. According to the media watchdog organization CAMERA, intelligence reports indicated that instructions for the attack originated from Arafat’s headquarters.

In 1982, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon and drove Arafat out of the mini-state he had established there, forcing him to set up shop in Tunis.

In 1993, following secret negotiations in Norway, Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo accords, establishing a framework for peace. The next year Arafat made his triumphant return to the Gaza Strip, and he, Rabin and Rabin’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1996, Arafat was overwhelmingly elected president of the Palestinian Authority, which voted to revoke portions of the PLO’s charter that called for destroying Israel, though the revision process was never completed.

In 2000, to the chagrin of Oslo supporters, including an incensed Clinton — who had staked his legacy in large part on forging Israeli-Palestinian peace — Arafat refused what many said was an unprecedented peace proposal from Barak at Camp David.

Later in 2000 the second intifada erupted. Blaming Arafat for spiraling Palestinian violence, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confined Arafat to his Ramallah headquarters in 2001. Arafat could leave the Palestinian territories, Sharon said, but might not be allowed back.

In the end, Arafat left the shattered building only once, briefly, to survey the results of a major Israeli incursion into the West Bank in 2002, but did not leave again until October 2004, when he flew for medical treatment to France, where he ultimately died.

Miller, who said he last met with Arafat in Ramallah in October, says it misses the point to castigate Arafat for turning down Barak’s offer at Camp David. Instead, he said, Arafat’s “transgression” at the summit was his refusal to negotiate.

“There was no comprehensive deal on the table at Camp David that any Palestinian leader could have accepted,” Miller said. “But he could have made counterproposals. That is something that he will have to take responsibility for.”

Still, Camp David’s failure seemed to many Jews further proof that Arafat, as the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban famously quipped, “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Arafat long has been a lightning rod among Jews in the United States, the very specter of his name enough to stoke controversy.

In 1993, shortly before the Oslo accords became public, six American Jewish journalists traveled to Tunis to report on the local Jewish community. Late one night, the group, which had sought an interview with the PLO leader, was summoned to a meeting with Arafat.

Lisa Hostein, then news editor at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia and now JTA’s editor, recalls that the search by Arafat’s bodyguards was so thorough that they even looked inside her camera.

Once inside, Arafat, sitting before a wall-sized photo of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, took a harder-than-usual line on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an experience Hostein said was “unnerving to say the least.”

After the encounter, Hostein hand-wrote a story from her Tunis hotel room and faxed it to her bosses in Philadelphia. The Jewish federation in Philadelphia refused to let the paper publish it.

“This was a federation newspaper in a fairly conservative community, and the refusal of the Exponent to print the story was very indicative of the climate,” Hostein said. “It was a conservative leadership that didn’t like to take a lot of chances. They were afraid they would infuriate members of the community. It was a period, not unlike now, when there were huge political divisions over where Israel should be going and who Israel should be talking to.”

In 1999, the newly established United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations, came under fire from Jewish officials when it was reported that the group planned to give Arafat a prestigious peace award.

The UJC quickly backtracked and, in a move that sparked further outcry, hired a leading private-detective agency to probe who leaked the sensitive information about Arafat, who did not receive the honor.

Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem who now is a Washington political adviser to the Palestinian Authority, said there was another side to the man with whom he shared a “warm friendship.”

“I remember going to an orphanage in Gaza that he ran in 1996, and he invited me on the spur of the moment,” Abington told JTA. “It was filled with kids whose parents were killed” by the Israeli army or by Christian militiamen in Lebanon. “He basically was raising these kids.”

In interviews with JTA, others who knew Arafat well cited his warmth in personal encounters. Still, all said he was a frustrating negotiating partner.

“He tries to create the impression that he’s listening to you, that you’re influencing him, but in fact he’s a very stubborn man,” said Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former national executive director of the American Jewish Congress. Siegman first met with Arafat in Tunis in 1992.

During the late 1990s, Siegman headed the council’s Independent Task Force on Strengthening Palestinian Public Institutions, a group charged with creating guidelines for the development and reform of Palestinian Authority institutions.

“Our discussions on that subject were very often difficult, confrontational and angry, because we were very critical of his failure to take certain steps that would improve the situation, introduce a certain amount of transparency and accountability in Palestinian operations,” Siegman said.

Ross, who said he spent more time with Arafat than “any non-Palestinian,” called him a maddening negotiating partner.

“As a negotiator, he simply wouldn’t reveal anything,” Ross said. “He had the tactic of saying nothing, hoping that the Israelis or we would move towards him.”

But in the end, Israelis and Jews worldwide, not to mention the American president, chose to move away from Arafat — and that, Siegman said, will be part of his legacy.

“Arafat,” he said, “will not be rehabilitated within the Jewish community by his death.”

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