Nearly a romance

By Daniel Ben Simon

Haaretz

Kislev 1, 5765

No Israeli clocked as many Arafat hours as Shimon Peres. The more he got to know the Palestinian leader, the more he liked and even respected him. He liked his simple manner and unbridled charm, and he respected his absolute control of the Palestinian people. Peres, whose relations with the masses were less than warm, gazed in longing at the almost blind support the Palestinians bestowed upon their leader.

On the other hand, he was repulsed by the chairman's ingratiating speech, his broken English and his table manners, particularly when Arafat would try to stuff a morsel of rice or cheese into Peres' mouth. Arafat wanted to express intimacy, but Peres felt physically threatened by these culinary overtures.

Peres was among the first to realize that it would be difficult to achieve a compromise with Arafat, but that it would be a hundred times harder to do so without him, if possible at all. The minute Peres reached that conclusion, he moved mountains to persuade former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin that there was no other path to peace. To a great extent, Peres was the chief whitewasher in charge of cleaning up the image of a man formerly numbered among the world's major terrorists. He crossed oceans to win hearts on behalf of the Palestinian leader.

Whenever a conflict arose between Arafat and Rabin, Peres planted himself on the fence in order to find a solution. When terrorist attacks multiplied and Israelis cried out for Arafat's head, Peres did everything in his power to preserve the partnership with the Palestinian chairman.

At times, it seemed a certain intimacy was developing between them. A near political romance between the man who established Israel's early-warning potential and the man who threatened to undermine it by foisting massive terror attacks. Perhaps, it was because Peres knew that only Arafat would pave the former's way to the pantheon of history, which was, in fact, the case. On Arafat's back, Peres arranged his own Nobel Prize alongside that of Rabin and Arafat.

Arafat's passing does not leave Peres orphaned, however. The two figures had not seen each other in years. It is fair to assume that Peres will find Abu Mazen and Abu Ala to be worthier partners. Peres won't be the only one. Few members of Israel's left will mourn Arafat. He appeared, for years, to be capable of compromise, and even to possess the power to forge a treaty between the Palestinian nationalist movement and the Zionist movement. Leaders of the Israeli left were drawn to him as to a magnet. All of them who met with him returned with starry-eyed, mythological descriptions of their encounter with a leader of international proportion.

But they later got to know his misleading personality at close range. They were particularly confounded by his duplicity and his ever-changing character. "But he agreed to this chapter yesterday," Peres railed at the Tabu peace talks in 1995, in the presence of journalists. "That's not true," Arafat mumbled. Palestinians who witnessed the embarrassing scene knew their leader was lying, but no one dared to say so out loud.

In recent years, Arafat left his fans and his supporters in the Israeli left behind. Most of them concurred with common thinking that charged Arafat with responsibility for the intifada, and they developed a deep hatred of the man. "After the Park Hotel terror attack in Netanya, I hoped they would clandestinely assassinate him," admits Avital Inbar, a writer and leftist figure who has never missed a single peace demonstration. He is completely apathetic on the wake of the Palestinian leader's demise. "I don't feel joy, and certainly not sadness," he adds, "I just want to see him buried so that we can move on. I feel the left made a mistake regarding Arafat. The man refused to make the transition from a leader of a revolution to a leader of peace. And we paid the price."