The dreamer who relied on emotion and failed to protect his own people

By Robert Fisk

The Independent

12 November 2004

He was everything loyal and everything miserable about the Palestinian dream. I have a tape recording of Arafat, sitting with me on a cold, dark mountainside outside the Lebanese port of Tripoli in 1983 where the old man - he was always called the old man, long before he was elderly - was under siege by the Syrian army, another of the Arab "brothers" who wanted to lead the Palestinian cause and ended up fighting Palestinians rather than Israelis.

Even worse, the Syrians had suborned some of "their" Palestinians to join the siege. Just a year before, Arafat and his PLO had withstood an 88-day encirclement in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, by the Israeli army, led by the then defence minister, Ariel Sharon. Now Arafat's fortunes had crumbled again.

The tape hisses and occasionally, far away, shells thump into a hillside. I played it again yesterday, listening to the wind.

"I will not be away from my freedom fighters while they are facing death and dangers from death," says Arafat's voice, "It is my duty to be beside my freedom fighters and my officers and my soldiers."

"A year ago," I tell him, "you and I talked in west Beirut. Here we are on a windy hilltop outside Tripoli, 50 miles further from the border of Israel, or the border of Palestine, and people within Fatah are rebelling."

Arafat replied: "You see, I give you another proof that we are a nut that is not easy to be cracked. I hope you still remember what Sharon mentioned in the beginning of his invasion. He was dreaming that in three or five days he would liquidate or smash the PLO, our people, our freedom fighters, and here we are. The siege of Beirut, the battles of the south of Lebanon, this miracle, 88 days, the longest Arab-Israeli war - and after that we have this war of attrition against the Israeli army, not only the Palestinians - definitely, we and our allies the Lebanese, are participating in this war of attrition and we are proud, I am proud, I have this brave alliance."

"Fifty miles further from Palestine!" I replied.

"What is the difference to be 50 miles or to be 50,000 miles?" came the reply "One metre outside the border of Palestine, I am far away."

Arafat was a dreamer, a popular characteristic for Palestinians who had only dreams to give them hope. Even in the early days, if compromise was required of him, he could talk to Israelis, even hint at acceptance of the partition of Palestine. "I will live on one square metre of my land," he would say.

But if one of the PLO's more outlandish satellites embarrassed the Palestinians - and the world - by murdering an innocent, Arafat would step in to prevent further tragedy, thus acquiring prestige from the crimes of his own organisation. Hence the murder by Palestinians of a crippled Jewish pensioner called Leon Klinghoffer on board the hijacked cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 was supposed to be overshadowed by Arafat's humanitarian gesture in arranging for the liberation of the other 300 passengers.

But it was his greatest political error - his support for Saddam Hussein after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - that gave him his greatest and hollowest victory. His refusal to support President George Bush Snr's Pax Americana left Arafat weak enough to make peace with Israel; and the Oslo agreement was the bait to pull him in.

Arafat thought he was being given Palestine - statehood, stamps, a national airline, prestige, admiration, east Jeru-salem and an army - but he was being offered nothing. Instead, Oslo turned out to be an offer of collaboration: Arafat was being asked to police the West Bank and Gaza on Israel's behalf. His job was not to represent his people but to "control" them, which is why the mantra question, "Can Arafat control his own people?" was taken up with such speed by the Israelis.

Of course, he could not. Hamas had been an Israeli creation to balance Arafat's power, when the PLO were the "super-terrorists" of the Middle East, and Arafat was not going to fight a civil war in "Palestine" on Israel's behalf. So he clung to power not with authority but with cash, paying off his gunmen and his cronies, ignoring some of the PLO's splinter outfits while promising security, peace, prosperity, statehood and all the other things Oslo would not give him. His cronyism was part of his failure. Unwilling to allow younger, educated Palestinians to run even his public relations network, he surrounded himself with hopeless, middle-aged spokesmen whose anger was loud but whose English was incomprehensible. When Israel reneged on withdrawal agreements, Arafat pleaded with the Americans for help in keeping to a timetable which no one but himself believed in. "It is up to the parties concerned," the State Department told him, handing all decisions to the most powerful of those parties, the Israelis.

He could not protect his people from Israeli military incursions or air raids and he could not protect the Israelis when Palestinian suicide bombers began to hurl themselves into Israel. He could not stop the illegal settlements for Jews on Arab land and he could not obtain even a sliver of Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital.

He could not obtain permission for a single Palestinian refugee to return to live in the home from which their family was driven in 1948. He could not guard his own national frontiers. He was not allowed to control his own airport. In the end, he could only leave the wrecked building in which he lived by starting the long process of dying.

Arafat governed by emotion rather than reason and this led him into flights of rhetoric that were a panacea to his people as they were an insult to his educated elite. Edward Said, that most brilliant of Palestinian scholars, was driven to distraction by Arafat's nonsense as well as by his vain, dictatorial rule; Arafat banned Professor Said's books and Palestinians who wished to read them had to purchase them in Israel.

"The people loved him, of course," Professor Said told me. "He stood on the podium and he promised them a Palestinian state and they clapped and shouted and banged their feet. Someone asked him what the state would be like and Arafat pointed to a small child in the front and said, 'If you want to know the answer to this, you must ask every Palestinian child what he wants.' And the crowd went wild again. It was a popular reply. But what was he talking about? What did he mean?"

Only Hanan Ashrawi could speak her mind to Arafat. "I was the only one who would call him up and say he was wrong," she told me. "I would say, 'Mr Chairman, this is wrong, this will not work.' And after, his advisers would come to me and say, 'How can you speak to the Chairman like that? How dare you criticise him.' But someone had to."

There was another, more profound conversation, between Professor Said and Arafat, in 1985 when they were discussing Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who supported the 1936 revolt against British rule, and who believed the Zionists would take Palestinian land but who ended up in Berlin, urging Hitler to prevent the emigration of Jews to Palestine and encouraging Bosnian Muslims to join the SS. Professor Said told me Arafat said: "Edward, if there's one thing I don't want to be, it's like Haj Amin. He was always right and he got nothing and died in exile."

What will they say of Arafat? The Israelis refused permission for Haj Amin to be buried in Jerusalem. Ariel Sharon has said the same rule will apply to Arafat. In death, at least, Arafat and Haj Amin were equal.