Arafat and the United States: a long, volatile history

NEW YORK — After 12 years of peaks and valleys, U.S. relations with the Palestinian leadership may be sliding toward rock bottom.

President Bush even said recently that he is "very disappointed" with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for "enhancing terror."

Before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived in Washington this week to meet with Bush, the U.S. president's unhappiness stirred. It is the latest episode in a complex, turbulent relationship between the United States and the Palestinian leader.

Arafat first popped into the American consciousness in the late 1960s.

From 1948 until the 1967 Six-Day War, many nations had viewed the Palestinians primarily as refugees, not as a people demanding statehood.

After working as an engineer in Kuwait, Arafat and some comrades started Fatah, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, in Jerusalem on Jan. 1, 1965.

By 1968, he began a series of terrorist attacks against Israel. In 1969, Arafat was elected chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee — Fatah is the PLO's main component — a title he still retains.

He first landed on U.S. soil in 1974, famously appearing before the U.N. General Assembly carrying both a gun and an olive branch.

Still, in 1975, Washington refused to recognize Arafat and the PLO as official representatives of the Palestinian people.

On Sept. 1 of that year, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Israeli Foreign Minister Yigal Allon signed the U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Agreement, which made Palestinian recognition of Israel and renunciation of terrorism a precondition for relations with Washington.

However, a State Department official was quoted as saying that the "legitimate interests of the Palestinian Arabs must be taken into account."

On March 16, 1977, President Carter said the Palestinians deserved a homeland; the Camp David accord he presided over in September 1978 mentioned "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."

President Reagan took a harder line. His administration dropped the talk of Palestinian rights and self-determination and referred to Palestinians mostly as refugees and terrorists.

In 1985, Congress passed a law again vowing not to recognize the PLO until it renounced terrorism and accepted Israel's right to exist.

In 1987, the first intifada erupted in the territories. In October of that year Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro ship — killing a wheelchair-bound American Jew — and on Dec. 22 Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act.

It implicated Arafat in the murder of a U.S. ambassador, blamed the PLO for "the murders of dozens of Americans," and deemed it "a terrorist organization and a threat to the interests of the U.S."

Seeking legitimacy, the PLO began to bend in 1988.

Washington denied Arafat a visa and a return visit to the United Nations, prompting the U.N. General Assembly, an Arab- and Muslim-dominated body, to accommodate him with a special session in Geneva in December.

But Washington already was negotiating indirectly with the PLO, through third parties.

As the U.N. meeting unfolded, with knowledge and support of the U.S. and Swedish governments, Arafat was in Stockholm for two days of talks with five U.S. Jewish leaders.

The quintet represented the so-called International Center for Peace in the Middle East: Rita Hauser, Menachem Rosensaft, Drora Kass, Stanley Sheinbaum and Abraham Udovitch.

With the support of the Palestine National Council, which endorsed the language a month earlier in Algiers, Arafat and his Jewish counterparts hashed out an agreement he believed would encourage the United States to recognize the PLO: It seemed to call for a two-state solution and Israel's withdrawal to its 1967 borders, apparently rejected terrorism and recognized Israel.

Arafat presented his vision to the General Assembly on Dec. 13, 1988.

Washington immediately criticized Arafat's words as ambiguous — and the Palestinian leader was forced to clarify his comments the next day at a press conference.

Following that move, Reagan — in the last days of his presidency, and perhaps at the request of incoming President Bush — recognized the PLO, despite Israel's indignation and its fears of greater violence.

On Dec. 16, U.S. officials opened a dialogue with the PLO in Tunis.

In a Dec. 22 letter intended to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Reagan wrote: "Nothing in this decision should be construed as weakening the United States' commitment to Israel's security, diminishing our fight against terrorism in all its forms, or indicating our acceptance of an independent Palestinian state.

"I am under no illusions about the PLO. Their words will have to be supported by actions, namely a continuing renunciation of terrorism everywhere and disassociation from those who perpetrate it. Nevertheless, I believe that our dialogue with the PLO potentially can encourage realism and pragmatism within the Palestinian leadership and thus contribute to a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which the long-term security of Israel can be achieved."

During his term, Bush forged ahead with talks with the PLO. But the thaw in U.S.-Palestinian relations was disrupted on May 30, 1990, when Palestinians launched a seaborne attack on the beaches of Tel Aviv.

Israel's security forces killed four terrorists in what they said was a plot to murder tourists. The PLO refused to denounce the attack, and Bush broke off talks on June 20 of that year.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, with much of the world aligned with Washington against Iraq, Arafat threw his weight behind Saddam Hussein.

After Iraq's defeat, on March 6, 1991, Bush announced a renewed Mideast peace effort. Still, at the Madrid peace talks on Oct. 30, 1991, both Washington and Jerusalem treated the Palestinians not as a separate entity, but as part of the Jordanian delegation.

However, Palestinians and Israelis sat and negotiated publicly for the first time.

Nearly two years later, on Aug. 19, 1993, Israel and the PLO secretly initiated a "Declaration of Principles" in Oslo, which established a blueprint for future talks and a land-for-peace formula for solving the conflict.

On Sept. 10, the two sides formally agreed to recognize the other, and President Clinton announced his intention to revive U.S.-PLO talks.

Three days later, on Sept. 13, the Oslo agreement was announced, and a historic handshake between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took place on the White House lawn. The agreement formally ended the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

In 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Arafat, Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Arafat went on to become the most frequent foreign visitor to the Clinton White House.

In October 1998, with Clinton overseeing the Wye River negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a further redeployment of Israeli forces from the West Bank and gave the Americans a direct role in security arrangements. For his part, Arafat pledged, again, to crack down on terrorists, confiscate illegal weapons, prevent incitement, and amend the PLO Charter to remove all anti-Israel references.

At the White House signing of the Wye Memorandum, Clinton lauded Arafat for "decades and decades and decades of tireless representation of the longing of the Palestinian people to be free, self-sufficient, and at home."

Clinton also noted the "distinguished military careers" of Arafat, Netanyahu and Jordan's King Hussein, who was also in attendance.

A Palestinian official later said it was "an acknowledgment that the years of Palestinian armed struggle are not considered terrorism."

This heralded what some saw as a new era in U.S.-Palestinian relations. In ensuing months American officials often praised Arafat for meeting his obligations, while criticizing Israelis for slacking on theirs.

In December 1998, amid talk of impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton led a delegation that included 18 Arab-American leaders on an historic visit to the Gaza Strip. He was greeted by Palestinians waving Palestinian and U.S. flags, and signs with pictures of Clinton and Arafat that read, "We have a dream."

Clinton addressed the Palestinian legislative council and other Palestinian leaders, speaking passionately about their aspirations "to shape a new Palestinian future on your own land" and their concerns about the "separation of families, restriction of movement, settlement activity, land confiscations and home demolitions."

"Neither side has a monopoly on pain or virtue…both share a history of oppression and dispossession," he said.

Only months before his second term ended, Clinton convened Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat in July 2000 for a second Camp David summit. After 17 days, talks collapsed without a deal, and Clinton publicly blamed Arafat.

In late September, Palestinians unleashed a second violent intifada. Despite that, Clinton continued pressuring the two sides toward peace, releasing the most detailed U.S. peace plan yet in late December. However, he was not able to get the parties to sign an agreement before he left office in January 2001.

President Bush adopted a more laissez-faire approach to the conflict, preferring that Israel and the Palestinians work it out themselves.

He quickly invited Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, to the White House — and has welcomed him two more times since.

Bush has yet to meet Arafat, but last year became the first U.S. president to refer to a "state of Palestine."

On April 6, 2001, six months into the intifada, 87 members of the U.S. Senate and 209 members of the House sent letters to Bush asking him to reassess U.S.-Palestinian relations.

The Senate letter began: "We are writing you out of a deep sense of frustration, anger and concern over recent events in the Middle East. Less than eight months ago at Camp David, Israel offered a final status proposal to the Palestinians that was breathtaking in the scope of its concessions.

"The Palestinians rejected the Israeli offer, and a member of the Palestinian Authority said: 'The issues of Jerusalem, the refugees and sovereignty will be decided on the ground and not in negotiations.' "

Now — a month after Israelis intercepted a weapons-laden ship destined for the Palestinians — Bush, like Congress, may have reached his breaking point.