Encounters with the Palestinian leader

Editor’s note: The following recollections on Yasser Arafat are by people who either interacted with the Palestinian leader or were directly affected by his actions. These pieces appeared previously in The Jerusalem Post.

Seize the new era
by shimon peres

A Palestinian leader has died. An era has ended for the Palestinian people. A new opportunity has been created. Yasser Arafat led the Palestinian struggle for 40 years. He labored for his people, but ultimately he did not achieve that which truly mattered.

Arafat did more than any Palestinian leader to bring the Palestinian cause to the top of the international agenda and keep it there for four decades.

He did this through the path of terror, death and broken families. If terrorism brought the Palestinian cause to the global agenda, terrorism obstructed its resolution.

Arafat was sensitive about his popularity among his people. He made important decisions, but recoiled from executing them. A leader cannot be popular all the time. A leader must be willing to accept controversy. He must face the risk of the anger of his people if he wants to lead them to a new and better reality.

In his eagerness to remain popular, Arafat kept alive for the Palestinian people dreams that have no place in the current reality. In doing so he may have won their love, but he prevented them from going through the necessary process that each nation must go through: a process of growing up and coming to terms with reality as it is. The Palestinians could not and will not return to Israel. There is no room for this dream in reality, because it only extends Palestinian suffering and postpones the establishment of a Palestinian state.

We now have the power to embark on a process leading to the full realization of the Zionist vision: a democratic Jewish state in the land of Israel in peace and security with its neighbors. We can open the door to a new era in the life of Israel, when we can dedicate our resources to the building of Israeli society and its development. An opportunity has arisen; history calls upon us to seize it.

Shimon Peres, a former prime minister, is leader of the Labor Party.

Exploited trends
by dore gold

The very first time I was sent as an envoy to Yasser Arafat, what seemed most striking to me was the enormous gap between the total unreality of his conspiratorial explanations of political events transpiring around him and the extraordinary skill with which he played his weak political hand in order to advance the hard-line ideological agenda from which he never swerved: the elimination of the state of Israel.

Arafat’s secret was that he knew how to read historical trends and exploit them to the fullest for his movement. He began as a sympathizer of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed the monarchy of Egypt, where he was born. He then shifted leftward, siding with the Soviet Union and its championing of national liberation movements in the 1960s. The apex of his power at the United Nations in the 1970s came about when the Soviets combined forces with the Afro-Asian bloc against an isolated state of Israel.

Whether the Palestinians will abandon the legacy he has bequeathed them is the most important question for determining the chances of peace in the future. A realistic assessment might lead one to hope that any new leadership will shake loose from Arafat’s terrorist past, but his hard-line political legacy is likely to survive him.

Dore Gold, currently president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to the United Nations and foreign policy aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Enigmatic figure
by uri savir

I met Chairman Arafat for at least 1,000 hours of negotiations between 1993 and 1996, mostly at the side of my mentor, Shimon Peres. In Arafat, I saw moments of passionate struggle for his nation, and moments of insistence on minute selfish issues. I witnessed courageous decisions as well as almost constant indecision.

This man was, as was generally conveyed, enigmatic in his ambiguity. Indeed, the contrasts are what embody him most: on one hand a fighter, on the other hand the eternal victim; a man of violence and terrorist struggle, and a peacemaker who was awarded the ultimate prize for peace; the undisputed leader of his nation, and a chaotic nation builder; a little bit of Castro, and a little bit of Mandela; a charismatic symbol in some contexts, and an insecure human being in others.

This ambiguity is naturally reflected in his nation, as well as in his contribution to, and the damage wreaked on, his own people. I witnessed firsthand, together with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, his contribution to the Oslo peace accords, and to the Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel. Without him, the Palestinian cause would never have been placed on the regional and world maps, as it currently stands. Nevertheless, he later missed a historic opportunity that then-President Clinton offered him. (However, the blame should not rest solely on him, as we could and should have handled the situation differently.)

The dichotomy of Arafat has had an impact on us: We, too, developed a schizophrenic attitude to the solution of the Palestinian problem — while the majority believes that there is no partner for peace, it has also accepted that land and settlements must be given up.

Maybe the main lesson is that in a land of deep crises, we need unambiguous and forthright leadership and decisions. I hope that whoever takes over the reins on the Palestinian side will make correct and courageous decisions for the Palestinian people, who need peace no less than we do. I also hope that our leadership will make the courageous decision not to miss any more opportunities.

Uri Savir is president of the Peres Center for Peace and was Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo accords.


After Arafat — Anxiety

From pariah to partner and back: Jews reflect on Arafat’s legacy

Face-to-face with Arafat

Where is the money?
Yasser takes a secret to the grave

Shorts: After Arafat

Where did Arafat’s money go?

Meeting Arafat brought out my mean streak

‘Free Palestine’: But free it from whom?

Arafat: Peacemaker, peacebreaker or neither