A Life in Retrospect: Yasser Arafat

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JAMAL ARURI / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

LEADER: Arafat in June of last year

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Arafat survived the day —as he would on three other occasions when Israelis at the highest levels of power would debate and ultimately reject the idea of assassinating him. Their intentions were deadly, however, on Oct. 1, 1985, when Israeli F-15s hit the P.L.O. compound in Tunis, in retribution for a P.L.O. attack on an Israeli yacht in Larnaca. Arafat escaped the raid by being characteristically late for the meeting he was meant to host. In 1988, Israeli commandos snuck into P.L.O. headquarters and killed Arafat's chief lieutenant, Abu Jihad. Abu Iyad, the third member of the original triumvirate, was assassinated in 1991. The P.L.O. claimed that Abu Nidal, head of a radical splinter group, was behind the murder, but some Fatah figures suspected Arafat had his own deputy offed in a power feud. In 1994, Arafat counted 40 attempts on his life; his aides said there were many others after that. Most were the work of enemy Palestinians.

From his distant headquarters in Tunis, Arafat began to soften his earlier position that "the Kalachnikov will decide." Clearly, might was on Israel's side. Accordingly, in 1988, the P.L.O. renounced terrorism and adopted U.N. resolution 242, thereby implicitly recognizing Israel's right to exist and accepting the notion of two states, one Israeli, one Palestinian, in the land that was mandatory Palestine. Arafat's stated goal had shifted from annihilation of Israel to cohabitation. For good measure, the P.L.O. declared its "state" extant and Arafat its "president."

Israel was not then eager to talk peace, but the intifadeh, or uprising, that had begun in December 1987, made the continued occupation of the Palestinians increasingly intolerable. The outbreak—sparked by a traffic accident in the Gaza Strip in which an Israeli truck driver killed six Palestinian laborers—was a spontaneous event in which the P.L.O. had no role. Arafat, however, was quick to adopt the popular revolt, naming and funding the local committees that organized the intifadeh's main events: strikes, demonstrations, boycotts of Israeli taxes, and, especially, challenges to Israeli soldiers by rock-throwing Palestinian boys, known as the shabab.

The intifadeh also gave rise to the most serious challenge to Arafat's leadership: the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. An offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas offered what the secular, single-minded Fatah never had: a comprehensive ideology. Hamas bloodily rejected reconciliation with Israel, which it viewed as an alien colony on Islamic land. The organization won grassroots support with its schools, clinics, sports clubs and welfare societies. These competed with the social services the P.L.O. had always provided but which were scaled back amid a financial crisis in the early 1990s. After Arafat's injudicious decision to back Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the gulf states cut off aid and expelled some 100,000 Palestinian workers, mostly professionals, whose incomes had served as the main tax base for the P.L.O.

Arafat was dealt a further humiliation in 1991 when Washington and Moscow convened a Mideast peace summit in Madrid and, acceding to Israel's wishes, denied the P.L.O. an official place at the table. Still, the Palestinian negotiators made plain their affiliation—one of them, Sa'eb Erakat, dramatically draping a black and white keffiyah over his shoulders. Israel would eventually understand that to make peace it would have to deal directly with Arafat. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin authorized secret negotiations with the P.L.O. leadership in Oslo that culminated in the historic 1993 accord providing limited autonomy to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, followed by further talks on the final status of those territories.

The deal was never popular among Palestinians. It fell far short of the minimum condition most of them required: an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This was the carrot Oslo offered, but there was no guarantee. First, the Palestinians would have to submit to a test, a period of autonomy.

Despite that condition, Arafat grasped at a chance to make himself more relevant. His own mortality had been brought into clean focus in 1992 when his airplane nosedived into the Libyan desert in the midst of a raging sandstorm. Arafat's men had wrapped him in blankets to cushion the impact, but the crash caused head wounds that later required brain surgery to remove blood clots.

A month after the accident, Arafat made public his secret marriage, two years before, to Suha Tawil, the Sorbonne-educated daughter of a prominent P.L.O. activist. Suha had served as Arafat's economics adviser and was 34 years his junior. In interviews, the loquacious Suha offered unprecedented glimpses into the private Arafat, remarking, for instance, that "he dances the tango beautifully," a skill picked up, apparently, in his college days in Cairo. But he plainly wasn't settling into regular life. Even after the couple had a daughter, Zahwa, in 1995, Arafat declined to share quarters with his wife and child. Arafat once related that when an aide brought baby Zahwa to his office, he asked, "Who is this girl with you?" Arafat publicly treated his family life as an irrelevance, and his aides and constituents followed his lead.

Politically, however, Arafat appeared to be mellowing, or at least reconsidering tactics. By the time of the Oslo negotiations, the former leader of Fatah's "mad ones" had become the strongest voice for compromise within the P.L.O.'s upper reaches. In July 1994, ten months after Oslo was signed, Arafat arrived in the Palestinian territories, after a 27-year absense, to take up leadership of the newly created Palestinian Authority, which would exercise limited self-rule, first in a large part of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho, eventually in all the Palestinian cities of the West Bank. In their first general elections, in 1996, the Palestinians living in the territories confirmed Arafat, with 88% of the vote, as the leader (the Israelis would say "chairman," the Palestinians "president") of the Palestinian Authority.

Struggling against Oslo's naysayers was a constant battle for Arafat. With Hamas, the most serious opposition, Arafat in the early years of self rule took a variety of approaches. When relations with Israel were bad, he tended to turn a blind eye to the group's activities, including terror attacks. During more promising times, Arafat rode the Islamists hard, cooperating with Israeli security and even the C.I.A. to suppress them. At all times, Arafat kept lines open to the political leaders of Hamas, dangling the prospect of a share of power in exchange for good behavior.

The November 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli opposed to the peace process was a huge setback for Arafat; he wept when he heard the news. The next year, Israelis elected ultranationalist Benjamin Netanyahu prime minister. Over a three-day period in September that year, relations descended to the point of open fighting between Israeli and Palestinian troops that left 73 people dead. After centrist Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu in 1999, the peace process stabilized, with Barak effectively dropping Israel's long-standing opposition to a Palestinian state. But throughout, many Palestinians suspected that Arafat had been duped into a dead-end deal.

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