A Life in Retrospect: Yasser Arafat

  • Share
  • Read Later

LEADER: Arafat in June of last year

(3 of 3)

Meanwhile, Arafat's methods of governance won him no points. Exposed to Israeli democratic norms, the Palestinians of the territories had expected their new administration to be modern, meritocratic, liberal even. From the start, though, Arafat imposed a regime that was blunt, brutal, inept and corrupt. Reporters and human rights workers were jailed for criticizing the P.A. Judges with independent views were sacked. Decisions of the elected Palestinian Council were ignored. Mass arrests were common, due process a fantasy, death by torture fairly routine. Improbity was rampant, from street cops taking bribes off errant drivers to Arafat's closest cronies monopolizing aspects of the economy.

It was an enormous letdown for Palestinians who'd waited 50 years for self-rule. Over the years of Arafat's governance, opinion surveys showed a steady erosion of enthusiasm for him. And yet, he remained, until very recently, the uncontested chief.

In some ways, Arafat's unrivaled eminence was hard to explain. He was a terrible speaker, who relied on an archaic form of Islamic address that mostly entailed repeating emotional slogans. Off-the-cuff, his remarks were sometimes irrational. One of his interpreters confessed to frequently mistranslating his boss so as to make sense of the nonsense Arafat had spoken. Arafat sometimes displayed signs of insecurity. On the flight to Washington for the signing of the Oslo accord in 1993, preparing for his first meeting with a U.S. president, Arafat, despite his vast experience of world leaders, was like a nervous schoolboy on the way to the principal's office. He was similarly anxious as he prepared to enter Gaza in 1994, according to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who related that he had to calm Arafat by assuring him he'd receive a warm welcome.

At the same time, this obvious vulnerability accounted for much of Arafat's charm, which was considerable even if it rarely came across in media appearances. In person, Arafat was a congenial figure, something even Netanyahu acknowledged after reluctantly meeting the Palestinian leader. Arafat greeted visitors warmly, humbly, bounding from his desk to say hello. At meals, he would personally serve his guests, in the Arab custom. Arafat's goodwill seemed obvious when, beaming, he reached across to shake hands with a dour Rabin at the Oslo signing in Washington in 1993, and again with a grim Netanyahu in 1996. In the early part of their relationship, Arafat so frequently touched Rabin and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, that they asked him to knock it off, out of sensitivity to Israelis who weren't yet ready to embrace the P.L.O. chief.

Arafat didn't preserve his position atop the P.L.O. with dulcitude, however. The flipside of his charm was a vicious fury. Subordinates could tell it was about to be unleashed when Arafat started moving his right leg rapidly back and forth without disturbing the left one. Arafat was a proficient practitioner of the Egyptian street art of radh, a manner of loudly abusing someone with harsh insults and curses. He didn't stop at words, either. Arafat once joyously related to a visitor how he'd convinced an adversary to join him on the boat that evacuated him from Beirut in 1982. Midway across the Mediterranean, he had the man thrown overboard to his death.

The P.L.O. chief made sure nobody else in the organization grew too big. He played subordinates off one another mercilessly and toyed with them constantly, flattering this individual and building him up, then whacking him down to size.

But Arafat's most effective tool was money, and he played it brilliantly. Arafat insulated himself from suspicion of corruption by leading an ostentatiously austere life. He never seemed to own anything personally; during the time Arafat was based in the Gaza Strip, his wife said he refused to live in the modest apartment she arranged for them because it was too "deluxe." But practically everyone around Arafat grew rich, either by direct access to the P.L.O.'s once-plentiful coffers or to P.A. funds, or through business concessions Arafat doled out. By encouraging corruption, Arafat both bought the loyalty of his lieutenants and held over them the perpetual threat of exposure. Once, explaining to an aide why he was giving another underling $60,000 for blatantly bogus expenses, Arafat asked, "How else can I catch him by the neck?"

Arafat's monopoly on power began to erode in the final years of his life as the dissolution of the peace process made him increasingly a non-factor. The Camp David peace talks in the summer of 2000, brokered by President Clinton, were the beginning of Arafat's unraveling. Negotiators for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat's representatives a proposal, effectively to create a Palestinian state, on terms more generous than any Israeli had offered before. Arafat, aides say, found himself unwilling to consider the tough compromises that any final deal with Israel would have entailed—limitations on Palestinian control in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, giving up on the U.N.-endorsed right of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war to return to what is now Israel. Arafat not only turned down Israel's offer; he failed to make his own. When the summit collapsed, Clinton publicly blamed him.

Two months later, Palestinian riots in Jerusalem grew into a new uprising against Israel, the main feature of which would be a new wave of suicide bombings aimed at Israeli civilians. This time, Arafat did nothing to rein in Palestinian militants; his own Fatah organization was responsible for much of the violence. Responding to the uprising, the Israeli army reinvaded Palestinian cities, and when it withdrew it kept soldiers posted on the outskirts to restrict the movement of residents. The Israelis demolished the headquarters of Arafat's security services, compromising his ability to rule, and periodically besieged his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, pinning Arafat inside. Eventually, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a superhawk whom the Israelis had elected to confront the uprising, told Arafat he could leave, but only for abroad, and with no guarantee he could return. The Israelis only lifted that condition last month, so that Arafat could travel to Paris for medical treatment. In the event, they would not have to face the question of whether to honor their promise that he could return. Arafat died in Paris on Nov. 10.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next