Arafat: `We hope there won't be attacks now, but you have to remember and we have to take into account that there are orders from outside that come from all kinds of places, so we must be very cautious.'
Here is the national leader besieged in his office, with foreign tanks outside his window and an occupying country preventing him from going to Christmas celebrations in a nearby city: His mood is jovial, almost lighthearted. He is as sharp as a razor and full of optimism, surrounded by his ministers and advisers, who are also in relatively good spirits, considering their situation and that of their people.
This is how the man who is perhaps the most recognized figure in the world today, whose image is almost as familiar as the Coca-Cola logo, appears tonight: He sits hunched in his chair behind a simple desk in his modest office, his famous uniform more rumpled than ever, with an array of colorful pins and stickers making it look more like a costume. On the desk are a plate of chocolates, a Koran and a small pile of papers. On the book stand, a silver menorah is proudly displayed. Every so often, he picks up the phone and converses with a world leader or gets a report from his people in Gaza about the bloody events there.
"This is normal," he'll say and go on with our conversation, as if seven of his people hadn't just been killed there that day by his own forces.
A meeting with Yasser Arafat is always an experience awash in contradictions - the warm welcome he extends to his guest versus his nearly 50 years of armed struggle; the great personal charm he exhibits versus his sometimes embarrassing, not to say totally inept, television appearances; his short stature and the unimpressive figure he cuts as he walks the narrow corridors of his headquarters versus his power and fame; his clarity and sharpness in conversation versus his silence during the meal arranged for his guest, when he was preoccupied with the almonds and pine nuts in his soup, his head bent over his bowl; the demonstrative, almost excessive, concern he displays for his guest versus his tough, often cruel, actions; the affectionate relationship he has with his advisers versus the aggressive way he has always manipulated them; his mild, almost fawning, comments about Israel and Sharon versus his antithetical statements on other occasions; even his broken English versus the fact that this has been his main language of communication with world leaders for at least a generation.
Last Friday, a number of his ministers and advisers were also present at his headquarters. They sat facing each other around their leader's table: Minister of Culture and Information Yasser Abed Rabbo, cabinet member Nabil Amr, West Bank Preventive Security Chief Jibril Rajoub, cabinet member Hassan Asfour and spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh. The atmosphere was quite convivial.
Arafat: "You should put Rajoub back in [an Israeli] jail for a few more years so his Hebrew will get even better."
They made jokes at each other's expense, including the chairman's, and interrupted Arafat more than once to correct him or finish a sentence. For his part, he treated them in a fatherly manner. When fruit was served for dessert after a festive meal that included lamb, fish, seafood, chicken and stuffed vegetables, with the air of someone performing a religious rite, Arafat offered each person there a slice of peeled orange from his plate. As usual, he made sure that his foreign guests' plates were kept filled. The dinner was cooked by the local chef and served by professional waiters, who spoke Hebrew, of course. Still, not much time was wasted eating. Soon we were back in his office, ready to begin the interview.
- What led Hamas to issue the announcement that it was halting attacks in Israel?
Arafat: "The pressure that we put on them."
- So why didn't you start sooner?
"We did start before. But you know, they get their main orders and instruction from outside, every day on the Arab television stations, from their leaders who are outside."
- All of a sudden, it went so smoothly for you. Just three days after your speech. So why did you wait?
"It wasn't that easy and it didn't take three days."
- Can their announcement be taken seriously?
"We have to keep close tabs on them. We will insist that what was announced is honored and carried out."
- What do you think about the suicide bombers?
"Look, you remember the early days when we came here, when we had Jericho and Gaza first, and you remember that there were some terror actions then and the Israeli government had to close Gaza. My late peace partner, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, used to send me money. I asked him why and he said, `To provide an income for those who can't come to work in Israel anymore because of the closure we've imposed, so they won't work against me and against you.'
"Just think of the terrible economic situation our people are in now, with 130,000 people having lost their places of employment in Israel. Others lost their jobs because factories and projects like the Gaza port were bombed and destroyed. Many other sources of income just aren't there anymore. All this has created a hardened attitude among our people and a genuinely terrible situation of poverty, frustration and despair. These kinds of phenomena [of suicide bombers - G.L.] happen in such an atmosphere. In such an atmosphere, they can recruit suicide bombers, because of these hard living conditions."
- But what do you think of the suicide bombers?
"You remember that, from the beginning, from the days of my late partner, Yitzhak Rabin, we have condemned these activities, especially those against civilians. We declared this even before, before Oslo, at the National Council that convened in Cairo."
- How did you feel when Prime Minister Sharon declared you irrelevant?
"I gave a speech at the United Nations on behalf of Palestine right after President Bush's speech. So who's irrelevant here?"
Abed Rabbo: "Sharon's statement was an opportunity to reelect the chairman without going to the polls. [It just shored up] national and international support."
Arafat: "I'd like to ask why he agreed to have meetings with me at the Wye talks, when he came there with Netanyahu and we reached the Wye accord."
- What do you think of him?
"He's a general."
- Rabin was also a general.
"He was elected by the Israeli people so we have to keep dealing with him."
- Do you believe that you'll ever be able to reach any kind of agreement with him?
"I want to remind you that he is the person who destroyed all the settlements in Sinai, including the big city of Yamit. That was a city, not a settlement. And he participated in Wye."
Abed Rabbo: "At three in the morning, we saw him calling every minister in Israel on Netanyahu's behalf to persuade them to support the agreement."
Arafat: "I deal with the facts in the field. I'm not a dreamer. When Rabin was prime minister - I dealt with him. When Shamir was prime minister - I dealt with him and we went to Madrid. Then came Rabin and then Peres and we dealt with them. Then came Netanyahu and Barak and we dealt with them. Now it's Sharon."
Abed Rabbo: "There's one stable element and the rest keep changing all the time."
Arafat: "I can't understand how anyone has the right to disqualify the leader of another state and another people."
- The Americans do it all the time.
Abed Rabbo: "That's a rule without exceptions."
Arafat: "But the UN supported what the Americans did in Afghanistan."
- You said on Israeli television that you don't care about the Americans.
"Who said I don't care about the Americans?"
- You did.
"Don't forget that I was the first leader in the entire world to send condolences after what happened in New York and Washington and to offer whatever modest help we could."
Asfour: "President Arafat requested American involvement."
Arafat: "And Israel is the one that didn't agree to American observers. So, do the Israelis accept America? Why did Begin agree to accept the Americans in Sinai and presidential involvement in the Camp David talks? And the same thing with the late Hussein. There are UN forces in the Golan, too."
- Which Arafat is to be believed - the one who gave the televised speech, or the one who gave the speech about the martyrs?
"What I said about the martyrs was misunderstood, or deliberately distorted. It wasn't directed against Jews at all."
Abed Rabbo: "It's a quote from the prophet Mohammed, that says that every Palestinian martyr in Jerusalem is equal to 70 martyrs somewhere else."
Arafat: "In Terra Sancta. For your information, I'm very proud to see you have such broad knowledge of Christianity, Judaism and Islam."
Asfour: "Maybe we should send Sharon a Koran?"
- But for Israelis, the important thing is that you praised martyrs in the same week that you spoke about peace.
"For your information, a martyr is anyone who fell defending his home, his land and his property. That's the meaning of a `shahid.' And on this holiday, we remember the dead, especially the martyrs, and that's why they are mentioned on such an occasion, particularly in the presence of bereaved families."
- Can Israelis start sleeping well at night now?
"We hope there won't be attacks now, but you have to remember and we have to take into account that there are orders from outside that come from all kinds of places, so we must be very cautious."
Asfour: "Ask Prime Minister Sharon to give the Palestinians a chance to sleep well at night, too."
Abed Rabbo: "And to wake up, as well."
Arafat: "Now you know that the tanks are right here behind me, like neighbors, just 50-70 meters from here."
- What does that do to you?
Abed Rabbo: "I was here with him and Rajoub the night the tanks arrived. And the chairman had to sign all kinds of papers having to do with various things. He kept on signing them, until the last one. He kept on at his regular work the whole night."
Arafat: "Don't forget, this is normal. It's not the first time."
Abed Rabbo: "Without a siege, he'd be nervous."
Arafat: "I'd like to know if the Israeli people have accepted this - the fact that tanks are right outside my office?"
- What do you think?
"I think that the majority don't accept it."
- How did you feel when they blew up your helicopters?
"That's another example. Why? Give me one reason why they did this. We haven't finished paying for those helicopters. Give me one reason why they completely destroyed the port that was built under the supervision of French and Dutch companies. And the airport that was opened by President Clinton and funded by European and Arab countries. Does it help Israeli security? And what's the reason for destroying our factories and uprooting half of our olive trees and bulldozing thousands of farms and hothouses? You have to address this question to the Israeli people and the international community. Do they accept this?"
- What is Israel supposed to do against terror? Just sit there?
"Peace is the most important weapon in destroying terrorism. What do you think would happen as a result of an occupation that prevents Muslims and Christians from getting to Jerusalem and Bethlehem? Is that in keeping with the Jewish religion? Of course not. In all the Arab countries, the Jews lived in equality and with a high standard of living. From Morocco to Baghdad and in between. Ask the Jews who lived there."
Asfour: "Especially those from Iraq."
Arafat: "They ran the economy in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. In Palestine, too. Nahariya was the economic capital of Palestine in the British Mandate period."
- What steps against terror are you going to take next?
"There is a plan for a war on terror and we will keep at it because we are committed to the peace process."
Israel's `stinking maneuver'
Javier Solana is on the line from Washington. "We crushed them," Arafat tells the European Union's secretary for foreign affairs, in reference to the announcement by Hamas.
A poster in downtown Ramallah from the Forum of Bereaved Israeli Parents features a quote from Rabin: "The pain of peace is preferable to the agony of war."
Marwan Barghouti stands in Manara Square and gives interviews to the whole world.
At his headquarters in Bituniya, Jibril Rajoub says some harsh things about Israel and about Hamas attacks, too. He uses much stronger language than Arafat: "Those who carried out the attacks in Haifa and Jerusalem saved Sharon from international pressure. The attacks hurt us more than Sharon has. They hurt us and our national interest and we immediately made a unilateral decision to clamp down on them. Two days later, Sharon came and intervened in their favor. He shelled Arafat's helicopters and the police station and the port. And that was after we'd made a unilateral decision, without any connection to the Americans and Israel, to arrest all those who violated the PA's authority and its international commitments. There can be no compromise with those who are trying to dictate our national agenda.
"But what do you expect when your government offends the honor of the elected leader and national symbol of its neighbor? What do you expect when you insult our chairman? It doesn't matter whether you like him or not. That's your problem. What would your response be if this happened to your elected leader? This is not the way. Let me remind you that, to us, Sharon is a murderer - since 1948. But he was elected. This move of yours is a stinking maneuver.
"If you expel Abu Amar [Arafat] or kill him, I think you'll have more victims than in all the last 50 years. Woe unto you if, God forbid, something happens to Abu Amar. You will eat shit. We'll eat shit, too, but you'll eat more shit."
- The Israelis don't believe a word you say anymore.
Arafat: "Who are these Israelis that don't believe me? Have you forgotten that the last survey showed that 59 percent of Israelis support the establishment of a Palestinian state? Of course the Israelis believe me. With whom did they make the peace of the brave? And none of them has forgotten that after the agreement was signed, everyone from China to Indonesia opened their doors to my late partner, Rabin. The Israelis are intelligent people and they haven't forgotten that."
- Tell me one good thing and one bad thing about Israelis.
"I can't say anything bad. That's not my way."
- And something good?
"They are my cousins. I am Husseini. I am from Abraham. You are my cousins, from the 12 Tribes."
- How many terrorists have you arrested so far?
"Very many, about 200. Here's a list of 29 in Gaza and 49 offices and institutions that we closed. And here's another list of 13 who were arrested, and another three, and another 73.
- Could this spark a civil war?
"We certainly took this into account when we declared the emergency situation, which is not a normal or simple situation."
- Would you like to meet Sharon?
"He's the prime minister and if he's ready to continue the peace process that he participated in at Wye, then he is welcome. And I'd like to hear those who say Oslo is finished say that it means the same thing for the agreements with Jordan and Egypt. And don't forget that the agreement was signed at the White House in the presence of the Russians and with the participation of the UN."
- Will one of the people here in this room be your successor?
"Who knows who will be elected?"
- Do you have a preferred candidate?
"No. I respect democracy. I think that all of those around me are worthy of taking my place. I am proud of all them. Now, after Ramadan and Id al-Fitr, during Christmas and after Hanukkah, I again appeal to the Palestinian people and the Israeli people to work together to forge the peace of the brave and to put an end to the conflict in the Middle East."