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An Interview with Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, seemed tired when I met him at a villa on the outskirts of Algiers on the afternoon of April 27. He said he was. As we were about to talk, an aide came into the room with a glass of water and some pills for him to swallow. He sneezed, and was handed some pink tissues. Before I arrived at the villa, in a compound on the Mediterranean Sea, he had removed his customary kaffiyeh headdress. His baldness made him look unfamiliar and, for a moment, stripped of the image he has projected for two decades as leader of the Palestinian guerrillas.

Our meeting took place a few days before Foreign Minister Shimon Peres indicated that he would press the Israeli cabinet to endorse Israel’s participation in an international peace conference on the Middle East. Two weeks later, on May 13, after he failed to gain the support of a majority of the cabinet Peres called for new elections “to let the people decide.” Consultations for convening an international conference, including behind-the-scenes talks between the United States, Israel, and Jordan, had been gaining momentum since Peres’s summit meeting, when he was prime minister, with President Mubarak of Egypt last September. The two leaders designated 1987 as “a year of negotiations for peace.”

Arafat was tired because a day earlier the 18th session of the Palestine National Council (PNC), which Palestinians describe as their “parliament in exile,” had ended a week of important deliberations. The session was the occasion for the reunification, at least temporarily, of Arafat’s Fatah guerrilla organization, by far the largest of the PLO groups, with the smaller radical PLO factions which, since 1983, had rebelled against Arafat’s leadership and policies.

Arafat as the political boss had put in eighteen-hour days at the session of the PNC, giving speeches, arranging deals, and, most exhausting of all, trying to resist the continuing demands of his opponents inside the PLO that he take a tougher line toward Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. In the end Arafat was reelected chairman, and the conference—besides reiterating longstanding PLO positions on continuing the “armed struggle” against Israel and establishing an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem—approved his proposal supporting the idea of an international peace conference. But as the price for once again heading a unified PLO, Arafat submitted to radical demands that he cancel the PLO’s Amman Agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein and downgrade his special relationship with President Mubarak because of Egypt’s adherence to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

An hour before the interview was to take place, Arafat received word that Mubarak had shut down the PLO’s offices in Cairo, sealing their doors with wax, in retaliation for the PNC’s actions concerning Egypt. In the circumstances, he was irritable and his aides suggested to me that he might postpone our talk; but apparently they persuaded him to go ahead with it. A month earlier, he had agreed to make himself available for an extensive interview with me immediately following the PNC meeting so that I could discuss with him his latest thinking about an international peace conference, the possibility of an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians, the PLO’s strategy, Palestinian terrorism, Arafat’s relations with Arab leaders, as well as other matters. Arafat spoke in English.

(S.M.)

Q: Here in Algiers, the Palestine National Council (PNC) and the PLO Executive Committee have declared their support for an international conference on the Middle East. Are you optimistic that a conference will be held in the foreseeable future?

A: It [support for an international conference] was adopted in the PNC clearly and obviously. We hope at least that there will be the meeting of the Preparatory Committee, which they used to call the Initiative Committee, this year. We hope so. Now there is a consensus concerning the international conference. There was the Soviet–French initiative during the visit of President Mitterrand to Moscow. There was the official statement from the Chinese government. There was the EEC’s latest declaration concerning the international conference…which refers to self-determination of the Palestinian people and the participation of the PLO. It was also accepted at the Harare summit conference [of the Non-Aligned Movement in Zimbabwe] and reaffirmed at the Islamic summit conference. There was the very important resolution at the Arab summit conference in Casablanca. And for the first time, the American administration has declared its approval for the idea of the international conference in principle, or in general. And for the first time, there is a split inside the Israeli cabinet—a part of this Israeli cabinet has accepted this international conference, although they are looking to the international conference from their point of view.

Q: You mention the American position. How much faith do you put in this American position?

A: I know the American administration is trying to refurbish its image after Irangate, especially in the Middle East and among their friends in this area. No doubt about it. We are following it. But, it is the first time that they began to put it into their consideration.

Q: What about the Israeli side? You mentioned the split in the government in Israel. What positive things do you see coming out of that?

A: According to my information, now about sixty-two members of the Knesset are with the idea of an international conference.

Q: Does that mean there is progress?

A: No doubt. For the first time they have begun to accept this idea. Not all of them, but a very important part of them. The Labor Party, with others. No doubt they have their own point of view about the whole idea. But for the first time they have accepted the idea…. It is obvious and clear there is a consensus, an international, global consensus, for the first time for the idea of an international conference.

Q: How has the PLO’s thinking evolved on the idea of an international conference? You were not always for the idea as a way of resolving the Middle East dispute.

A: Yes we have been. No doubt about it. Because we have two options: to continue in this very tough military confrontation between us and them, or to find the solution through the United Nations, and this means the international conference, to achieve a lasting and permanent solution to the Middle East crisis.

Q: Have you thought about the modalities of such a conference? Who would attend and what would be its objectives?

A: First of all it is clear, according to all these resolutions that I have mentioned to you, that this international conference [would convene] with the participation of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and with the participation of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict, including the PLO with equal footing.

Q: How do you define the relevant parties? Would all Arab states attend the conference?

A: No doubt the concerned Arab states. Syria. Lebanon. Jordan. Egypt. PLO.

Q: Besides the Arab states, I assume you intend that Israel participate.

A: We are not going, the Arabs, alone. If there is any Arab problem we can solve it inside the Arab League. But we are going to deal with the other side, with the Israelis…. It is not me who will decide who will invite, to speak frankly. It is not me, it is not the Arab side, it is not the Israelis who will decide who will invite. At least the five permanent members [of the United Nations Security Council], or the two superpowers, will decide who will invite.

Q: What is the PLO’s political position going into a peace conference? In 1985, the PLO signed the Amman Agreement1 with King Hussein, and this had served as a basis or a process for bringing about an international conference—

A: According to what was decided at the Arab summit conference in Casablanca—when both of us, His Majesty the King and me, participated in this conference addressing all points of view concerning this accord—it was decided that this Jordanian–Palestinian accord was one of the mechanisms to implement the Fez peace project.2 And to be more specific on this point, it was the second mechanism for this purpose. The first mechanism was the “follow-up committee,” which was headed by King Hassan, and by King Hussein later. And when this “follow-up committee” stopped, the Arab summit conference decided that this Jordanian–Palestinian accord was the second mechanism. Now we have to find a third mechanism. And for this, I gave my very famous statement that we are ready to participate in the international conference through an independent Palestinian delegation or through a joint Arab delegation. For me, this is the third mechanism to implement the Fez Arab peace project.

Q: On the eve of the PNC meeting here in Algiers, the PLO Executive Committee declared the Amman Agreement to be nullified. Is this to say that the PLO Executive Committee has renounced the important policy statements which were contained in the agreement? I refer specifically to the three main points: the acceptance of the principle of “land for peace,” the right of Palestinians to self-determination within a confederation between the states of Jordan and Palestine, and PLO participation in a peace conference within a joint Jordanian–Palestinian delegation.

A: First of all, we have to be fair. The PLO was not behind the canceling of this agreement. It was the Jordanian authority. King Hussein last year insisted on stopping all coordination with the PLO concerning this accord. Not only that, he said: “I will not coordinate with this leadership.” Now there is a new leadership. I don’t know if he will refuse to deal with this new leadership after the PNC meeting or not. But he declared that he will not coordinate with the PLO concerning this accord. Then with whom? He signed this accord with the PLO, with the chairman of the PLO. I gave him a fifteen-month trial period, but without any response from His Majesty to give any signal for his desire or his approval to deal with this accord.

Not only that, he took some very serious and major steps against our bureaus and against our cadres, who have been expelled from Amman. And when I met His Majesty during the Islamic summit conference, we agreed to open a new page. We sent Abu Jihad, my deputy, and Hani Hassan, my political adviser, to Amman. But without any response. They didn’t meet with the king. They didn’t meet with the king, and the prime minister didn’t meet them either. It was obvious and clear that the king and the Jordanian government are not willing to carry on in coordination with the PLO. Love was only one-sided.

Q: But does the PLO adhere to the principles which were enunciated in the Amman Agreement, for example the principle of exchanging “land for peace”?

  1. 1

    The Amman Agreement of February 11, 1985, declared that the PLO and Jordan would seek a “peaceful and just settlement” of the Middle East conflict on the basis of five principles: “(1) Total withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 for comprehensive peace as established in United Nations and Security Council resolutions. (2) Right of self-determination for the Palestinian people: Palestinians will exercise their inalienable right of self-determination when Jordanians and Palestinians will be able to do so within the context of the formation of the proposed confederated states of Jordan and Palestine. (3) Resolution of the problem of Palestinian refugees in accordance with United Nations resolutions. (4) Resolution of the Palestine question in all its aspects. (5) And on this basis, peace negotiations will be conducted under the auspices of an international conference in which the five permanent members of the Security Council and all the parties to the conflict will participate, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, within a joint delegation (joint Jordanian–Palestinian delegation).” (Source: Government of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan)

  2. 2

    An Arab summit meeting in Fez, Morocco, issued a peace proposal on September 9, 1982 based on the following principles: “(1) The withdrawal of Israel from all Arab territories occupied in 1967 including Arab Al Qods (Jerusalem). (2) The dismantling of settlements established by Israel on the Arab territories after 1967. (3) The guarantee of freedom of worship and practice of religious rites for all religions in the holy shrine. (4) The reaffirmation of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and the exercise of its imprescriptible and inalienable national rights under the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, its sole and legitimate representative, and the indemnification of all those who do not desire to return. (5) Placing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under the control of the United Nations for a transitional period not exceeding a few months. (6) The establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Al Qods as its capital. (7) The Security Council guarantees peace among all states of the region including the independent Palestinian state. (8) The Security Council guarantees the respect of these principles. (Source: Arab League)

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