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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”?

A: You have to follow all our resolutions concerning relations with Jordan. We said, according to our resolutions in the PNC, we insist on having a special relationship between the Jordanian and the Palestinian peoples, and our future relations have to be based on confederal relations between Jordan and Palestine. Concerning the first item, peace for land, or land for peace, this was adopted in our previous PNC resolutions.

Q: Many observers, when the Amman Agreement failed to produce a peace conference, pointed out that some of the old obstacles in the Palestinian conflict had resurfaced. One of those obstacles is the issue of PLO–Arab recognition of Israel. Do you consider that the Amman Agreement extended this recognition?

A: You are asking only for the PLO to recognize Israel, while Shamir and the Israeli military junta says, and are repeating daily: “We are not ready to deal with the PLO or to recognize the PLO even if the PLO recognizes Israel”? It seems that you are not following what they are saying. And who told you that [in the] Amman accord anyone asked me to do this, or deal with this point? Always in the West, you are always asking what the Israelis are looking for. It seems that you are completely unfair. And you are insisting not to be fair. Definitely! What is the meaning of only asking the victims to offer the concessions? Instead of asking me this point, you have to ask the invaders, the occupiers: Where are my rights? Where are the rights of my people? Where are the rights of my people to live as human beings?

The Amman Agreement failed because there was American pressure, and Israeli pressure, on Jordan to deal alone [with Israel] and not with the PLO, imagining that the moment King Hussein will do it [deal with Israel], all of our people will follow. What was the result now? It was misinformation given to the king. Because it was obvious and clear that our people are insisting to struggle against and to resist this occupation until they achieve their goals, and not to live as slaves. We have absolute support from all our masses inside our occupied territories and even outside our occupied territories. The “War of the Camps” [in Lebanon] is another picture of this strong support of our masses under the flag of the PLO.

Q: How do the Palestinians, who are the weaker party—

A: Who said the Palestinians are the weaker party?

Q: You said the Israelis were the invaders. It is they who have the territory—

A: It is true that we are under occupation, but we are not the weaker party. We are the military force which Israel failed to defeat. In 1982, when Alexander Haig and Sharon put this plan to invade the south of Lebanon and Beirut, they imagined that in two or three or five days, they can demolish the PLO and destroy its infrastructure. What happened? The longest Arab–Israeli confrontation. And their casualties in this war were more than in all the previous Arab–Israeli confrontations. If you remember, it is the only war which hasn’t a hero among the Israeli generals.

In every one of their wars, there is a hero. The Six Day War: Eitan. The Deversoir:3 Sharon. Jerusalem: Eitan. Who was in Golan? Another general in Golan, another in Sinai. Except there is no general who is daring to say: “I am behind this war.” It was the most harmful and serious war in which they lost these high casualties, and which pushed and obliged Begin to resign, while he was imagining that after this invasion he would be the second prophet of Israel. The first prophet was Ben-Gurion. Where is [Begin] now? Can you answer that? That man used to refuse to mention my name. He used to call me “the man with the beard.” He never used my name. Where is he now? Where is Sharon who, planning to be one of the big heroes of Israel, became one of the killers, criminals, killing our small kids in Sabra and Chatila. Where is Alexander Haig?

Q: Haig is running for president.

A: Well, it will be another disaster, after Irangate. Not only that, not only this longest Arab–Israeli confrontation: but also the most important and successful war of attrition which still continues in the south of Lebanon. During our meeting of the PNC, I received a warning from Rabin. He started his air raids against our refugee camps in the south of Lebanon. So who told you we are the weakest party? No, you are completely wrong. My theory: I am not a classical army, that he can conquer me in one battle. I can say proudly: Do you remember the name of their campaign? “Peace for Galilee.” So what is the meaning of the shelling of the Katyushas now [i.e. shelling by Palestinians in Lebanon on Israel]? Again. On the Galilee. This means that the invasion, the campaign, completely failed to prevent our Katyushas. We haven’t the ability to conquer them by knockout.

Q: There remains the problem of the occupied territories. You have not been able to regain one square inch of occupied territory.

A: No, no, no, no. It is not because of their superiority. But because we have our troubles inside our Arab area. One battle, similar to these battles [between Iran and Iraq] going on in the east side of Basra, will liberate all Palestine. No doubt. Can the Israelis face sixty thousand casualties in one battle? Can they? Answer me! Can they? Can they bear to have, in one battle, sixty thousand casualties? In one battle? It is not only for their superiority [that we have not regained territory], it is for our troubles inside our Arab field. Arab weak points. We have strong points and weak points.

Q: You are talking like a man of war, not like a man of peace. You were talking about an international peace conference a few moments ago.

A: I can’t let it pass when you say: “You are the weak party.” No, I am not the weak party. I am the man who is making the war. I am the man who is making the peace. You see?

Q: Well, let me ask you about peace. To have peace, real peace, you have to have the Israelis attending the international conference and making an agreement. You accept that idea?

A: No doubt.

Q: What incentive does Israel have to come to the conference when, for example, the National Covenant of the PLO says that, regardless of the passage of time, Jews do not have a right to nationhood?

A: You are speaking about our charter? You are completely neglecting the other charters? They wrote it in the entrance of the Knesset for many years, then after the big scandal they demolished it: “From the Euphrates to the Nile.” It is not only your attitude, but all the Western and American mass media. You are only taking the narrow, very narrow, Israeli point of view.

Q: I’m talking of practical politics. How do you—

A: Who imagined that what I said upon my departure from Beirut would become a reality, when I said the volcano and typhoon which started in Beirut will not stop. It will continue to act in the whole area. Nobody intended to listen to me. Remember? Nobody intended to listen to me. What happened to the American Marines? What happened to your embassies? Twice. Now your hostages. The typhoon has passed us and now we are calculating our casualties. But the others will calculate in the future, as we are calculating now, their casualties. I am not speaking only of human casualties. No. Their losses. Their losses, including the American interests in this area. Still, the American administration is following blindly the Israeli advisers in your policy, while they are pushing you to more and more disasters.

Once in 1979, Brzezinski gave an important slogan: “Bye-bye PLO.” After two months, I was in Tehran saying to him: “Bye-bye Brzezinski.” Who can imagine that America will lose one of its strongest bases? Now you are trying to recover it through Irangate. I know that. But it will cost you a lot. And if you are speaking about the charters again, you have to remember that the Israelis should recognize first the resolutions of the United Nations, according to (one of) which they became a state. Israel is the only state which was created by one of the United Nations resolutions. And Israel is the only state which still refuses all United Nations resolutions, except 242. Syria accepted 242. Jordan accepted 242. Why hasn’t Syria achieved the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights? Until now, Golan is under the Israeli occupation. So even 242 has not been fully accepted by the Israelis.

Q: But if you are going to have another international conference, one thinks that the Israelis have got to have an incentive to come, don’t they?

A: Yes, they have to come.

Q: But if you deny them—

A: I am not like Begin, who refused in 1981, when the American special envoy Mr. Philip Habib came. You remember the truce of 1981 between me and the Israelis [in southern Lebanon]? You remember the Israelis refused to make the agreement of the cease-fire with the PLO? As if they are dealing with ghosts. Okay, so the agreement was done, but not directly. Indirectly. I am not Begin. I know that they are my enemy, and that they are occupying my country, and I have to deal with them. Simple and clear. So I know that if there will be an international conference, they will be—I mean the Israelis—will be a main party in this conference.

Q: What incentive will they have to come?

A: They want baksheesh? A tip? They want a tip?

Q: They have the land now.

A: Oh, but they haven’t security. They haven’t security. They haven’t peace. They will be obliged to make peace or they will lose everything. Did you follow what [General Yehoshafat] Harkabi wrote? Formerly of the Israeli military intelligence service. Remember him? Did you follow what he wrote? He said that it was for the sake of the existence of Israel that we have to accept the rights of the Palestinians to have their independent state. I’m a man of history. My vision is guiding me, my clear vision. It is not by chance that the currents of peace are increasing daily inside Israel. Many of the Israelis begin to understand and discover the realities and the facts. They can’t demolish five million Palestinians. They can’t annihilate them. We are not the Red Indians. You see? Do you know why? It is not only a military issue. No. Hitler succeeded once upon a time to conquer all the big powers within two or three years and occupied all Europe, North Africa, and arrived at the gates of Moscow. This is not the real power. Real power is something completely different. This is the arrogance of power. The most fatal mistake of this Israeli military junta is that they have the complex of the arrogance of power. This is their suicidal mistake.

Q: But you have noted changes in Israel. Do you think these are taking place among Israeli leaders?

A:…We are hearing it from a man like [General] Harkabi, Abba Eban, [Ezer] Weizman, the Peace Now movement. Now between twenty-six and twenty-eight of the Israeli [Knesset] members have declared officially, and in a written declaration, that they accepted the rights of Palestinians to have their independent state and self-determination.4 When, some years ago, nobody had the ability to mention it. And for the first time, the Israeli Knesset approved this shameful and Nazi-like resolution which prohibits any contacts with the PLO.

Q: One of the obstacles to peace, in your view, has been the Israeli refusal to accept Palestinian self-determination and an independent state—

A: No. The obstacle is the USA administration. I know there is a strong Israeli lobby in America, no doubt of it. But I will tell you a story. Do you remember this big Turkish [invasion] in Cyprus in 1974? Remember Kissinger then prevented any military or financial help to Turkey. He stopped everything. When they asked him why, he said, “I am facing this Greek lobby. It is a very strong lobby. I can’t face it.” Then in 1979, when they lost their strongest base in Iran, they completely forgot everything about this Greek lobby and they pushed again with all their power to recover their relationship with the Turkish government. More help, more assistance. Where was the Greek lobby? Vanished?

When this American administration will find that their interest is to follow up with the international conference and to find peace in this area, they will search not only for me, but for any Palestinian to speak with him. And they will say, “We have five million Arabs in the United States. We can’t avoid them.”

Q: You talked of the peace-for-land principle. What is your vision of a Palestinian state?

A: I am looking to have a place under the sun for our new generations to live in peace far away from repression, from terrorism, to live as human beings freely in this free world. That is what I am looking for. I am not asking for the moon. I am asking for the United Nations legality to be implemented.

Q: Where would be the territory? Would it be a Gaza–West Bank state?

A: Don’t forget you are asking the chairman of the PLO, so I have to respect exactly all the resolutions which have been adopted by the PNC. So I will repeat exactly one of the important resolutions. We said we are ready to establish our independent state in any part from which the Israelis withdraw or which is liberated. Any part. The moment they withdraw from Gaza, I will establish my state there in Gaza. If they withdraw from Jericho, I will raise my flag in Jericho.

Q: Israelis tell their children that if the Palestinians have a state in Gaza, or in Jericho, or throughout the West Bank, it will be a menace to Israel.

A: And what about the thirty-seven nuclear bombs which they have. Don’t you know that this is a silly theatrical issue? They have a huge force, with atomic-bomb teeth. And don’t forget the Israelis were behind all the wars in this area from 1947 until now…. They have the ability to penetrate the Pentagon with Pollard and they are afraid of some refugee camps? It is a scandal. Shameful.

Q: You yourself asserted that the Israelis are not the stronger party. Don’t they have to be worried about hostile neighbors?

A: They will be afraid of the Palestinian people? I have a solution. I agree for the United Nations forces to be on the borders between me and them for any period of time. Okay? Ezer Weizman challenged me a few days ago to accept an Israeli–Palestinian confederation. I am challenging him to accept the democratic state where both of us can live in this democratic state. What confederation? No. One democratic state. He declared one offer, I am declaring the other offer. With two communities.

Q: Was there anything positive in Weizman’s offer?

A: It is another face in the new atmosphere of many leaders inside Israel. No doubt it is something new. Actually, he is a Palestinian. He was born in Haifa.

At this point, after about an hour and a half, Arafat broke off the interview. Although he had shown impatience with some of my questions, he was in fact due to leave the villa within minutes so that he could fly to Baghdad. The sitting room where we talked had by now filled up with numerous advisers, and with well-wishers who had arrived to say good-bye. Outside the villa, Arafat’s aides were putting their suitcases into the official cars supplied by the Algerian government. With much more to discuss, I told him that we needed more time. Arafat replied amiably: “If you want to follow up, I am inviting you to come visit me in Baghdad. We can arrange another meeting.” On May 14, I met with Arafat in Tunis; the second part of the interview will be published in the next issue of The New York Review.

  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)

  3. 3

    A turning point of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war occurred when Israeli forces commanded by Sharon counter-attacked the Egyptian Army by crossing to the west bank of the Suez Canal at Deversoir.

  4. 4

    Arafat apparently refers here to a statement issued in February by the Israeli International Center for Peace in the Middle East and signed by sixty-six present and past members of the Knesset, as well as by the mayors of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, among other prominent Israelis. The statement said, in part, “the time has come to establish a peace of mutual recognition, based on territorial compromise and self-determination,” and it called upon “the two sides to the conflict to overcome the barriers of enmity and open negotiations for peace without preconditions.”

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