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…

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