Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat; drawing by David Levine


Street names in Tunis are a nice mix of colonial French and third world nationalism. The Avenue de France intersects the rue Gamal Abdul Nasser. Raspail runs into Lumumba; Jaurès into Palestine. Driving out the rue Palestine, lined with garages and hardware stores, one quickly reaches the wide belt of new garden suburbs that rings Tunis to the north all the way up to the ruins of Carthage. In Sidi Bou Said, the picturesque old fishermen’s village, now a luxury resort, guides show you the house where André Gide lived and the sumptuous villa where, in 1988, Khalil al Wasir (alias Abu Jihad, the PLO’s minister of war) was assassinated by Israeli commandos.

The nearby suburbs of al Manzah and al Manar are less chic; many streets are so new that they have only numbers, and some are not yet paved. But the lawns and flowering flame trees behind the high garden walls and forged iron gates are well tended. In their driveways one spots Mercedeses and other luxury cars.

Into this well-to-do, even bucolic world of middle-class and upper-middle-class comfort, the desk-bound guerrilla leaders and revolutionaries of the Palestine Liberation Organization withdrew, in the early Eighties, after their forced ouster from Beirut along with an army of bodyguards, bureaucrats, and butlers and an annual income variously estimated at around one billion dollars. (The PLO fighting army of some twenty thousand men was not allowed into Tunisia; they are said to be encamped in Libya and South Yemen.) Yasir Arafat himself picked Tunisia for his new headquarters because of the relative political—though not military—freedom he was offered at the instigation of the French and the Greek governments, and because of President Bourguiba’s wife, Vasilla, a long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause. A formal accord signed between the two sides spelled out the military restrictions. Other Arab countries at that time imposed more severe limitations on the PLO, and Syria was actually waging war against them.

A decade later, here at al Manzah and al Manar, the surviving guerrilla leaders are still around, each with his chef de cabinet, his fax machines and computers, his fleet of luxury cars fitted with cellular phones, grim-looking bodyguards, and burgeoning retinues of counselors, secretaries, valets, maids, chauffeurs, and cooks. Palestine is more than a thousand miles away. But Sharp, the Japanese electronic company, has custom-built an elaborate communication system enabling PLO members to keep in touch with their men and women throughout the Arab world.

There has been no lack of friction over the years with the Tunisian government. The authorities have clamped down whenever the Palestinians seemed to violate the original accord or threaten, by their very presence, the thriving Tunisian tourist industry. In 1985, the Israeli air force bombed a PLO command post outside Hamam al Shat, north of the city of Tunis, in retaliation against a Palestinian terrorist attack on Israeli yachtsmen in Cyprus. The Tunisian government immediately ordered Palestinian “military” personnel removed from Tunisia and the Palestinians no longer could launch terrorist attacks from Tunisian bases, or at least they hid them more carefully. By and large they have been allowed by a sympathetic regime to pursue their political cause. They remain under constant surveillance by the mukhabarat, the Tunisian secret police.

There is no central PLO administration building in Tunis. Offices are spread out in various suburban villas, large and small, in al Manzah and al Manar, much like those of the FLN leaders in the Fifties, but more comfortable and with the latest electronic gadgetry—revolutionary technology having impressively advanced since that time. It is the government of a phantom—some say a pantomime—state, elected by a phantom parliament from throughout the Palestinian diaspora (a parliament not unlike the Zionist congresses of old, and as ridden by rivalries and schisms). The leader is still Yasir Arafat, as it has been since 1969. The man who often proclaimed in the past that he didn’t want peace—“We want war, victory. Peace for us means the destruction of Israel”1—has in the past four years, under pressure from the Palestinians trapped in the occupied territories and from the US, recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and renounced terrorism. He insists he now favors a two-state solution, with Palestine and Israel living peacefully side by side. In Madrid and Washington he has been negotiating a peace settlement with Israel indirectly, through Palestinian delegates from the occupied territories. They fly in and out of Tunis constantly to receive instructions from him.

At sixty-four, he is a short, plump man, with oddly protruding eyes, wide hips, small pale hands with veins that stand out like river systems. Recovering from head injuries incurred in an airplane crash last year, he is almost completely bald under the checked kaffiyeh which he wears whenever a visitor or photographer is in sight. The trademark beard, now graying, is said to have been inspired by Fidel Castro.


Arafat’s public image is still that of a romantic guerrilla fighter. He is always in uniform, never without a Smith and Wesson pistol on his hip. Yet he is first and foremost an accomplished politician, or, some would say, superb actor. No other third world figure has been so adept in the successful use of the mass media. In the words of Edward Said, Arafat has put “the Palestinians as a group in circulation.” Thomas L. Friedman, who first knew him in the squalor and relative obscurity of the Beirut Palestinian slums, wrote that he was the “Teflon guerrilla—nothing stuck to Yasir Arafat, not bullets, not criticism, not any particular political position; and most of all, not failure.” And, as Friedman wrote, he succeeded almost single-handedly in bringing the Palestinians out of the deserts of obscurity into prime time.

He has been an embarrassment for most Arab governments; at the same time he has managed to play them off against one another for financial support. And he was able to keep together his loose band of warring politicians, gunmen, guerrillas, mullahs, Marxist intellectuals, and excited youngsters (mesmerized by the successes of the Algerian FLN, Fidel Castro, and Baader-Meinhof) who, even before there was a Palestinian state, were ready to tear it apart. He gave them a sense of cohesion. Even as a leader of hijackers and terrorists he has achieved an international standing for his PLO that no other national independence movement or raw terrorists ever had since the days of Gandhi and Nehru in India and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in the 1960s.

For decades, every twist and turn in the rise and fortunes of the PLO and the inflection of every statement by Arafat was scrutinized internationally to prove one point or its opposite. He was the first and, as far as I can tell, the only leader of a national independence movement invited to address the United Nations and to open the embassy of a nonexistent state in dozens of foreign countries. He made it impossible to look at the Middle East, and at Israel, without also seeing the Palestinians. The Kurds, the Basques, the radical wing of the IRA, the Angolans—to mention only a few—have never come anywhere near to such recognition or to the accumulation of a multibillion-dollar investment portfolio, one large enough that the interest supports a great many military and civilian payrolls.

By what means Arafat and the PLO achieved all this is a question worthy of some discussion. No other guerrilla movement has ever forced itself with such ruthlessness and indiscriminate violence on uninvolved third parties as Palestinians have done since 1968. Arafat initiated a mounting cycle of violence, counterviolence, and oppression until, in the end, Israeli ruthlessness was beginning to match his own. The Kurds, the Armenians, the Afghans have never blown up or hijacked Swiss, American, German, French, or Belgian airplanes, or randomly thrown bombs into foreign mosques and air terminals that have killed and maimed innocent bystanders. Only the IRA and the Basque ETA can claim to compete with the PLO in these respects. The PLO’s standing in Europe, and elsewhere, may have benefited from the long-standing, perhaps unconscious sediments of anti-Semitism and at the same time from a sense of guilt over the fact that the Palestinians, who bore no responsibilty for the crimes of anti-Semitism in Europe, were in the end punished for them.

The cold war and the oil crisis of 1973 greatly increased the international impact of the PLO. The romantic enthusiasm for their cause seemed part, paradoxically, of the Arab oil boom. In addition, the Communist bloc helped to provide the Palestinians with weapons, safe havens, and political support. A generation of Fatah field officers was trained in Soviet army academies. The use of Semtex explosives was taught in Czech and East German army installations. Such unity within the ranks as Arafat was able to maintain (there were frequent schisms) came at the price of courting the lowest common denominator. Yasir Abed Rabuh, a member of the Executive Committee who was active for years in Nayif Hawatmeh’s Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told me that there were always many good reasons to criticize Arafat, but not even his loudest opponents within the movement have ever accused him of being “undemocratic.” I understood this to mean that he was always eager to maintain a consensus.


Arafat flies in and out of Tunis almost every day in his private jet. This June during my visit, he went abroad every other day; an aide told me he visited, among other destinations, Cairo, Amman, Vienna, and Saudi Arabia. Almost as frequently in the air are the fifteen members of the PLO Executive Committee, who come directly under Arafat in the hierarchy and who mostly live in Tunis. A PLO staff of eight is on duty at the airport around the clock to help with their arrivals and departures. “I practically live at the airport,” one of them told me.


The executives head a dozen semi-ministerial departments charged with specific responsibilities: political—or foreign—affairs, administration, culture, finance, education, youth, propaganda, and welfare. The Israeli military government has never succeeded in blocking the transfer of PLO funds into the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Through its subsidies, salaries, and welfare payments, the PLO is the second most important employer in Gaza and in the West Bank. According to a recent report in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, citing Arab sources, the various PLO departments pay out 16,000 monthly pensions to the families of Palestinian convicted prisoners, detainees, and casualties of the Israeli army. In addition, the organization pays salaries to 23,000 Palestinian teachers, youth leaders, welfare and hospital workers, and activists of professional and civic organizations in the West Bank and Gaza—lawyers, newspapermen, trade-union activists, and the like.

It is easy to mock the vanity postage stamps and passports issued by other PLO departments in Tunis which cannot be used to mail a letter or enter a foreign country. And yet the PLO is recognized today by over a hundred governments. It maintains embassies or diplomatic representations in ninety-two countries. On the surface the twenty-seven-year-old Israeli taboo on negotiations with the PLO is being upheld, although top Israeli officials openly admit that by negotiating with PLO militants in the occupied territories they are in fact negotiating with Arafat and the PLO.

The PLO’s administrative staff has been steadily growing in recent years. Yasir Arafat is surrounded by advisers with staffs of their own. According to one adviser, Bassam Abu Sharif, Arafat’s presidential office alone employs nearly one thousand people (excluding bodyguards). Arafat has his own foreign relations staff independent of that under Faruk Kadumi, head of the PLO foreign affairs department. The total number of PLO employees in Tunis is close to five thousand, Abu Sharif told me. “You might say we are a medium-sized state,” he added with a wry smile. Arafat’s press secretary, Ra’ada Taha, cites a lower figure, maintaining that there are not more than 2,500 on the payroll. Even if the number is only 2,000, it is difficult to imagine what they might all be doing. “You certainly qualify as a modern state, seeing that you already have a big, idle bureaucracy,” a foreign visitor, in a light moment, recently told Arafat, who did not find it amusing. Because of a drastic cut in income, the PLO has recently been in serious financial difficulties.

The financial crisis is one of the results of the Gulf War during which Arafat and the PLO sided with Iraq, although Arafat now says that they had been “misunderstood.”2 The lack of funds and the deadlocked peace talks with Israel are the two major concerns of the Palestinians I met in Tunis. The big shots around Arafat (though he himself only very rarely) have often been criticized for their ostentatious habits in Tunis and abroad, their lavish expense accounts, elegant clothes, cars, servants, and villas; they are accused of traveling first class and reserving the best suites in deluxe hotels. Arafat furiously stormed out of a Fatah central committee meeting in mid-June after being accused by several committee members of financial mismanagement and of, as they put it, allowing some of his closest aides to dip into PLO funds to finance private business ventures around the world.

Against the background of such criticism, the sudden shortfall of available funds has hit the PLO fairly hard. Income from its own investments has always been supplemented by direct funding from Arab governments and by the proceeds of a special surtax levied on salaries of Palestinian workers by the governments of the Gulf Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the war, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia ceased all or most of their direct aid to the PLO. They also blocked the tax money withheld from salaried Palestinians; much of it came anyway from Kuwait, where most Palestinians had been expelled after the war. According to Bassam Abu Sharif, Kuwait alone owes the PLO close to $300 million.

Early last May the London Arabic weekly Alwast claimed that the PLO has had to cut its administrative budget by half, from $320 to $140 million annually. The paper did not supply details. It quoted a PLO diplomat saying the budget of PLO “embassies” and “diplomatic representations” worldwide was cut by 30 percent. Ahmed Kria, the PLO’s finance minister, was quoted in the same weekly as saying that salaries had been cut by 18 percent and that there were difficulties in financing the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks in Washington. Bassam Abu Sharif denies some of these reports but he confirmed to me that his own salary has been cut by 34 percent. There were reports in mid-June of violent demonstrations by Fatah soldiers in Libya protesting the nonpayment of their salaries.

The release of blocked accounts in the Emirates and the resumption of direct financial aid from Saudi Arabia, I was told, had been one of the conditions the PLO tried to impose before it agreed to allow the Palestinian delegates from the occupied territories to return to the Washington peace talks. The attempt failed. The Saudis were ready to resume payments but insisted on channeling them directly to Palestinian institutions in the occupied territories, thereby sidestepping the PLO. Another condition was the return of Hamas militants deported by Israel earlier this year. Under heavy pressure from the Arab countries the PLO agreed to allow the resumption of the peace talks in Washington anyway.

At this point, suddenly, the West Bank and Gaza delegates, in the egotistic isolation of their despair, balked. They always claimed the PLO was their leader. But as the talks resumed they went beyond the agreed timetables and raised new demands—a statement of principles on the nature of the ultimate settlement and on the status of Jerusalem. This caused the last round of talks to end in deadlock. It became obvious that Arafat and the PLO in Tunis were more moderate and more accommodating than PLO militants in the occupied territories, who in the aftermath of the intifada had forced the moderate line on Arafat in the first place. The Israelis had always insisted that the opposite was true.

A Western diplomat in Tunis says that for several years now a sense of being “respectable” and “established” has settled over this odd community of unrequited but materially comfortable revolutionaries. Several are still in their late forties and early fifties but they are becoming pot-bellied and gray. According to a Western diplomat who has known them for years, several fear that time may be running out for them. They seek a breakthrough in their lifetimes. Of the so-called “generation of revenge”—the original five founders of Fatah,3 the leading group within the PLO—only Arafat, Faruk Kadumi, and Khalid al Hassan survive.

Kadumi is known as the leading hard-liner within this ruling group. He, too, seems to have mellowed over the years. In 1988 he voted in favor of recognizing and negotiating with Israel though at the same time calling for a continued “armed struggle. We cannot abandon the military struggle against Israel despite the recent peace efforts.” 4 Hassan is the main ideologist of Fatah, hence also of the PLO. He was the first prominent leader to dare say publicly that the Palestinians were only inviting their own disaster by spurning all diplomatic approaches to a settlement. He once told an interviewer: “I never held a gun in my hands, even during the worst of times.” Hassan was the main architect of the breakthrough resolution by the PLO National Council in 1988 endorsing the two-state solution and UN Security Council Resolutions 224 and 338.5 Only a short time earlier, American requests that the PLO unequivocally endorse these resolutions so as to allow the beginning of a dialogue with the United States had been dismissed by Palestinian spokesmen as “breathtaking arrogance” and “unheard-of demands.” Hassan convinced the national council to change its mind. He is a rich businessman now, a major importer of Japanese electronic goods to the Gulf Emirates.

Arafat too, in a sense, has settled down. He once lived out of a suitcase, and in Beirut, for security reasons, was constantly on the run, rarely sleeping more than a night or two under the same roof. He now has a permanent home in Tunis. He used to tell reporters that he had no time for women (“I am married to the Palestinian revolution”). Last year, at sixty-two, he married a young Christian Palestinian woman more than thirty years his junior, the daughter of a well-to-do banker now living in Paris and of the well-known Palestinian militant Raimonda Tawil. The marriage was kept secret for some time until it was leaked, probably by the Mossad, to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Arafat’s working habits have changed. Partly because he kept such irregular hours and partly as a public relations trick, Arafat used to oblige reporters to wait for weeks to interview him. Distinguished columnists, who would hardly put up with such antics from their own president, hung around hotel rooms for days or even weeks waiting for a phone call that would order them, sometimes at 3 AM, to be ready within minutes for the coveted interview. Nowadays you call Arafat’s office from abroad and are given a reasonable date for an interview well beforehand. Such little differences should not be overrated, but they give you some sense of the man today. Arafat’s new permanent living quarters are above his office in Al Manzah. It is a spacious comfortable place, with several guest rooms, where his new mother-in-law stays on her frequent visits to Tunis.


A few hours after my arrival in Tunis, Arafat’s press secretary, Ra’ada Taha, met me and two other Israeli journalists in the lobby of our hotel and drove us in her little car to Arafat’s headquarters. The two others were Zvi Barel, deputy editor of Ha’aretz, and Danny Rubinstein, that paper’s Arab affairs columnist. Ms. Taha’s name sounded familiar to Rubinstein and she immediately agreed that it might be. Yes, her father Aly Taha had been the commander of a spectacular but abortive attempt in 1972 to hijack a Sabena airliner at Tel Aviv airport. He was shot dead by Israeli soldiers. She had been a little girl then, and has since been graduated from an American university. After a short ride through the dark suburban streets, the car stopped at a brightly illuminated villa surrounded by a high wall. A dozen men armed with automatic rifles lolled about or leaned against the garden wall. A Tunisian sentry stood watch in a wooden booth. Behind the garden gate there were more armed men muttering welcome, welcome, while they carefully fingered through our trouser legs and crotches, and whisked electronic metal detectors up and down our backs and chests.

Inside, in the lobby of the fairly large two-story villa, a circular staircase led upstairs to the private rooms. The ground floor was all offices. Telephones were ringing simultaneously in several rooms. On the walls, everywhere, hung large poster-sized photographs of Arafat: Arafat shouldering a gun or riding in an open command car, inspecting the troops, caressing a child; Arafat with the Pope; Arafat with Abu Iyad, the number-two man in the PLO mysteriously gunned down on the eve of the Gulf War.

After we stood around for a few minutes a dark-stained wooden door was thrown open and we entered Arafat’s office. We found ourselves in a long, large room. At one end was Arafat’s oval shaped desk; the wall behind it was entirely covered by a giant photograph of Jerusalem, the Mosque of Omar in the foreground, and all the Israeli buildings behind and along the horizon smoothly blotted out. At the other end of the room, under another large portrait of Arafat, a television set was tuned to CNN. When he sits at his desk Arafat can look at himself on the other side of the room.

He stood by his desk, his pistol on his hip, with his arms broadly stretched out toward Danny Rubinstein, calling out, “Danny, Danny! I read everything you write! Everything! Truly! It’s on my desk here the same morning.” The large room was crowded with Arafat’s aides and advisers. He was the smallest among them. He was also the only one, including even the guards outside, wearing a uniform. It was a well-pressed, hand-tailored affair in dark green cloth decorated with several colored insignia. Under a red, gold, and white Palestinian badge on his shoulder, he had a special pocket on his left arm holding two ballpoints and a Cross pen.

His short stature is surprising if you have seen him only on television. The face, fleshy yet with narrow cheekbones, and with the thin stubble of a beard—said to be five days old—was framed by the checked scarf and matching headgear knotted on his mid-forehead. He smoothes the folded end over his right shoulder as he moves and you see again that the headgear is a gimmick of his own making, part of the show that has made his face one of the best known in the world. The large bulging eyes with their dilated pupils fix upon you with a shining stare when he speaks, but the most striking thing about his face are the lips, the lower one so thick it looks as though he has been stung by a bee, and so red you might think he uses lipstick.

We settled along a large horseshoe-shaped table facing his desk. Arafat began in a soft voice. While he spoke, often searching for words, he paused to smile, the long coquettish smile of one used to being adored. War images from Bosnia-Herzegovina glimmered on the TV facing his desk. He asked solemnly: “Are you ready to make the decisive step—peace with the Palestinians? Because we are ready. We offer total peace in return for total withdrawal.”

He added that he would prefer a complete settlement immediately. He was sure that we would as well, if only we were as familiar as he was with the details of the Palestinian tragedy. Still, he could not realistically imagine it would happen in a single stage. An interim autonomy in Gaza first would be a possibility, but on condition it was in the context of an interim self-government somewhere on the West Bank, say, in Jericho. Otherwise he could be accused of abandoning the West Bank. And there would have to be a corridor connecting Gaza and the West Bank, like that to Berlin before 1989, but internationally guaranteed. (An American intermediary in May took a message to this effect to President Clinton in Washington, who did not respond.) Gaza was Israel’s Soweto, Arafat said, but despite the widespread chaos and misery there and the lack of a local economic infrastructure, he was perfectly capable of taking over there and keeping it calm. “Remember,” he added pointedly, “I governed Lebanon for ten years.” (An aide corrected him: “Controlled Lebanon!” He repeated: “I controlled Lebanon for ten years. Things were definitely more complicated there than in Gaza.”)

He complained that from the very beginning of the current peace talks, the Israeli side has been trying to stall while building settlements at the same time in the occupied territories. “We, on the other hand, proved our good faith by going to Madrid despite Shamir’s bad terms. Give me another example in history,” he raised his voice, “where one side allowed the other to dictate who his representatives at a negotiation must be. We agreed even to this because we desire peace.”

He spoke slowly, in halting English, in a peculiar, at times moving, combination of outrage and irony, although his sentences were clumsily composed. At one point, when he was complaining about the harshness of the Israeli occupation regime and Zvi Barel, interjecting, remarked, “Yes, but it forges you as a nation,” Arafat snapped, “Thank you! Thank you!” Later he rebuked us for “not following the details of our tragedy! It is a problem even for Palestinians to bury their dead! I spent days to find a place to bury a Palestinian who had died in Moscow recently. It took me ten days to finally find one in Jordan.” He can be ludicrous: “Why are Israeli leaders spoiling Judaism? It’s such a pity!” Or coy: he claims that unlike Rabin he has a solution for Jerusalem, but he prefers not to reveal it. Why? “Why not?” he answers. And: “Rabin has only one opposition. I have half a dozen: Arab, Palestinian, Muslim, and Christian. Don’t you know my Christian opposition? It’s Dr. Habash and the Copt Patriarch of Egypt, Shinoda.”

Television, oddly enough, serves Arafat badly. It often merely highlights one or two aspects of his more jarring clownish features. In person he appears much more serious, with a keen mind and with a certain appealing charm, struggling for words, repeating himself constantly to remind us of the intensity and extent of the Palestinian tragedy. That he may have contributed to that tragedy hardly occurs to him; in this he is not different from other politicians.

He is not an easy man to talk to. Even as he spoke his aides surrounded him in clusters, interrupting him constantly with scribbled notes with who knows what suggestions and information, and he would often snap curt orders at them to bring him this or that paper. As I recall the conversation, something was occasionally slightly off. Figures, dates, historical facts did not tally, or so it seemed to me. Even the framed pictures on the wall, apparently hung at random, seemed too high or too low. I wasn’t sure if I had read something about this in one of Edward Said’s books.

For two or three hours we covered many of the current controversies and tactics of both sides and a good bit of history, as Israelis and Palestinians often do when they meet, and of course we kept turning in endless circles. On both sides history and memory have become political and conflated with power. Palestinians and Israelis both feel they are victims. Israelis complain of Palestinian terror, but even if there had never been any terror there would still be serious problems between the two peoples. Israeli and Palestinian identity occupies the same territorial and psychological space, each side lives in fear that by granting the other identity (or rights) it is undermining its own.

Arafat assured us that he had instructed his delegates to achieve a “breakthrough” at the current round of autonomy talks. But, we must remember, he could not simply issue orders. “I am not a dictator. I am proud of our democracy. I have no right to ignore their feelings…. Here,” he pointed a finger at his press secretary, “Take Ra’ada, she is a hawk! She argues with me a lot!” Still, risks had to be taken by both sides. The greatest risk would be that the peace talks grind to a halt. The result would be the “Balkanization of the Middle East, total chaos and fanaticism everywhere.”

I asked him if he didn’t occasionally regret that it had taken the PLO so long to recognize Israel and to be ready for peace. Abba Eban once said that the PLO never lost a chance to miss an opportunity. Under the pressure of wars and terror Israel had perhaps moved too much to the right, established too many facts on the ground, more than three hundred thousand settlers in the territories and East Jerusalem. Why was he so late?

Arafat’s reaction to this was: “I don’t agree we were late….” He was interrupted by one of his aides, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who cried: “So what if we were late in the past! What about our future!”

“As victims we had a right to hesitate,” Arafat continued. Yes, timing was all-important in politics but the truth, as he sees it, was different. In 1969, he insisted, the PLO had offered the Israelis a joint “secular, democratic, pluralistic state.” But weren’t Jews born abroad or after 1917 in Palestine to be excluded from this settlement? No, because a year later the PLO offered a binational state similar to Belgium. He recited a long list of further opportunities, that, as he put it, were missed by the Israelis, from the PLO’s readiness in 1974 to participate at the Geneva conference to its acceptance in 1977 of the Brezhnev-Mitterrand peace plan. But, he maintained, Golda Meir kept cynically asking, Who are the Palestinians? And answering, I am a Palestinian. “We were not late. We were giving signals. You should have read them.” He had offered his hand in 1968 but Israel had rejected it. He was now offering it again. “I offer you a peace of the brave. Don’t reject it…. I offered my hand in 1968 but you rejected it.”

I wondered aloud if instead of accepting the autonomy plan today as an interim solution for Gaza and the West Bank, he had accepted it when it was first postulated in 1978 in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty—wasn’t that one of the missed opportunities? If he had accepted that, wouldn’t he have a Palestinian state by now? There were hardly any settlements then. Instead he had declared war on that treaty. After all, the American thirteen colonies had begun with less, and became the United States. Arafat looked up sharply. “For your information,” he said, stressing every syllable, “Nothing official was ever offered me.”

So it went. At 1 AM we were invited upstairs to the private quarters where Mrs. Arafat joined us at a table set for a late supper. Arafat, beaming in his often acclaimed role as attentive host, but with the pistol still at his hip, handed us our plates and ladled in the chicken soup and broke off pieces of white cheese and halvah for us to savor. He himself follows a strict regimen—low-fat ricotta cheese, whole wheat crackers, rice, eggs, raw carrots and cucumbers, nothing spicy, and only mineral water. He devoured the halvah in large chunks. He does not smoke. Elsewhere among the Palestinian leaders and notables in Tunis, whiskey flows freely, and we were nearly always sitting in clouds of cigarette smoke.


As I go over the notes I took after meetings with Arafat and the other Palestinian leaders in Tunis, I find myself recalling when I first met some of them. There was Suha, Arafat’s wife, whom I had seen twelve years ago, a teen-ager in her parents’ house in Ramallah. Her mother, Raimonda Tawil, was one of the first West Bank Palestinians who advocated a compromesso storico between Palestinians and Israelis long before that term became fashionable among Palestinians. And there was Mahmoud Darwish, often referred to as the Palestinian national poet, a man close to Arafat and a member of the PLO’s governing Executive Committee. He is an Israeli Palestinian who crossed the lines in 1971 to become Arafat’s chief cultural spokesman in Beirut. His remarkable poetry echoes the frustration, the despair, the unrelieved intensity of the Palestinian exile:

Where should we go after the last frontiers,
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?

But I am the exile
Seal me with your eyes
Take me wherever you are
Take me whatever you are—
Restore to me the color of face
The warmth of body
The light of heart and eye
The salt of bread and rhythm,
The taste of earth… The Mother land.

I first met Darwish as a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he was a Communist militant agitating for the establishment of a Palestinian state. I remember a heated debate between him and other Israeli students. He favored a Palestinian state next to an Israel sharply reduced in size to the frontiers of the original 1947 UN partition resolution. Meeting Darwish after so many years in Arafat’s office, Rubinstein, speaking Hebrew, asked teasingly: “Mahmoud, what the hell are you doing here? Why don’t you come home?”

“I’ll be back within two years at the latest. It depends on these negotiations.” What about communism, Rubinstein asked. “Oh,” said Darwish and laughed, “that was when I was a boy. Now it’s different.” Darwish created a stir a few years ago when, in response to Rabin’s order to “break the bones” of stone-throwing Palestinian boys, he published a crude poem calling on the Jews to get out and take their dead with them. He defended himself at the time saying he had been mistranslated, and that the early Zionist poets had written worse things about their persecutors. His position, as he explained it to me, is that in propaganda the victim is allowed everything.

Another acquaintance was Akram Hania, a forty-year-old newspaperman from East Jerusalem and former editor of the East Jerusalem pro-Fatah daily Elshaab. I used to call on him at his office in East Jerusalem to discuss politics. Once I ran into him in the Members’ restaurant in the Knesset where, I believe, he had come to talk to Abba Eban, at that time chairman of the foreign relations committee. In 1986, after losing a complicated legal battle against the Israeli military authorities, he was expelled to Tunis via Algeria. His expulsion came not as the result of any terrorist involvement but for engaging in purely political activity, which for Palestinians in the occupied territory was illegal at that time. He too is now on Arafat’s staff.

Finally there was Bassam Abu Sharif, a brilliant man who lost an eye, his hearing in one ear, three fingers on his left hand and one on the right as a result of an Israeli explosive charge he received in the mail one day in Beirut in 1970, probably because of his involvement in the hijacking of three American airliners to an abandoned airfield in Jordan. (At that time he was one of George Habash’s lieutenants.) In 1986 he quit Habash after an angry argument and came out for coexistence with Israel. He announced that Israel’s aim was “lasting peace” and said that this is, or should also be, the aim of the Palestinians.

We had dinner one long night in his handsome villa and he assured us that the squabbling in Washington over fine points of language and international law was just eyewash. “I can tell you authoritatively that the breakthrough has already been achieved. You can quote me. I can’t tell you the details. But I know what I am talking about.” He also said, “We must all help Rabin. You can quote me on that too. He is a man of peace. We understand now that he has a problem with his constituency. We don’t do enough to help him overcome it.” The peace process was irreversible, he said, for the PLO peace was now a strategic not a tactical aim. A negotiated settlement was a necessity, he said, also because the international community desired one. Those who don’t see this “will be discarded.” He was sorry, he said, that the Palestinian constituency had not earlier allowed the PLO to follow this course. They may have had a Palestinian state by now. There was a need now for more confidence-building measures. The PLO, he said, might try to help secure the release of Israeli prisoners of war held in Lebanon and to remove the Arab boycott. (Since I’ve returned, there has been no sign of such activity.)

The United States is regarded by Arafat and his lieutenants as the magic Archimedean power, outside the direct Arab-Israeli sphere, that will produce miracles. They have a paranoid concept of the grandiose power of Jews around the world and in the US. Maybe they are still, with all their sophistication, a people of declarations. Asked to give his assessment of Rabin, Arafat told us, “He is not a De Gaulle. Let him be at least a de Klerk.” When I quoted this remark later on to one of his top aides, he replied in a sarcastic tone, “Well, the old man is no De Gaulle either.”

On the whole I found the mood in Tunis much more optimistic than it is in Jerusalem. Perhaps this was so because on the Palestinian side, even more than on the Israeli side, it is hard to distinguish between the real positions and the formulations that are considered politically correct. The talks may be deadlocked but they seem bound to be resumed since, as PLO officials put it, the US will want them to be resumed. “The US,” Bassam Abu Sharif insisted, “wants stability. Without a negotiated settlement there will be no stability. Therefore sooner or later Israel will have to abide by US wishes.” Everywhere we went, we encountered the same expectant intimacy and display of pleasure at meeting Israelis. I was struck by a kind of shorthand between the Israeli newsmen and the Palestinian officials. There were frequent exchanges of jokes and knowing glances in what seemed a tacit understanding that what was being said was not entirely what was meant. I have never encountered the same semi-conspiratorial intimacy between Israelis and Egyptians. I was unprepared for the optimism. I would often wonder whether this optimism reflected the true state of affairs or was a kind of wishful thinking, a fear of being left behind by the new Islamic forces at work among Palestinians. The intifada was an uprising not only against Israeli oppression, but also against the sterility of PLO rhetoric and terror. For Arafat’s PLO, diplomacy now means cooperating with the inevitable; and for Israel—the breaking of a twenty-seven-year-old taboo.

—July 15, 1993

This Issue

August 12, 1993