A new Sykes-Picot Agreement: Yasser Arafat discusses the future

Ramallah, March 24 — Our arrival at Yasser Arafat’s headquarters was fairly dramatic, or at least it gave us, accustomed as we are to nothing more exciting than quietly writing at a computer in our comfortable home, a keen sense of the drama of the occasion. The meeting had been arranged from Amman, without our asking, by the friend of friends of ours, a Palestinian in Amman who had known Arafat for years and set up the meeting through one of Arafat’s advisers.

We had seen the headquarters compound from the street earlier in the day: a large complex, to all appearances totally destroyed by Israeli tanks and fighter jets during the siege of the West Bank a year ago. But now it was early evening, already dark. The day had been very cold and rainy, and a thick fog now enveloped the headquarters compound. So thick that we literally could not see more than a foot in front of us. Our taxi driver knew the complex and entered confidently from the street, but then could only creep ahead slowly until he came to a guard post. He gave our names, the guard called inside, and we were waved in, weaving our way through a labyrinthine entry formed by earthen berms. We passed a large pile of crushed and burned cars, the one-time motor pool of the Palestinian Authority headquarters, pushed off to one side. We were met at the entrance to the building where Arafat lives and works, the only building in the compound left standing, and escorted past several curious guards to an upstairs office where an adviser to Arafat greeted us.

Moments later, we were taken to Arafat’s office, a long room dominated by a large conference table. Arafat, sitting at one end reading and signing papers stacked on a reading stand, rose to greet us and offered us chairs next to him, passing a plate of sweets and crackers. Two of his advisers sat across the table from us, and a third was later summoned when we explained our interest in reporting the Palestinian situation and the Palestinian political position in articles sent back to the United States. The conversation was quite animated, Arafat’s advisers participating as much or more than he, everyone eager to explain the Palestinian position. Arafat himself was subdued and occasionally returned to his paperwork when the conversation swirled in English, but he was clearly listening and rejoined the discussion at appropriate moments.

There was much discussion, largely by the advisers, of the war in Iraq, which was at that point expected to begin within hours. Echoing a widespread and not unreasonable Palestinian belief, one adviser charged that Israel had dragged the United States against its interests into initiating the war. Arafat himself, asked what he sees ahead for the Palestinians, said it was hard to know what lay ahead because the war could change everything. “It’s a new Sykes-Picot agreement,” he declared, likening the Bush administration’s plans for “transforming” the Middle East to the secret 1916 agreement, named after the diplomats who signed it, by which Britain and France arranged to draw new borders throughout the Middle East and carve up the area between themselves in the aftermath of World War I. The analogy between the old colonial era and the Bush-era neo-colonialism is very apt.

Arafat dismissed any possibility that the Sharon government will ever implement the so-called “roadmap” for Palestinian-Israeli peace drawn up by the U.S. and its Quartet partners (the UN, the EU, and Russia) but never formally issued because of Israeli objections. “This Israeli government will not implement any peace process,” he said angrily, almost shouting. “They didn’t implement the Tenet Plan, they didn’t implement the Zinni Plan, they didn’t implement the Mitchell Plan. They didn’t implement when Bush said Œwithdraw immediately, withdraw immediately, withdraw immediately’ [from the April 2002 siege of the West Bank].” Arafat obviously has Bush’s number. Around here they seem to know that this emperor has no clothes.

We talked for almost an hour, much of the conversation a rehash of the Camp David summit in July 2000. Although Arafat was harsh in his criticism of former Israeli Prime Minister Barak, who he said planned from the beginning to “destroy everything,” he refused to be drawn into criticism of President Bill Clinton. Some of his advisers discussed Clinton’s pre-summit promise not to blame Arafat if the summit failed, a promise Clinton betrayed immediately after the summit ended, but Arafat would say only that Clinton “did his best” but could not move Barak.

We have been roundly criticized even for meeting with Arafat. Two letters to the editor in our hometown newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican, have labeled us supporters of terrorism and a “disgusting presence” who should never darken Santa Fe’s doorstep again. One acquaintance, calling Arafat a murderer and criminal, wondered how we could “even stand to be near that piece of filth.” The other letter-writer, a former member of the air force, offered to fly us over Iraq and give us parachutes “so they can float to their desired new homeland.” Nice that he’d give us parachutes.

For what it’s worth, if we had been offered a similar opportunity to meet with Ariel Sharon, a man who easily fits the description of murderer and criminal himself, we would as readily have accepted. And let it also be known that we have turned down the opportunity to meet with a leader of Hamas. (John Ashcroft, did you hear that?) One must draw the line somewhere.

The kind of virulent anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab reaction expressed in these letters is not at all unexpected. What we have found somewhat more surprising has been the reaction to our meeting among Palestinians here. Arafat is not widely popular, and we’ve found ourselves a little on the defensive as we explain the meeting. Arafat obviously has his faults and shortcomings, although terrorism is the least among them, but he will always be the symbol of the long Palestinian struggle for independence and recognition from an enemy and a world community bent on completely suppressing the Palestinian identity, and the Palestinians might well have disappeared from the scene altogether if he had not brought them to the present, where they can clearly no longer be ignored. It’s a real irony, testimony to the profound difference between the idealism of revolutionary leadership and the hard realities of actual day-to-day government leadership, that it is we who have been reminding Palestinians of Arafat’s contribution.

We couldn’t help thinking, of course, as we sat in Arafat’s office that many in Israel and the United States would regard our meeting as consorting with terrorists. But looking around at the button-down, coat-and-tie assemblage of advisers across the table from us, we were both struck by the absurdity of this automatic assumption that, if you are a Palestinian and particularly if you are a Palestinian functionary, you are ipso facto a terrorist. The notion that these men, all looking like nothing so much as the civil servants with whom we once associated daily in the halls of the U.S. government, are terrorists and “evil ones” is laughable. These were serious men, not revolutionaries or terrorists.

One of the men, Dr. Ahmed Soboh, is the Palestinian Authority deputy minister of planning, and was summoned by Arafat to lay out for us the Palestinian position on peace negotiations. He invited us to his office a few days later for a longer meeting. Soboh is a physician who says he was drawn into politics soon after graduating from medical school and served as a PLO emissary in Mexico and ambassador in Brazil before returning to Palestine in 1995, after the Oslo agreement and after the PA had been established. Soboh is a very articulate, very savvy political spokesman who should have been at the forefront of the Palestinian public relations and information system from the beginning. Just a series of quotes will give a flavor of this man’s thinking and his ability to address in reasonable terms the concerns of Israelis and of the U.S.

“At the end of the day,” he began, “Israel cannot be without peace. Even Sharon cannot let himself be in a corner. Israel’s economy has been hurt, and this will force him and even the right-wing government to make peace, which will necessitate recognizing the rights of the other [Palestinian] side.”

“We understand the security needs of Israelis. When I was outside, I used to think they were exaggerating, but when I came back, I understood that they really feel they need security. They are educated by their government to be fearful of being killed by any outsiders, by Palestinians.” He feels Palestinians must reassure Israelis that their security concerns are being addressed.

“You cannot justify suicide bombings, but you can explain them. Targeting the human beings of others is never acceptable. But to explain it, it happens when Israel humiliates people, when a young child sees his brother killed, his house demolished, his family living in poverty, he can’t go to school. Why else does a 20-year-old go and kill civilians and kill himself? When a young person has employment, health clinics, education, no restrictions on movement, he won’t kill himself. Hamas and Islamic Jihad increase in influence as the peace process goes down. When the other side was delivering, Hamas was losing support.”

“The Palestinians suffered strategically by recognizing Israel, recognizing its security needs in the Oslo agreement without ever seeing an Israeli withdrawal. If you are really willing to exchange territory for peace, how can you be confiscating land, building settlements, moving in Israelis to the land you’re supposed to be exchanging?”

“The Palestinians have made mistakes. The first mistake was not to explain ourselves well enough; the second was the intifada, in using weapons. Our strong point is in our weakness, and we should explain to the Israeli people what we endure, without using weapons. The Palestinians came back to Palestine after Oslo prepared to negotiate, not to fight, but Israel is forcing us to go back to the pre-Oslo days and become a resistance organization again. We were hijacked by extremists in 2001; 2001 was a very bad year. Our mistake needs to be debated and discussed, as is now happening. Initially, when President Arafat and the leadership condemned suicide bombings, we were a minority among the Palestinians, but now we have more support. We have to have a balance: to stop fighting altogether is giving into Sharon, but suicide bombs are against Palestinian national interests. We must send the message to the Israelis that we want peace, we want security for you. Peace can divide the Israelis. This is the message we are giving to the Palestinians who still support suicide.”

“We have been put under pressure to make Palestinian reforms. If pressure coincides with my interests, that’s good, and reform is good. It is important to have transparency [in government], to fight corruption, make the civil service more efficient, to share power between President Arafat and others. We need leaders to be accountable to parliament, which the new prime minister will be. But security reforms cannot be carried out while Israel has the Palestinians under siege and has destroyed the Palestinian security forces. You can’t make all your reforms when you are occupied.”

“Negotiations are the only way to reach a solution with Israel, but if they want peace and security, it is not good for them to have poor, undemocratic neighbors. In Gaza, the per capita income is $1,000 a year for Palestinians, but $20,000 a year for Israeli settlers. This doesn’t produce security for Israel. Insecurity will always be a problem for Israel if they don’t help end this disparity.”

Bill and Kathleen Christison are former CIA analysts who worked for a combined 44 years in the agency before retiring in 1979. Kathleen is the author of the highly recommended Perceptions of Palestine, a definitive overview of US Foreign Policy on the Palestinian issue, and The Wound of Dispossession. Bill and Kathleen live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and are visiting the occupied territories.