a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Der Spiegel interviews Yasser Arafat

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 21st, 2001

The German newsweekly Der Spiegel has published an interview with Yasser Arafat in its 12/22/2001 issue. Here are some excerpts:

Arafat: …To understand what Sharon really wants, I’ll tell you the following: After the Israeli army conquered East Jerusalem in June 1967, the defense minister at the time gave the order, that no non-Muslims were to be allowed to pray on the plateau of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, holy to us Muslims. All Israeli heads of government have adhered to this.

When I heard last year that Sharon wanted to demonstratively break this rule, I went to Prime Minister Barak, and expressly asked him to prevent the Sharon visit, in order to avoid the predictable unrest that the visit would cause. Barak did not answer me. Sharon visited the Aqsa plateau, and there were deaths and injuries, which everyone knew would happen. […]

SPIEGEL: The problem is getting more complicated: Israel’s Prime Minister does not recognize you as the legitimate representative of and speaker for the Palestinian people. You are “irrelevant” to him.

Arafat: That’s his problem, not mine. The whole world is ignoring that anyway. Just now President Bush congratulated me in my capacity on occasion of the end of Ramadan. I was elected democratically by my people. An international observer commission, with ex-President Jimmy Carter, the president of Portugal, and the ex-Premier of Japan, watched over the election. What makes Sharon tick? …

If the Madrid agreements and the principle of “land for peace” endorsed by the great powers don’t suit him, could he then say: Madrid is null and void for me? […]

SPIEGEL: How serious are you about proceeding against Hamas and Islamic Jihad? Are you really even able to?

Arafat: Even though Israel is surprisingly hindering us from doing so, we are proceeding very efficiently against the instigators of violence and terror. We’ve closed all offices of both organizations, and have arrested everyone on [American Middle East envoy] Zinni’s list who we’ve been able to get our hands on. We want very much to stop these insane actions once and for all. We are completely meeting our responsibilities, even though Israel is not meeting its own responsibilities, doesn’t pull back from the autonomous areas, blockades towns and ignores all agreements

SPIEGEL: Many Palestinians see your harsh actions against the violent Islamists as a capitulation to Israel.

Arafat: I know, some of their speakers go even further. But I say to everyone very clearly and to the point: We tolerate only the legitimate Palestinian national Autonomous Government, composed of freely elected members of the Palestinian legislative council. Whoever does not submit to the legitimate decisions of the central authority, or even acts against the national interests of our people, consciously puts himself offsides legally. He must take the consequences. […]

SPIEGEL: If no more attacks happen, will the peace process resume?

Arafat: The whole world expects that with us. After all, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not confined to security matters.

SPIEGEL: But if there are more explosions?

Arafat: Listen: The Americans had an extremely bloody war with the Viet Cong, and yet both sides negotiated in Paris for five years. […]

SPIEGEL: The negotiations in Taba, Egypt, where Ehud Barak gave you 95% of the territories and substantial control over Jerusalem, were broken off…

Arafat: … it was 87% in a very special framework.

SPIEGEL: And you would negotiate about that again?

Arafat: Of course, we don’t have to go back to square one. I’m sure that if the negotiations resume, we could come to agreement relatively quickly about the questions left open in Taba and which we could have solved with more time. Despite my age, I even believe that I will be granted the chance to cross the Egyptian-Palestinian border and the Israeli border on the “Railroad of Peace” commissioned by Egyptian President Mubarak.

My own comments, in no particular order:

  • Der Spiegel played softball for the most part: “Your harsh actions,” etc.
  • The one hard question (“Are you really even able to?”) gets the answer “we’ve arrested everyone we’ve been able to get our hands on.” That seems clever, but basically admits either (1) he’s not trying very hard, or (2) he really isn’t able to stop Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or their ilk.
  • 87% vs. 95%!!!
  • Like it or not, Arafat is right about one thing: he is the elected leader of the Palestinians. That can change, of course, both in fact and in significance; as many have pointed out, “Palestinian” is a bit of a recent construct, “Jordanian” would be nearer the mark. I’m intrigued by the idea of Israel returning or granting sovereignty over the 95% (excuse me, 87%) to Jordan, putting up some high fences, and saying goodbye to the region for a while. Arafat could be governor of the Palestinian region of Jordan, for all most people would care.
  • The Viet Cong were shooting the whole time, too. Is Arafat for or against the use of violence in this dispute? If he’s for it, are the Israelis not entitled to self-defense in kind?
  • I’ll have to look this up, but it’s my understanding that it was Sharon’s perfect right to go to Al Aqsa, whatever the Palestinian street may have thought about it; Arafat himself only refers to Israeli usage, not to any formal agreement. It doesn’t inspire confidence to see Arafat trump Sharon’s visit up to the level of a broken treaty. Moreover, Middle East expert Daniel Pipes makes a pretty convincing argument that Jerusalem itself has not always been that significant to the Muslim world. Personally, I sometimes think making Jerusalem part of the Czech Republic or Mongolia might be best, but they doubtless don’t need the grief.
  • An enduring image: Arafat on a choo-choo train for peace. Well, it’s good for a grin, anyway.

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