Interview: Richard Symons
Yasir Arafat was never very convincing on television. His English was always thickly accented and halting, his ever-present smile looked insincere and the military uniform he wore, allied to his diminutive height, made him appear slightly ridiculous.
But to his people, Arafat had the stature of a Gandhi or a Mandela, despite paradoxically never completely winning their trust. And he came closer to achieving peace with Israel than any other Palestinian.
London-based film-maker Richard Symons has made feature-length documentaries about Arafat and his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, during which he interviewed the Israeli president and Arafat's widow, Suha. He feels both Arafat and Peres were hugely complex characters viewed ambivalently by their own constituency.
Symons gives a telling example: "While Arafat was president of the Palestinian Authority there was a poll in which Palestinians were asked whether the authority was corrupt. About 90 per cent said yes. They were asked whether they thought Arafat was doing a good job and around 90 per cent said no. But when they were asked whether they would vote for Arafat, around 95 per cent said they would. His charisma carried him through. Here was a guy who was clearly willing to die for his country, and whatever he did, he did for his people. Some of his decisions, like the one to seek peace with Israel, were brave; others, like his failure to deal with the second intifada, were less so. What is certain, though, is whatever he did, it was certainly not for personal gain. But there is no doubt that he did not have the state building capabilities of Peres."
Peres seemingly has had the opposite problem. His statesmanship has been widely praised, and he is respected by the Israeli people. However, he never has enjoyed the popular support that his Labour rival Yitzhak Rabin did and at the vital moment, when the future of the peace process depended on Peres winning the election after the assassination of Rabin, he failed to come out on top.
Symons, whose documentaries are the first two in a 12-part series about leadership entitled The Price of Kings, feels there are three main reasons why the Israeli electorate failed to warm to Peres. "He was an intellectual, he did not serve in the military, and he was born in Poland, not Israel. All these things counted against him. In our interview he admits to having made some terrible decisions. He was brutally frank and he didn't pull any punches."
But Peres certainly had no regrets about driving the peace process which led to the Oslo Accords. And Symons says that Peres had a high opinion of his former adversary. "He said Arafat was very courageous, that no other Arab leader could have or would have taken the chances he took. I suspect, like all leaders, he has a very good insight into the difficulties of pulling your people behind you."
Symons has no doubts that the chemistry between Arafat, Peres and Rabin was crucial in bringing the Israelis and Palestinians to the very brink of peace. "The combination of the three of them proved to be a powerhouse. At almost exactly the same time, both parties wanted to get serious and hold secret negotiations. In the Arafat film we see that his guys think they were the ones to instigate it, and in the Peres film the Israelis think they were."
Many have analysed the famous feud between Peres and Rabin. Symons feels for all their antagonism, they needed each other. "There was a difference in vision. While Peres was lobbying the cabinet to approve a nuclear weapons programme, Rabin was arguing that he needed more tank battalions. But ultimately when they came together they found they totally complemented each other."
Ironically, the pair were never more reconciled than on the last night of Rabin's life, at the peace rally which Peres persuaded Rabin to hold. Symons recalls: "You can see in the interview that Peres was clearly fighting the tears when he spoke about that evening. Peres says about Rabin that he never saw him behave like that before. He had his arms around Peres, he was singing - things you don't associate with Rabin. Everything came together between the two men that night as Rabin finally started to believe that he had the public's support for peace. And he was able to embrace Peres in a way he never had before. Suha Arafat spoke about the deep grief that her husband felt after he heard of Rabin's murder. Arafat clearly knew the probable consequences of that act."
Peres found the responsibility of taking the peace process forward tough after that, and as a result made a crucial error of judgement on when to call a general election. Had he called one shortly after Rabin's death he could have taken advantage of the wave of sympathy in the polls, but he chose to plough on, to delay an election until he had made his mark as prime minister. But thanks to a series of suicide bombings in the weeks before the election, the gamble failed, with his opponent Benjamin Netanyahu winning by the agonising margin of 30,000 votes. Symons says: "People were saying about Peres that he must have been glad finally to have the top job. But nothing could have been further from the truth. He was all alone without his sparring partner and without the back-up of Rabin's military credibility. He was seriously weakened. Peres paid a phenomenal price."
So, of course, did Arafat, who was besieged in his Ramallah compound and, some believe, poisoned by the Israelis. Of course, many say he deserved such an end, that ultimately he was nothing but a terrorist. Symons disagrees. "In 40 years the United Nations has never managed to come up with a definition of the word 'terrorist'. When former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak was asked what he would have done if he had been in Arafat's position, he said he too would have been in the trenches, fighting. Also remember that Margaret Thatcher described Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. So, ultimately, the term is pretty meaningless."
If Arafat's demise was brutal, Peres, now nearing his 90th year, remains at the centre of Israeli politics, as the country's head of state, and has no plans to retire. He has also, according to Symons, reached a point in his life where he is enjoying the love and respect of the Israeli people. As president, he has taken (publicly at least) a step back from the arguments surrounding the peace process, though Symons has reason to believe that behind the scenes he is as vocal as ever. "I asked him whether, despite his work commitments, he enjoyed the occasional quiet night in with his family. He told me that: 'to be honest, the most interesting thing in life is to work'."