The Arafat I knew was undermining Oslo from the very start

The Accords were meant to see the start of a new era of peace between Israel and Palestine


As I sat with Yasser Arafat in 2004 inside his Ramallah headquarters, the Mukata’a, the Palestinian leader’s lip quivered. “This government who are representing the fanatic groups who killed my partner Rabin, with whom I had signed the peace of the brave, are putting me in this closed prison,” he told me and a fellow reporter.

It was a doubly incorrect statement. For one thing, Ariel Sharon’s government had nothing to do with the assassination of Rabin in November 1995. And Arafat’s “confinement” to the Mukata’a during the Second Intifida from 2002-2004 was entirely self-imposed. He could leave at any time, and indeed often did so, for instance when choosing unwisely to address citizens in the West Bank town of Jenin. After he was roundly booed by a crowd who felt his men had done little or nothing for them, he chose to return to his “imprisonment”.

There, he felt he could cultivate the image of a brave survivor, portraying himself as peace-seeking victim of a supposed “peace process” that, according to many insiders, he himself had a played leading role in sabotaging.

Another false soundbite which Arafat frequently uttered was “the peace of the brave.” An ill-fated process launched flamboyantly on the White House lawn 30 years ago, the Oslo Accords signed by him and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have provided a signature legacy:  falsehood after falsehood.

From Arafat’s perspective, the Oslo Accords of September 1993 were not intended as harbingers of peace, nor was he being “brave” in signing them. Rather, he was a master of hypocrisy.

For instance, Israeli security had found a wanted terrorist concealed in the boot of a car Arafat and his entourage were driving triumphantly into the Gaza Strip from Egypt in 1994.

“We knew straight away that what Arafat said publicly was very different from what he did, or wanted to do, more privately,” said the officer in charge.

That double-speak was confirmed when a reporter made a secret recording of Arafat speaking on a tour of South Africa. Arafat told worshippers at a mosque that the PLO’s apparent acceptance of Israel’s right to exist was just a subterfuge for overall conquest.

To this day, Palestinians, often slavishly reported by the mainstream media, continue to claim that Israeli hardliners sabotaged the Oslo Accords.

True, there was little progress towards a “final settlement” that the Accords had envisaged should take five years.  But the reality of what stopped serious progress was somewhat different.

Arafat really did not feel he needed a “final status”, which would condemn him to the obloquy of most of the Palestinian and Arab elite, and which would reduce him to the leader of a small and unimportant “state”.

He felt much more comfortable politically and psychologically in being portrayed internally and around the Islamic world as a revolutionary, not as a statesman, or, worse, as a sell-out.  During our interview with him he was pleased to show us his tiny bedroom, still displaying some small holes made, he said, by Israel shrapnel. In reality, he had a much grander bedroom reachable by a corridor to the other side of the Mukataa.

What Arafat desired and got was a path to continued and expanded influence and international importance.  The Accords were in many ways a propaganda and financial victory for the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

By 1993 the PLO had been severely weakened. It had lost its Soviet backers when the USSR collapsed and Russia was preoccupied with more weighty matters. Arafat had unwisely chosen to back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which when reversed meant he no longer had the financial and political backing of the Gulf States, including the Saudis and Jordan.

Instead of collapsing, the PLO was given elevated international status by the Accords — and physical control of its rivals, actual and potential.

The Accords allowed 30,000 of Arafat’s armed men, mostly those who had fled Beirut during the 1981 PLO-Israel war, to enter the West Bank and Gaza. They promptly replaced local mayors and more moderate leaders who had spent their lives co-operating with the Israelis  to some extent.  Arafat had set up separate security bodies, ranging from “Preventive Security” to “Military Intelligence” that competed with each other, sometimes violently.

His system ensured that the corrupt leadership cadres of the PLO could become immensely fat cats, siphoning off many millions of dollars of international money that had flowed into the coffers of the newly constituted Palestinian National Authority, an offshoot of the PLO.

Considerable sums went into a secret account held by Arafat and used to buy loyalty and support secret operations.

His repression of dissent of any kind was legendary: he even had a Palestinian newspaper editor arrested and tortured for putting Arafat’s photo on page seven, not the front page.

His methods for eliminating rivals or dissenters often included hints that these people should no longer exist, complied with by his minions.

No wonder Arafat had been delighted to grasp the hand of a reluctant and hesitant Rabin on the White House lawn 30 years ago. Rabin, who always continued to say he was against an actual Palestinian state, has been accused by the eminent Israeli historian Efraim Karsh of having made “the starkest strategic blunder in [Israel’s] history”.

Karsh wrote in 2019 that the Accords created the conditions for “the bloodiest and most destructive confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians since 1948” and radicalised a new generation of Palestinians living under the rule of the PLO and Hamas with “vile anti-Jewish (and anti-Israel) incitement unparalleled in scope and intensity since Nazi Germany”.

On a purely statistical count, he is right. During the 26 years since the signing of the Accords, he pointed out, four times more Israelis had been killed than in the 26 years preceding them.

Since Arafat’s rule began in the main Palestinian cities, there has been an internal Palestinian-versus-Palestinian death toll. At one stage in the Gaza Strip, 98 of the 100 Palestinians to die violently had been killed in clashes between Fatah and Hamas, not by Israelis. When I asked Gaza’s Hamas leader Ismail Haniya to explain how he felt about this, my hired Gazan assistant wisely declined to translate my question accurately.

The Oslo Accords and further failed peace efforts have also spawned more and more bizarre conspiracy theories among many ordinary Palestinians.   

After Arafat died, in 2004, the territory was rife with claims that Ariel Sharon had poisoned him. One claim, initiated by Al Jazeera television, was that Arafat was subjected to deadly polonium, inserted into his food by his personal chef, no doubt bribed by you-know-who. (I must say, I had eaten salads from his plate that he generously shovelled onto my plate, and I felt no ill-effects, and nor did my colleague, who also had a dollop of his chicken.)

His body, buried at the Mukattah, was duly dug up and clothing and body parts sent away for analysis. Al Jazeera claimed a Swiss laboratory had found “probable” traces of fatally absorbed polonium in the remains, a claim rejected by scientists who tested samples in Russia and France. That investigation is officially still continuing.

This is not to say that Israel has been blameless in the way it has attempted to dampen down anti-Israel Palestinian violence. But a Hamas widow and MP once told me that PLO prisons in the West Bank were “a hundred times worse” than Israeli jails, and that her late husband, also an MP, had experienced both.

The greater the tension with Israel, the easier it has been for the ageing Palestinian leadership to cling to power. Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas has found excuses for not holding presidential or legislative assembly elections for the last 19 years. He rules by diktat — and so, I expect, will his successor.

Seen in their historic context, the Oslo Accords have made a very significant and lasting difference to the political and security process.

By facilitating PLO control over most of the West Bank population they have prevented a local, more people-orientated leadership from emerging.

Arguably, they also led the way to the Gaza Strip being taken over by the hardline Islamists of Hamas.   

On the Israeli front, they have helped to harden a right-wing view that any concessions to the Palestinians only make Israel’s security worse, and have provided the hard right with a chance to take positions of power in the current government.

All in all, the Oslo Accords have hardly constituted a fine set of achievements.

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