A decade ago, as chief spokesman for the Israeli government, I went with then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to Cairo for the signing of an agreement on the handing over of Gaza and Jericho to the Palestinians. Like my boss, I was fully committed to the peace process, but even during those heady early days of Oslo, I was quickly coming to suspect that the now-ailing Yasser Arafat was a leader who would never be capable of making peace with us.
The signing, in May 1994, was to have been no more than a formality, but the night before the ceremony, it suddenly appeared as if there might not be an agreement at all. While the Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs hugged each other most amicably upon meeting in the corridors of Cairo’s Ittihadia Palace, the politicians’ discussions inside the chambers were going astray.
Once in a while, a door would slam and a fuming Arafat would storm past us advisers. Each time, our host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, followed after him, going out of his way to mend fences. Finally, just before dawn, all seemed to be settled. We parted ways to catch some sleep before the ceremony.
We reconvened a few hours later in front of a festive crowd assembled in Cairo’s convention center. Then, with the whole world watching on television, Arafat did the unbelievable.
At first, the ceremony seemed to proceed as planned. Arafat solemnly signed the voluminous agreement, after which he returned to his place on the podium, alongside the other dignitaries.
In turn, Rabin picked up his pen and started signing. Suddenly he stopped, his face reddened and he muttered something inaudible. Yoel Zinger, the Israeli legal adviser, rushed to the stage. A commotion started; the crowd grew restless. Nobody new what was happening.
We soon found out. Yasser Arafat, at a historic moment that was meant to bring his people closer than they had ever been to fulfilling their dream of statehood, simply couldn’t help himself.
It turned out that he had only feigned signing all the pages of the agreement — he had actually skipped some. Rabin furiously threatened to leave, and Mubarak, the insulted host, confronted Arafat and, as later rumors had it, gave him a piece of his mind in solid Arabic.
Arafat refused to yield. Standing there in his uniform, his hands defiantly crossed over his chest, he claimed that certain things concerning Jericho had not actually been agreed upon. Only after a long, unscheduled break did he finally succumb and sign the agreement.
Now a bit of breast beating is in order. Though I am now one of the many Israelis who has become disillusioned by the outbreak of the second intifada, back then I was fully committed to the Oslo Accords and, as Rabin’s spokesman, I played a role in painting a more positive picture of the peace process. And so it was that I rationalized Arafat’s behavior that day as being a message to his people that he had tried everything for them before he signed the compromise.
Alas, it wasn’t all.
A few days after the ceremony in Cairo, Arafat gave a speech in Johannesburg at a local mosque. Believing he was among friends only, he talked about the agreement he had just signed: “This agreement, I am not considering it more than the agreement which had been signed between our prophet Muhammad and Qureish.… You remember that the Caliph Omar had refused this agreement and considered it a despicable truce…. But the same way Muhammad had accepted it, we are now accepting this peace effort.”
For those not versed in Islamic history, the agreement, also known as the al-Khudaibiya agreement, was a 10-year peace treaty between Mohammad and the tribe of Qureish. After two years, when Mohammad had improved his military position, he tore up the agreement and slaughtered the Qureishites.
So much for Arafat’s idea of honoring agreements he signed with Israel.
That Arafat is no Nelson Mandela is now understood by all but the most naive. To his credit, he has carried his people from obscurity to the center of international attention. But he has proved himself unable to rise to the historical occasion, unable to make the switch from revolutionary leader to nation builder. He just hasn’t been able to turn to his people, especially those living in the refugee camps, and admit that this is it — that this is the best deal they’ll ever get, that they need to forget forever the hope of returning to their homes in Jaffa and Haifa.
By not being able to do so, Arafat has become in the eyes of most Israelis the embodiment of our worst fear: the threat of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees fighting until the very end for their old homes — in other words, for the end of the Jewish state. That is why most Israelis have believed that as long as Arafat is the Palestinian leader, we have no partner for peace.
Now that Arafat seems to be on the way out — if not from life, then at least from any meaningful leadership of the Palestinian people — the big question is whether he has been the sole obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, or whether he simply has been representing a phenomenon common to all Palestinian leaders.
Is there, I wonder, anyone among all those Palestinian figures, smartly dressed in business suits, who also means business? Can we at last sit down with people who, instead of double-talking, will for once keep their word?
Personally, I’m not holding my breath.