A recollection of time spent with Arafat

Landrum Bolling knew Yasser Arafat in the grottos of Tunis and the underground bunkers of Beirut. Mr. Bolling was for years the US "back channel" to the Palestine Liberation Organization, carrying messages for both the Carter and Reagan administrations. A Quaker whose "Search for Peace in the Middle East" is a classic, Bolling regards Mr. Arafat as a tragic figure, indecisive, a micromanager who stayed in office too long - but also a father of his people who genuinely sought peace and whose public image as a terrorist is "nonsense." Robert Marquand caught up with Bolling, former president of Indiana's Earlham College, in Beijing, where, in his eighties, he arrived to consult with an international aid group.

Arafat's image - he infamously wore his pistol holster on the floor of the UN, for example - seemed confrontational.

Arafat's image was offensive to a lot of Americans. I remember an assistant secretary of State stopping me and saying, "I wish you could [talk] to your friend in Beirut, and tell him to shave off that stubble and put on a suit and look like an ordinary human being, instead of parading around as a guerrilla." Images stick in people's mind. Arafat looked like what people thought a terrorist should look like. This was a weakness, because Arafat never saw that about himself. He saw his image as a fighter for his people. He thought it was positive. He felt his people saw him standing up for them.

He was often called devious or untrustworthy.

He tried to be all things to all people. He couldn't make hard choices. He operated on the foolish principle of "keeping all options open" and had a compulsion to have "everybody love me." He was mortally afraid of losing his status as the symbol of the Palestinian cause.

I don't think, for example, there is any doubt Arafat wanted to end suicide bombing. The bombings were a disaster, and Arafat got full blame for them. Even doves in Israel became frightened. Bombings were a catastrophe for the peace process and for Palestinians. Arafat understood that. But he didn't have the courage to end it. He may never have been able to stop it, but he didn't try hard enough.

Other impressions?

He was capable of fiery anger. He was calculating, deliberate. I don't know exactly when he decided he no longer had a military option, but it was years ago. The idea that Arafat turned down a deal in 2000 at Camp David because he wanted to block peace and that his ultimate aim was to destroy Israel is absolute nonsense. He knew at least 15 years ago that the romantic idea of a military option was absurd.

The late Edward Said, the best-known American Palestinian, called Arafat's rule a tragedy for his people.

I agree. It was a great tragedy for Palestinians that they had Arafat always, and couldn't get rid of him.

I felt he should have left at least 10 years ago. ... He had serious flaws for the role he tried to play: He was an absurd micromanager; he wasn't creative, but reactive, and in negotiations he rarely put forth a positive proposal of his own.

What was your first impression of him?

He wasn't pompous or officious, but direct, straightforward. I was impressed with his Arab charm; he was very hospitable. He was always impatient with Americans. He said over and over that the Americans should deal with the Mideast in terms of their national interest. Why can't the Americans see it is not in their national interest to treat Israel as their little baby, he felt. This is the term he used - Israel is America's little baby.

What did Arafat think about Israelis?

He often called them "our cousins." His attitudes were of course highly mixed. Like all Palestinians, he resented the creation of Israel "on our Arab lands." He saw Israel as being established by an international Zionist conspiracy supported by the West as a way for Christians to erase their guilt for crimes against the Jews in Europe. But certainly after the war of 1973 he came to terms with the reality that Israeli was here to stay.

His overpowering ambition was to get other nations to pressure Israel to make a "fair" deal for a two-state solution. He felt no Israeli government would make such a deal without strong outside pressure.

Any special remembrances of the man?

[President Jimmy] Carter asked me to see Arafat and persuade him to open official US talks. I got nowhere. Finally I took a daring line in Beirut and said, "Mr. Chairman, you have talked with me for two years about how you are ready for peace. But no one will talk. Why not write a letter to Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin, urgently asking him to meet anytime, anyplace, without any preconditions to settle the quarrels between our two peoples. Full stop. If Begin says no, you publicize the letter. If yes, you have started something." He let me sit in silence for minutes. Finally he slumped over, with a low voice, looking at the floor, he said, "I'm not strong enough." He didn't say I was crazy, or order me out. Just, "I'm not strong enough."

Was Arafat a terrorist?

I think he had blood on his hands. I think he committed terrorist acts in his early field-fighter days. Whether it was on civilians, I doubt.

But let me digress. The man I learned most about the Middle East from is a retired Israeli general, Matti Peled, [who was] given credit for winning the Six Day War. Afterwards, ... he felt with a passion that the madness, as he called it, must stop. "We've got to be decent and just with the Palestinians and make a peace," he'd say. Once I watched him meet some Jewish students and advocate a deal with Arafat. Some students were very angry. How can we negotiate with terrorists they wondered? He said, "You are right. They are terrorists. But I want to tell you something. At age 15 I was a Jewish terrorist. I did things I'm ashamed to think about now. When people are driven to extremes, they do awful things."

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