Meeting Arafat brought out my mean streak

It was in 1993, a few months before the secretly conducted Oslo accords were announced, that I had a little sit-down with Yasser Arafat in his Tunisia office.

I wish I could say I took the opportunity to kick him in the shins under the table, spit in the mint tea his henchmen served, or at least make it known I thought he was a disingenuous, lying megalomaniac.

I did none of those things. But I kept a mean look on my face, and I didn’t thank him for the interview. That would show him.

I was in Tunisia with a group of journalists from American Jewish newspapers (at the time I was copy chief at the Jewish Bulletin), visiting at the Tunisian government’s invitation, and we were granted the meeting while in the capital city of Tunis, where Arafat had lived comfortably in exile with the Palestinian Liberation Organization since 1982.

We couldn’t believe we had finagled the interview. We were, after all, just six zhlubs from obscure community newspapers. None of us had international reporting experience to speak of, unless you counted the occasional press junket to Israel. We were all anxious going in, and I’m guessing our editors (and our families) were, too.

I remember sitting in the hotel lobby waiting to be picked up by Arafat’s people, our reporters’ notebooks on our laps, talking over each other as we nervously tried to plan how we would conduct the interview. I remember the 10-minute ride in the van that night, the polite chatter with the driver and fastening my seatbelt — an ironic safety measure given that I was about to meet the man responsible for masterminding numerous terrorist acts against my people.

I remember the van slowing on an upscale street and pulling up to an unmarked building (I searched in jest for the sign announcing “Home of Israel’s Nemesis”). I remember armed guards patrolling the foyer, our bags being searched and our cameras checked for explosives. I noted the glittering posters of Jerusalem, the blown-up photographs of Arafat and the doctored maps of Palestine. And I remember the half-hour we waited for Arafat, making small talk with his aides about Ted Koppel and Spanish tennis as the subtitled American sitcom “Family Ties” played in the background. Hey, what else are you going to do in exile?

But what I recall most vividly was the moment Arafat entered the room. Although he swept in on a cloud of self-importance, flanked by several advisers in sharply pressed suits, I was startled mainly by his complete lack of charisma. I had assumed that despite his appearance — diminutive, with a paunchy midsection, uneven stubble, swollen lips and tired old fatigues — Arafat would exude a degree of appeal or magnetism, something that would give me insight into why this was the man the Palestinians had chosen to lead them to their promised land.

Was this the best they could do?

I thought about some of this during the 90 minutes I sat just a few feet away from Arafat, as we neophyte hard-hitting journalists took turns asking him about the Madrid peace talks, the Palestinians’ seeming inability to govern themselves, and whether elections could ever be held in the territories while he maintained an iron grip on power.

When he wasn’t shifting blame, Arafat was evading our questions. He liked giving his answers empirical weight by starting with “For your information…”

“For your information, the Israelis are refusing the elections,” he said. “I am not here by a military coup. I have not been elected by 99.99999999999 percent. For your information, I have been elected in a democratic way.”

When asked whether he had truly renounced the PLO charter calling for Israel’s destruction, he said the document had been “overhauled.” When asked if he could offer Israel security guarantees in a two-state solution, he said, “For your information, I, too, need guarantees.”

Along with offering long-winded answers (at times turning to aides for translation), Arafat frequently paused as if finished with his thought, only to begin rambling again once a reporter started to ask a new question. In this way he controlled the interview.

In the end, he tried to leave us with warm feelings. Arafat let us know that when we arrived, his guard had told him, “Your cousins are here.”

“This is not just an artificial slogan,” Arafat said with a half-smile, his eyes bulging. “You can’t change your relatives — can you?”

Oh, how I wish I could.

It wasn’t easy to be so near a man I grew up believing was synonymous with evil. I wanted to despise him, and though part of me did, I was surprised at how utterly unimpressed I felt. He was much more believable as a warrior than a statesman.

It seems fitting that Arafat’s demise comes at a time many of us consider rife with political hypocrisy, deception and violence perpetrated in the name of “freedom fighting.” I’m sure he could appreciate such duplicitous politics. He practiced them his entire life.

Now that Arafat is out of the picture, will the Palestinians — particularly the educated and intellectuals among them — be able to devise a fair system of government and make strides toward peace? Or will they continue to be gripped by the historical idealization of the legend?

When the Oslo accords were signed three months after my 1993 interview with Arafat, I joked that because of me, the parties were finally able to reach an agreement.

In truth, the interview was a highlight of my journalism career. Yet I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I didn’t get Arafat to say anything he hadn’t said numerous times before. I only hope he noticed my mean face.

Sue Barnett, a former Jewish Bulletin copy chief, most recently worked as a copy editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s senior editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.