Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2002 / 20 Tishrei, 5763

The Bushies continue
to 'diss' Arafat

By Morgan Strong | (UPI) Yasser Arafat, the beleaguered leader of the Palestinian Authority, is trying to reach somebody, practically anybody, in the Bush administration.

One of his aides called me from his headquarters, or what is left of his headquarters, desperately seeking my help to persuade Secretary of State Collin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, or maybe even the president himself, to pick up the phone when Arafat calls them.

Arafat is trying to get Bush or Powell, the aide said, but he would settle for Rice, even though he knows that she has no influence in the administration, to talk to him.

He wants one of them to call Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and plead with him to order his soldiers to stop trying to kill him.

Arafat, I was told, is afraid he would be embarrassed if he calls Bush, or Powell, or even Rice, and they will not speak to him. Arafat thinks he will be told they are in a meeting, or on the other line and will call right back, or some other dodge.

I find it odd that Arafat -- surrounded by Israeli tanks shelling his office and living quarters -- would worry about his pride being hurt. There are many other appendages that can be injured if he does not persuade Bush to tell Sharon to stop firing at him.

I tried several times to raise somebody, anybody, of consequence at the Department of State or the White House who would be willing to talk to Arafat. Of course, someone who says he is calling on behalf of Arafat is certain to be regarded as somewhat loony by the people at the White House and the State Department. Arafat had no working telephones; I had gotten through by luck to the cell phone of one of his aides. I became a link -- I am sure there were others -- to Washington.

There was nobody at the White House or the State Department, or rather not anyone of sufficient rank, who would speak to me. I am after all not part of anybody's inner circle, nor am I a mover or shaker. I am just a journalist, someone who is known to Arafat, and he was desperate for any help he could get from any quarter. I thought the dramatic circumstances warranted making a fool of myself by calling cold.

I did finally manage to speak with a duty officer at the Department of State after convincing a series of skeptical intermediaries that I was of sufficient journalistic weight to be worthy enough to speak to an assistant to the Deputy Assistant to the assistant Under Secretary of State for lower Slobovia, or someone of equal stature.

Everybody has a title at the State Department; there is a title no matter what the job. The title, no matter how silly it sounds or how lowly the job, brings certain arrogance to the titleholder. And the women I spoke with made that quite clear. After I was able to convince her I was who I said I was, she told me she would pass on the message from Arafat to Powell. She told me this with a tone, heavy with sarcasm.

I do not think Powell ever got the message. And if he did, he ignored it.

I spoke with Arafat's aides at his besieged compound an hour or so later and there was no call from Powell.

The State Department and the White House surprisingly are closed for weekends. The administration has barbecues to go to, money to raise for republican candidates for office, horseshoes to play, bronco to buck, that sort of thing I suppose.

Is this not a time of great peril in this country? There are terrorists on the interstates jumping tolls, or maybe not, Al Qaida in Buffalo, N.Y., or maybe not, Saddam Hussein building nuclear bombs, or maybe not, the CIA and FBI are gathering intelligence to save the people of the country from harm, or maybe not.

We might, under these circumstances, think somebody of some consequence would be at the White House or the Department of State of sufficient clout to answer the phone if great trouble breaks out somewhere. Nah! Not a chance.

The Bush administration keeps telling us we are in great danger. We are at the brink of war with Iraq; the Middle East is in turmoil, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. With all that, you shouldn't expect the administration to man their posts on the weekends? Who, I wonder, is on the wall looking out at for the barbarians at the gates.

Arafat's aide told me that Bush, Powell and even, Rice has refused to speak with Arafat directly. Arafat has to go through a third party if he wants to ask Powell or Bush, or Rice for help. Now this is silly, silly. I remember sitcoms with this plot. Somebody was mad at somebody and they had to speak through somebody else, even though they were in the same room, or sitting next to one and other.

C'mon, I know there is a lot of sophomoric garbage in the Bush administration, but are we reduced to pre-pubescent pouting. Please get an adult to answer the phone when somebody calls the White House or the Department of State on the weekends. The president can act like a big boy and speak with Arafat before more children are killed in Israel and Palestine.

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Morgan Strong is a journalist and consultant on the Middle East for "60 Minutes" and others, and is a former professor of Middle Eastern History at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.Comment by clicking here.


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