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Jewish World Review
Nov. 19, 2004
/ 6 Kislev, 5765
The Arafat I knew
A former NBC News Middle East correspondent and bureau chief tells a different story
I waited before writing this column. I wanted to make sure that Yasser Arafat was really gone. After following his career from up close and afar for more than 30 years, I knew the man had a thousand lives and an uncanny ability to defy death. Why should a coma and old age be responsible for his demise?
As an NBC News correspondent in 1983, I was holed up with Abu Ammar (his nom de guerre) in Tripoli, Lebanon, while Israelis, Syrians, even dissident Palestinians tried to annihilate him. ''Many people don't want you to leave this country alive,'' I observed as he sipped tea with a bemused look. ''I don't care,'' he shrugged. "I will survive.''
In the Middle East, Arafat was the ultimate survivor, a consummate con man, charlatan and actor whose greatest role was heroic martyr. His supreme talent was a miraculous ability to escape unscathed from countless calamities (most of his own making) during his 56-year career as guerrilla, diplomat, politician, dictator and terrorist. He assumed the mantle of decisive leader.
CHANCE AFTER CHANCE
In fact, he was a spectacular flop. ''He was unable to bring his people victory, peace or an independent state, a record of political failure almost unparalleled in history,'' write Barry and Judith Rubin in their superb biography. ''Arafat's great ability was to get chance after chance; his great weakness was the disaster that inevitably concluded each missed opportunity.'' The late Israeli statesman Abba Eban certainly was thinking of him when he opined that Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Arafat mastered a technique that Yezid Sayigh, a Palestinian professor at Cambridge University, calls ''escape by running forward.'' Arafat would repeatedly seize upon the eruption of a major crisis to flee from a predicament that he usually had fomented, then intensify and prolong it to gain dominance -- and inevitably induce an outcome to his advantage.
Because of Arafat's misrule, refusal to keep promises or honor agreements, spawning endless crises as well as extorting money from them, Arab leaders stopped trusting Arafat years ago. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once angrily denounced him as the ''son of a dog.'' Yet, these self-righteous potentates will miss the little guy in military garb and checkered keffiyeh. By coughing up cash to help him perpetuate terrorism and obstructionist activities against Israel and, indirectly, the United States, Arafat was the perfect foil, an omnipresent, annoying agitator. This served the purpose of cowardly Arab nations that didn't want to dirty their hands or, in some cases, jeopardize American largesse that generously replenishes their coffers year after year.
Arafat could be witty, charming and gracious, especially with foreign diplomats and Western journalists. Depending heavily upon them to trumpet his anguished pleas, they obediently complied (including me). With his own people who revered him as the father of their cause, he was brutally ruthless when challenged. His most notable achievement was leading the Palestinian movement from near oblivion to the threshold of independence. His most humiliating failure was sabotaging the peace process that could have made it happen.
RUMBLINGS OF CIVIL WAR
In his blind obsession of total conquest at any cost, he inflicted years of unnecessary suffering on Palestinians -- ignoring their needs, overlooking government corruption by close associates and sanctioning terrorists who now may pose a major threat if they aren't given a piece of the lucrative action. When I was in Ramallah in July, there were ominous rumblings of civil war.
Significant change won't occur quickly, if at all. Arafat's immediate successors are clones without charisma who will simply pay lip service to reform and the peace process. Just like the boss.
Somewhere, Abu Ammar is smiling.
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JWR contributor Ike Seamans, a columnist for the Mimi Herald, is senior correspondent for NBC 6/WTVJ News in Miami and a former NBC News Middle East correspondent and bureau chief.
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© 2004, Ike Seamans