Magazine article The Spectator

Massacre of the Truth

Magazine article The Spectator

Massacre of the Truth

Article excerpt

I AM bothered - though not enough to tell my shrink - that whenever I picture Yasser Arafat it is in black-and-white. Perhaps that is because the first images I saw of him in the pre-colour Sixties were on a clapped-out television. But even when I have got up close and personal over the past 15 years, it is the old Arafat I see: a black-and-white Sixties figure hiding behind a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses, exhorting his young soldiers to wring the necks of chickens and drink the blood.

To me, Arafat has always been more comic than killer, an unlikely guerrilla leader. He is certainly not in the heroic mould of the Greats - Mao, Che or even Ho. 'Yasser' never sounded right. He wasn't in the same class, not even when he adopted the nom-de-guerre Abu Amar, affected a permanent stubble, and strapped a holster to his trademark olive-drab. As an exercise in branding it was brilliant, but Arafat was too shifty, too corrupt, too obviously playing to the gallery to be taken seriously. He belonged in a boy band rather than the Pantheon of Dear Leaders.

Was I wrong! My distinguished media colleagues in Europe just lap him up. Arafat, who attracts journalists like a lamppost attracts dogs, gave the world the Pissoir Syndrome. When he appeared before a special session of the UN General Assembly in Geneva in 1988, I was not surprised that the delegates rose to applaud him. You expect that from diplomats. But that evening, arriving three hours late for a press conference in the UN building, I was shocked that all my colleagues gave him a whooping, standing ovation. Here, surely, was a boy band's lead singer meeting the fans, rather than a terrorist leader about to renounce terrorism.

Arafat renounced terror again - in writing - in 1993, a precondition set by Israel's sceptical Yitzhak Rabin before signing the Oslo Accords, which permitted the first shoots of embryonic Palestine. There have been at least half-a-dozen more renunciations since then but, to be honest, I never trusted the first one. I wanted to believe Arafat when he painted a picture of Palestinian and Israeli children growing up in peace; but then I remembered the late King Hussein of Jordan, Arafat's best friend at the time, publicly branding him a duplicitous liar. And I remembered a Syrian colleague telling me he had overestimated the intelligence of Israelis: 'Do you really think you can negotiate with a mafia boss?' he asked incredulously.

Arafat covered a lot of ground on his way to Geneva, and he has covered a lot more since then. On the road to becoming Mister Palestine and Great Survivor, he brought death and destruction on a vast scale. He provoked two civil wars (in Jordan and Lebanon). He generated chaos in Israel. And ultimately he produced tragedy rather than statehood for his own people.

Today, his cheerleaders in Europe, having silently acquiesced in his corruption, despotism and brutality, stand on the sidelines, weakly crying foul at the reviled George W. Bush, who has effectively brought down the House of Arafat by demanding that the Palestinians clean up their act and elect new and different leaders whom the Israelis can trust.

If all that was humiliation for Arafat's European champions, it was a black eye for Chris Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner. For, while Bush was putting the final touches to his 'Dump Arafat' speech, Patten was once again anointing Arafat as the 'indispensable partner' (ignoring the incitement to violence on EU-funded Palestinian Television, the antiSemitic hatred in EU-funded Palestinian schoolbooks, and the diversion of European aid to underwrite terrorist missions).

Reality speaks a different language. The human tragedy of the violence can never be quantified, but Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip can measure the material consequences in a single set of statistics: when Arafat and the Palestinian Authority were installed after the Oslo Accords, the average annual income of Palestinians was 40 per cent that of their Israeli neighbours; today, it is just 5 per cent. …

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