The daughter of a Jewish-American peace negotiator narrates the drama of her father’s surprisingly—and perhaps inappropriately—close relationship with Yasir Arafat.
On September 12, 1993, my father stood on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base and watched Yasir Arafat walk toward him. The scene, he tells me, was akin to an opening-credits shot in a movie: The Palestinian leader in sunglasses and fatigues approached at a steady pace, flanked by stone-faced ambassadors dressed in their regal best, the sun setting low behind them.
My father was the deputy Middle East coordinator on a special team Bill Clinton had created to handle Arab-Israeli negotiations. It had taken my father fifteen years and four presidential administrations as a State Department employee to arrive at this point in his career. The possible outcomes of the meeting were immense. Arafat had visited the U.S. only once before, when he spoke at the United Nations in 1974. “I hold an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other,” he had proclaimed to the General Assembly, cautioning the audience to never let the olive branch fall from his hand. On this previous occasion, the U.N. had confined the Palestinian leader to a designated area with a fifty-mile radius, and this restriction certainly didn’t lend his peace proclamation a great deal of credibility. But on the occasion he met my father, nearly two decades later, Arafat was a mere twelve miles from Washington, D.C. In less than twenty-four hours, he would co-sign the Oslo Declaration of Principles with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an act that few people, least of all my father, had believed would ever happen. Yasir Arafat—anti-Israel revolutionary and terrorist—was about to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist.
Despite their differences in religion and nationality, my father and Arafat didn’t look like plausible antagonists: My dad was a lanky six-feet three-inches, whereas Arafat was almost a foot shorter; when they stood beside each other, the effect was comical. Arafat wore his notorious kaffiyeh on this September evening, but he looked too startled—too jet lagged—to be a terrorist.
“Welcome Mr. Chairman,” my father said, extending his hand. Arafat grinned, flashing his uneven teeth. And then my father froze. He says, now, that he can’t recall what happened to him at that moment—whether he’d forgotten his prepared remarks, or was trying to discern if Arafat was packing (as everybody at State feared), or was distracted by the Chairman’s kaffiyeh (did its shape really resemble a map of Palestine?). But instead of relaying his welcome on behalf of the U.S. government, my father stuffed his hand into his pocket and grabbed the first thing he found there.
“Mr. Chairman, would you like a Tic Tac?” my father asked and held out the tiny container of cinnamon breath mints.
“Tick-tock?” Arafat chirped, but before my father could respond, Arafat had moved on to the next person in line.
Ed Djerejian, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, leaned over to my father and shook his head. “What,” he asked, “would your mother say if she could see you now?”
My father’s early life did not position him to be a negotiator, known amongst Israeli and Palestinian diplomats as one of America’s most impartial. My great-grandparents were active in organizing American-Jewish support for the nascent Israeli state and, through their efforts, had befriended Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. My grandfather was a close friend of Yitzhak Rabin, and my grandfather claimed to have been with Sharon in Lebanon at the moment Sharon held Arafat in his gun site. “Sharon didn’t shoot,” my grandfather said, “but I would have.” My father didn’t share my grandfather’s belligerence, but he grew up believing that Israel was central to his own identity as an American Jew.
My father spent enough time with Arafat to know his favorite cartoon (Tom and Jerry) and his bedtime attire (powder blue pajamas, an Ebenezer Scrooge night cap, and an automatic pistol).
At the University of Michigan, my father’s adviser was Richard Mitchell, an Arab-American of Syrian descent the students affectionately nicknamed “Sheik.” Mitchell was a distinguished professor and former foreign service officer, and he exposed my father to the Middle East beyond Israel. Mitchell’s critical stance toward Israel, however, brought intense criticism from Ann Arbor’s Jewish community and from some Michigan faculty. Feeling the pressure of his ethnic allegiance, Mitchell eventually called my father in to say that he was giving up his Jewish advisees. My father left Mitchell’s office in tears. If his beloved professor buckled so easily, he wondered, how could the Arab-Israeli conflict ever be resolved?
Still, my father’s academic curiosity triumphed over his skepticism about the question of Israeli-Palestinian political reconciliation. He befriended Palestinians as well as Israelis when he lived in Israel with my mother in the early seventies. During the eighties and nineties, his work at State brought him into close contact with Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians. By the time he met Arafat at Andrews, my father had already forged friendships with some of the Chairman’s closest aides.
But of all the relationships my father cultivated over the course of his involvement in the peace negotiations, no one’s interest in him was more unusual than Yasir Arafat’s. My father says it felt as though Arafat had assumed the role of his Jewish grandma. “Aaron, sit next to me,” the Chairman would demand in his clipped English when they sat down for dinner in Ramallah or Gaza. “Aaron, come eat off my plate.” Somewhat sheepishly, my father admits to knowing things about Arafat that an American diplomat surely wasn’t supposed to know about a world leader. He spent enough time with the Chairman to know Arafat’s favorite cartoon (Tom and Jerry) as well as his bedtime attire (powder blue pajamas, an Ebenezer Scrooge night cap, and an automatic pistol).
One evening during the July 2000 Camp David negotiations, as the American diplomats watched the All-Star Game on a big screen TV, Arafat plopped down next to my father as though they were old chums. Arafat had never seen a baseball game before, and he grabbed my father’s hand, eager for an explanation of the event.
“Baseball isn’t like other sports, Mr. Chairman,” my father explained. “It’s the only game without a clock.”
“No clock?” Arafat said. He was still holding my father’s hand.
“Basketball and football have time limits. A baseball game can go on forever.”
Arafat stared at my father with wide eyes.
Weeks later, after the Second Intifada had broken out and Israelis and Palestinians were murdering one another in the streets of Ramallah and Jerusalem, my father wondered if Arafat would have understood baseball better if my father had likened it to the peace process. “It goes on forever, Mr. Chairman,” he could have said. “It seems to never end.”
To critics like my grandfather, Arafat was duplicitous, self-interested, and weak. A peace agreement would never be negotiated under the authority of such a man. My father had a more nuanced view of the situation. Arafat was the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. To his people, Arafat’s struggle to assume leadership, to be recognized as legitimate, was part of the larger Palestinian struggle for statehood and legitimacy. My father saw firsthand the extent to which the Israeli occupation degraded Palestinians physically and psychologically. The fact that Arafat had survived for so long was a source of strength for a population under siege.
How could you really get to know a person who, within the span of ten minutes, raged about some “impossible” American request, sobbed like a scorned lover, and then pleaded for forgiveness?
Also, my father understood that America’s relationship with the Israelis was completely different from their relationship with the Palestinians. Between the signing of Oslo in 1993 and Israel’s military incursion into the West Bank in 2002, the Americans dealt with four Israeli prime ministers from two different political parties, each of whom had his own policy approach. But there was only one Arafat. Arafat’s acceptance of terrorist tactics may have justified the attacks against him, but my father knew that if Arafat was not listened to, the peace process was khalas. Finished.
My father kept an open mind toward the Palestinian leader for personal reasons, as well. In 1996, in the wake of my grandmother’s death, Arafat called my grandmother’s home in Ohio from Palestine to express his condolences. Even if the call was smart politics, says my father, it was incredible that the man had reached out to him in such a personal way. When Arafat grew distraught at the Wye negotiations in 1998, my father consoled him. “Don’t give up, Mr. Chairman,” he said, putting his arm around Arafat’s shoulders. “There are too many people who depend on you.” After this, Arafat looked at my father with unique candor.
But more often than not, Arafat was impenetrable. How could you really get to know a person who, within the span of ten minutes, raged about some “impossible” American request, sobbed like a scorned lover, and then pleaded for forgiveness? Still, Arafat made himself accessible to my father as no other leader did. In light of their proximity—both physical and emotional—it was hard for my father to retain critical distance.
On March 27, 2002, my father was at a Passover Seder in Jerusalem with Middle East envoy General Anthony Zinni, when he was summoned for a phone call. It was the State Department Operations Center. The militant Islamic group Hamas had bombed a large Seder gathering at an Israeli hotel on the Mediterranean coast. The Passover Massacre, as the event came to be known, happened two years after the failure at Camp David gave way to the Second Intifada. It happened mere months after the Israeli Defense Forces leveled much of Arafat’s Ramallah compound. But it took this act of terror, intentionally perpetrated on the Jewish holiday of freedom and rebirth, to convince my father that he and his partners had failed. My father hung up the phone and went to Zinni. “It’s over,” he said.
Only it wasn’t. The Hamas bombing killed nineteen, wounded 172, and spurred Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to launch a full-scale military incursion into the West Bank. But Sharon’s retaliation didn’t stop the Americans from trying to rectify yet another hopeless situation. In the first week of April, my father and General Zinni went to Ramallah with a small delegation to urge Arafat to rein in Hamas. The Chairman was now living in the rubble heap that had previously been his West Bank headquarters, a compound called the Muqata. The Americans pulled up in their armored cars to a fragile state of affairs. Young, armed Palestinians guarded the Muqata’s entrance. IDF snipers aimed their guns at the Americans from the surrounding rooftops. After some tense exchanges between the Palestinian toughs and the American interpreter, the U.S. team entered the building. Inside the Muqata, the electricity was out. The stench from broken toilets filled the dark, shattered rooms. The hallways were packed with European protesters shouting anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans as the American team walked by. Finally, the group entered Arafat’s conference room. Zinni took one look at the haggard Palestinian officials hunkered around the table and leaned toward my father. “They look like drowned rats,” he whispered.
Which was true—except for Arafat. The Chairman sat at the head of the table in his kaffiyeh and fatigues, grinning hugely, his automatic pistol on display. He welcomed the Americans with jubilation and offered them tea. My father had never seen him so cordial and invigorated. Zinni tried to reason with him, but Arafat announced: “I’m the only undefeated general. I’m ready to die for Palestine.”
My father watched the scene, stunned. Here they were in Ramallah in the year 2002, but Arafat was behaving as though they had dropped through a wormhole into 1982 Beirut, where the Palestinians were first besieged by Ariel Sharon. Arafat could not have been happier. He was playing the starring role in an epic drama.
Only later did my father realize that he and his colleagues had become caught up in the same drama. If the drama were a movie, its trailer would have advertised that Arafat was the most frequent visitor to the Oval Office in 2000, America allowed both terror and settlement construction to continue unabated during Oslo, and my father’s team too often acquiesced to the Israeli point of view. I can imagine the voiceover to that movie trailer: On their way to Camp David, the American negotiating team got lost. Like Arafat, the Americans succumbed to fantasy. They were so caught up in the way they wanted the world to be that, in their dogged desire for a happy ending, they ceased to see the world as it really was. They were acting in the movie when they should have been directing it.
My father is no longer in government. He spent two years writing The Much Too Promised Land, a book about America’s role in the Peace Process. He is a scholar and analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where, last month, he was interviewed about the situation in Gaza on behalf of the nation’s media programs. But he will not return to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not as before. He will no longer stand on tarmacs beneath the setting sun, ride in armored cars, or eat food from the plates of dignitaries. He’s had enough melodrama. Enough tick-tock.
Jennifer Miller’s own strange and surprising relationship with Yasir Arafat is detailed in her book, Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East.