Mystery still surrounds the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat nine years after his death. His body was exhumed recently by a Swiss medical team, who concluded that the PLO leader was in fact poisoned by polonium 210 – a deadly substance. The Honourable Paul Findley reminisces about times gone by and ponders over the different approaches by two US Presidents.
In the nine years since Yasser Arafat’s death, two contrasting episodes occurred by his grave, located a few steps from the entrance of the modest building that served as his office and residence during the last years of his life. Until his death it also served as a jail for the Palestinian leader whose official title was President of Palestine. Visitors could come and go, but he was confined to the quarters by Israeli military personnel, who also controlled all of Palestine.
The first episode occurred several months after Arafat’s death. I observed it during an evening television newscast in my residence in Jacksonville, Illinois. It showed former President Jimmy Carter standing at the foot of Arafat’s grave with head bowed. At the head of the grave was a floral tribute. I was so pleased and surprised I stood up and hand saluted the TV screen as tears filled my eyes. To me, Arafat was a great historic figure who is still unfairly characterised as a terrorist. He was a fearless champion of the human rights of Palestinians and my friend of more than thirty years. He survived several attempts on his life. An autopsy determined he died of poisoning.
The second episode occurred last spring. I learned that President Barack Obama would pay a brief call on Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor as President of Palestine. The meeting would be in the same office that the PLO leader occupied until his death. What would Obama do as the passed Arafat’s grave by the office door? Thousands of Americans, including some of my former constituents remain convinced Arafat was a terrorist. In my mind, I see Obama consulting with a few staffers. I doubted that he would lay a wreath on the grave. He could pause and hand salute, a normal tribute from one president to another’s grave.
Searching media and other sources, I found no photo coverage of Obama’s arrival and departure. Perhaps he took a different route to meet Abbas. To me, his non-salute at the gravesite was a snub to a great man. I wondered if Obama hated himself for it.
On other occasions, he showed strength and bravery. His behavior was powerful evidence that Israel’s lobby had a grip so great it even intimidated our president. My anger quickly changed to pity.
I have personal reminders that Carter sometimes did Israel’s bidding early in his presidency. He adopted Israel’s “no talk” policy that kept all officials of the Carter Administration from direct communication with PLO officials. In November 1978, after my second of six meetings with Arafat, I brought back from Damascus detailed terms of peace Arafat told me the PLO would stand behind. In it, Palestinians would agree to live at peace with Israel, renounce any forcible effort to enlarge the new Palestine, and have defacto trade relations if Israel would recognise that Palestine consisted of all territory seized by Israel in June 1967, with a corridor connecting the West Bank with Gaza. It was a substantial new concession to Israel. On my return to Washington, I met with Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, obviously was bound to even an indirect “no-talk” rule. He expressed no interest in my report from Arafat.
Carter appointed an able attorney, Robert Strauss, as special emissary to the Middle East. For several weeks, this led me to close relations with him. One day, Strauss told me, “I would love to meet Arafat. I am sure I could deal with him and get things settled. But the president won’t let me.”
To his great credit, before leaving office, Carter welcomed Arafat to the White House and praised him subsequently in books and published articles. As president, Carter twice forced Israeli PM Menachen Begin, to cease military assaults on Lebanon. Brzezinski recently lamented the fact that Israel today leads the US government around “like a dumb mule.” Pushed by Israel, Obama gathered warships near Syria, planning a few acts of war against the Syrian regime. Israel’s lobby sent over 200 people to make sure Congress would support the assault.
In sudden sequence, other events led Obama to major changes. Obama and Congress discovered that the American people strongly opposed any war measures in Syria. No shots were fired. Israel’s lobbyists went home emptyhanded. Wonder of wonders, the sky did not fall.
Now John Kerry, Obama’s Secretary of State, has taken on Israel’s lobby in a major issue - a peaceful interim agreement with Iran. Kerry also cast critical words at the Israeli government for its longstanding brutal treatment of Palestinians and its harmful opposition to the deal with Iran. Perhaps a day of atonement has come to Obama.
With two years remaining in his presidency, he can perform a powerful mea culpa. With the stroke of a pen on an executive order, he can suspend all aid until Israel accepts the rule of law and signs a peace treaty with Palestine. Obama's order would relieve the US government for at least two years from further complicity in Israel’s brutal grand larceny of Palestinian birthrights and, hopefully, prompt events that would produce a newly independent Palestine at peace with Israel. All this without Obama ordering even one shot fired at anyone.
Is this just “pie in the sky”? Maybe, but miracles do happen. I am 92, and I hope to live long enough to see a just peace in the Middle East and watch Obama place a wreath on Arafat’s grave. Somewhere it is written that hope springeth eternal.