Oslo Accords Reminiscences
My First Encounter With Yasser Arafat
My first encounter with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat occurred in 1974 – nearly twenty years before we met on the White House South Lawn during the signing ceremony of the Oslo Agreement. In the three years that followed that ceremony, I spent so many days and nights negotiating the details of the Oslo Accords with him that some came to consider me an expert on Arafat – one of the most controversial and enigmatic figures of the 20th century.
Indeed, among non-Arab diplomats, I am certainly near the top of the list of those who spent the most time haggling with Arafat. Still, the impression I gained about Arafat in 1974 did not change a lot. While my first encounter with Arafat that year did not involve a face-to-face contact with the man himself, it nonetheless allowed me a very intimate insight into the kind of person he was. This article tells the story of how I got to know Arafat in 1974.
Prelude to the Encounter
In 1974, Arafat was invited to speak before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, in a session scheduled for November 13, 1974. The invitation was the result of a resolution passed in an Arab League summit on October 28, 1974. In that meeting, the region’s Arab leaders adopted a unanimous resolution, declaring the PLO to be the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” This unprecedented decision essentially transferred the responsibility for the West Bank from Jordanian King Hussein to PLO Chairman Arafat.
This was Arafat’s first invitation to appear before the UN, as well as his first trip to the United States. The invitation clearly caused a lot of heartburn in Washington, where, at that time, Arafat was still considered the epitome of the arch terrorist. It would be another 15 years before Secretary of State George P. Shultz would obtain Arafat’s commitments to renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and accept UN Resolution 242. Those commitments – reached in December 1988 – came through a long and arduous process, akin to pulling teeth. It would be another four years – in 1993 – before I managed to extract broader commitments from Arafat in the context of the Israel-PLO Mutual Recognition Agreement. And it would not be until the following year, 1994, that Yasser Arafat would receive the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
In 1974, however, Arafat had made none of these commitments to peace. At that time, and for many years thereafter, Arafat continued to lead the PLO (then based in neighboring Lebanon) in launching terrorist attacks against Israel, Israelis and Jews around the world. The White House and State Department, therefore, faced two contradictory considerations. On the one hand, after the UN established its headquarters in New York in 1945, the US committed – in a formal agreement with the UN – to allow anyone invited to the UN to enter the US for that purpose. On the other hand, it was against US policy to grant an entry visa to any member of a terrorist organization, and certainly a leader of a terrorist organization as prominent as Arafat.
The Arab League resolution and UN invitation to Arafat dealt Israel a rapid, one-two punch. Over the course of two weeks, Jordan, the state which had controlled the West Bank from 1948-1967 and had long-been considered the legitimate and exclusive authority on Palestinian issues had been substituted by a group Israel considered a terrorist organization bent on the Jewish State’s destruction. This tectonic shift was followed by an invitation from the United Nations for the leader of that organization – Yasser Arafat – to share a stage with the world’s leading statesmen.
Thus, the two weeks in October and November 1974 between the Arab League resolution and Arafat’s UN speech were hectic days in the history of Israeli diplomacy. In those weeks, Israel considered and took a number of steps to prevent Arafat from being crowned as the internationally-recognized leader of the Palestinians, in favor of preserving Jordanian King Hussein’s role as key interlocutor in any negotiations over the fate of the West Bank. Accordingly, and since Israel understood the United States was leaning toward allowing Arafat to travel to New York, Israel’s immediate objective was to attempt to convince the United States to refuse Arafat entry into the United States to address the UN.
It was against this backdrop that I unexpectedly found myself at the eye of the storm.
The Mission: Prevent Arafat from Speaking at the United Nations
In 1974, just one year after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, I was a young legal officer (essentially straight out of law school) serving in the International Law Department of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Judge Advocate General unit. In late October 1974, I was summoned to my superiors’ office, and given an urgent and highly confidential assignment. The task was to quickly develop the core of an extradition request to be submitted by the Israeli government to the US Department of Justice, seeking the arrest and extradition to Israel of Yasser Arafat upon his arrival in New York.
In order to develop a well-founded extradition request, and specifically preclude the possibility that the request would be denied due to the “political offense” exception of the US-Israel Extradition Convention, I was told that all the offenses attributed to Arafat must be limited to terrorist acts he had committed himself or in which he had directly participated. Acts committed by other members of Fatah – the organization Arafat founded in 1959, and which was the largest faction of the PLO, of which he was Chairman – would not be enough.
Mostly forgotten today, for a few months in late 1967 – in the wake of Israel capturing the West Bank from Jordan in the Six-Day War – Arafat infiltrated the West Bank and, while in hiding, organized cells of Fatah members to conduct sporadic attacks against Israeli targets. Near the end of 1967, Arafat fled to Jordan, where he established Fatah’s headquarters and from there commanded intensified terrorist activity against Israel.
In 1971, following military clashes with the Jordanian Army, Arafat, Fatah and the PLO (the umbrella organization for all Palestinian terrorist groups, which Arafat led beginning in 1968) were driven out of Jordan to Lebanon. From Lebanon, Arafat led hundreds of attacks per year against Israel. These attacks included civilian targets – markets, stores, bus stations – resulting in dozens of civilian casualties each year. In 1968, PLO member organizations began attacking Israeli civilian targets abroad – hijacking airplanes and attacking Israeli El Al Airlines offices and embassies abroad, among other terrorist attacks.
According to the instructions I received, however, I was to focus exclusively on the terrorist acts Arafat had performed against Israeli civilians while in the West Bank in 1967. These instructions were aimed at developing the strongest possible case for extradition. All materials associated with Arafat’s 1967 West Bank activity, I was told, had been prepared for my review the next day in a Jerusalem office of the Israeli Security Service (a secretive governmental agency responsible for maintaining internal security in all the areas under Israeli control, including in the West Bank). I was given an address in Jerusalem to report to, and a car to drive from Tel-Aviv, where my office was located.
Trying to Locate the Secret Office of the Israeli Security Service
The next day, I woke up very early in the morning to make the drive to Jerusalem and be there when the Security Service office opened at 8:00 am – aiming to make the best use of the one-day timeframe I was given to study the issue and develop the extradition request. Arriving in Jerusalem after the hour-and-a-half drive, I started looking for the address given to me. In those days before GPS, the only tool at my disposal was a city map that led me to a part of Jerusalem far from the city center, in a neighborhood I had never visited before.
The neighborhood was made up of four-floor, residential-office mixed-use buildings, where the ground floor was often offices or stores, with residential apartments on the three floors above. I parked the car on the street of the address and began searching for the building with the correct number. This was a challenge, as some of the buildings on that street did not display a number, and other buildings in a row were not in sequential order.
After walking back and forth several times, I concluded that one building in that street – which also didn’t have a street number displayed – must be the building I was looking for. But that building had a metal-framed, opaque glass door, which was locked. There was neither a doorbell to reach someone inside, nor a sign with any clue that the Security Service office was situated behind the locked door.
I thought that if I would only wait long enough, someone with a key might arrive and open the door, allowing me to sneak into the building with them. But no one came and the place appeared to be otherwise quite deserted. It suddenly dawned on me that I did not even have the name or phone number of anyone I was to meet at the Security Service office. All that I’d been told was that “they” were expecting me, but no one gave me any guidance as to how to get into “their” office. I was not even sure that the building I was standing in front of was the right building. Given the secrecy that surrounded the Israeli Security Service in those days (for many years Israeli media was barred from reporting that the intelligence organization even existed), I quickly abandoned any plan to ask a neighbor where the secret Security Service office was located.
As I was walking back and forth on that street searching for a clue, I recalled a joke about a young, inexperienced Israeli Mossad agent sent to Europe to make a contact with a local “asset” named Smith. The asset was in hiding at a specified address, and thus, the young agent was instructed not to identify himself by name and instead use a secret code: a line from a William Blake poem.
When the young agent arrived at his destination, he realized that two Smiths were listed on the building’s intercom doorbell system. He, therefore, did a quick eenie meenie miny moe and pressed the button for one of the Smiths.
He then heard the voice of an old lady on the intercom speaker:
The old lady (very cheerfully): “Yeeeeees? Who is it?”
The young agent: “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night…”
The old lady (even more cheerfully): “Ah! You are looking for the spy! You need to press the button for the other Smith.”
At that very same moment, I heard a deep voice coming from somewhere above me:
The deep voice: “Who are you looking for?”
Me (having neither a name of a contact person, nor a secret code): “I am Joel Singer.”
The deep voice: “We are expecting you. Push the door and come in.”
At which time, I heard a buzz that allowed me to push the door and enter the building. Apparently, there was a hidden camera installed somewhere above the entrance, and my confused lingering and pacing in front of the building caught the attention of those watching the video monitor inside.
Searching for Evidence of Arafat’s Terrorist Acts
Finally allowed inside the Security Service office, I realized that it was actually a huge archive, filled with thick files and boxes organized in row upon row of floor-to-ceiling shelves. Bafflingly, this intelligence treasure trove was manned by only two people. In preparation for my work, the two archivists had already identified the files I needed to review and placed them on top of a small desk in a tiny clearing among the shelves.
The only guidance the archivists provided me was that I should not look for the name Yasser Arafat in the collected materials; rather, I should look for the name Abu Amar. As with other key members of the Fatah and the PLO, Arafat’s colleagues usually referred to him by his nom-de-guerre: Abu Amar. This Palestinian custom grants an honorific title referring to a man’s first-born son – the Arabic word “abu” meaning “father of.” For instance, “Abu Mazen” – the nom-de-guerre of Mahmoud Abbas, current PLO Chairman and Arafat’s heir – means “the father of Mazen” (Mazen being the name of Abbas’s first-born son). However, it was a mystery to me why Arafat was referred to as “Father of Amar,” as he had no child named Amar. In fact, at that time and for many years thereafter, Arafat was not married and did not have any children.
So, tucked in that tiny cave in the archive, I began reviewing the voluminous compilation of documents. In those days, before the invention of word processing programs, documents were typed using manual typewriters and copies of original documents were created by using carbon papers, with each copy looking more faded and less legible than the one above it. The documents I reviewed appeared to be the fifth or sixth copy in the original stack of papers, faded and patchy, making my review quite challenging. But nonetheless, as I was piecing together the information contained in these documents, the picture became very clear.
Arafat infiltrated into the West Bank in August 1967, just two months after the Six-Day War of June 1967 ended. At the same time, a few hundred Palestinians – mostly West Bankers who studied in Europe, were recruited by Fatah, and then trained in Fatah camps in Algeria – also snuck into the territory and returned to their West Bank towns and villages. Arafat, living in hiding in a number of West Bank safehouses, then organized these Fatah recruits into small cells, which began launching terror attacks (or, what the Fatah called, armed struggle) against Israelis. Over the next four months, Arafat led these Fatah cells in conducting several dozen operations. Quickly, however, the Israeli Security Service managed to crush that activity, foiling many of the attacks and capturing and imprisoning virtually all members of these cells. Arafat himself narrowly escaped capture when Israeli soldiers raided his hiding place in Ramallah just minutes after he had left. He was then smuggled out of the West Bank into Jordan.
While 20 years later, in the context of the Oslo Accords talks, I heard Arafat occasionally brag to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres about his prowess and experience as a general (indeed he wore his version of a general’s uniform for most of his life), the record I examined in 1974 – at least as it related to his time in the West Bank in 1967 – told a different story.
The documents certainly demonstrated that Arafat was courageous, charismatic and extremely devoted to the Palestinian cause. But they also revealed Arafat’s operational and strategic failures. What’s more, he seemed to spend more time changing his hiding places and escaping capture than he ever did planning operations or leading Palestinian cells into battle.
And as to my task, after reviewing the documents I was forced to conclude that Israel lacked sufficient evidence that Arafat had himself actively participated – at least in any meaningful manner – in any terrorist activity while in the West Bank in 1967. Despite his intent, he was never a front-line combatant in any terrorist attack. I, therefore, recommended not pursuing the extradition idea.
During that very long day, I felt that the fate of Arafat, the Palestinians, Israel and perhaps the entire Middle East was placed in my hands – a very heavy weight to carry for the young man I was then. If I were to reach one conclusion, or its opposite, history could pivot in a different direction. I felt the same sense twenty years later, while negotiating, on behalf of Israel, the Oslo Agreement and the Mutual Recognition Agreement with the PLO. But while my efforts in 1974 could have ended the story of Arafat as an active player on the global stage, my work on the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s resulted in enabling Arafat as the Palestinian leader.
After submitting my report and recommendations, I received no feedback. Several days later, however, when Arafat landed in New York, Israel did not submit any request for the United States to arrest and extradite him to Israel. Thus, I concluded that either my report and recommendations dispelled any idea of seeking Arafat’s extradition to Israel or that the extradition idea had, to begin with, been conceived by low-level Israeli officials and was never approved by higher-echelon officials. Perhaps it was a combination of both.
Either way, with no Israeli extradition request hindering his journey to New York, on November 13, 1974, the door was open for Arafat to walk dramatically into the United Nations General Assembly hall, wearing his military uniform and a leather holster (presumably with pistol) around his waist, even though carrying a gun inside the United Nations building was strictly forbidden. There, he delivered his famous address, concluding with the following sentence:
Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.
Twenty years later, in 1993, Arafat made his second trip to the United States for the Oslo Agreement signing ceremony in Washington. As I stood next to him on the heightened podium placed on the White House South Lawn during the signing ceremony, the thought crossed my mind: “What would Arafat think if he knew that I – the person who drafted the agreement that was about to be signed shortly – also had worked twenty years earlier on a request to arrest and extradite him to Israel?” I also wondered whether Arafat would even be standing next to me on that day in the White House, if the extradition request materialized.
In 1993, as the Palestinians and Israelis were working to forge a lasting peace, many recalled Arafat’s 1974 UN “gun and olive branch” speech. It appeared to everyone, including me, that Arafat would finally let the gun fall from his hand, carrying only the olive branch, as he solemnly committed to do in the Mutual Recognition Agreement that I drafted and he signed with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
But sadly, this was not the case, and it was never clearer than during the Second Intifada – which broke out in 2000 under Arafat’s watch as the leader of Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, and which left approximately 3000 Palestinians and 1000 Israelis dead. Arafat had chosen to hold on to the gun.
As I noted in a Washington Post article I wrote after the outbreak of the Second Intifada:
In Oslo, Arafat promised to let the gun fall and keep only the olive branch. In fact, he kept the gun, just in case the olive branch would not give him everything he wanted. Now, he wants to use them alternately, or simultaneously, for gains.
More than anything else, including unacceptable Israeli Jewish settlement policies, Arafat’s inability to depart from his rebellious past – to abandon violence and terrorism and fully embrace the olive branch as the exclusive path forward – derailed the Oslo Agreement process.