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16 October 2000

We get the Arab leaders we deserve

Yasser Arafat may be an effete, brutal and despotic leader of the Palestinians, but the western medi

By Robert Fisk

We always love Arab leaders who know how to keep control. King Abdullah of Jordan – the present King Abdullah’s great-grandfather – was described by the first British senior official in Transjordan as “lovable, considerate and generous”. His grandson King Hussein, ruthlessly suppressing the PLO’s Black September revolt, became the “PLK” – the “plucky little king”, a sobriquet that Hussein once told me he appreciated. We supported Nasser, before he nationalised the Suez Canal. We much preferred the military-minded Colonel Gaddafi to King Idriss, until he threw the RAF out of Wheelus Field. We positively adored Saddam Hussein.

“I welcome you as my personal friend,” the then prime minister Jacques Chirac told Saddam at Orly Airport in 1975, when he arrived in France on an arms-buying spree. “I assure you of my esteem, my consideration, and my affection.”

When Saddam invaded our enemy Iran five years later, the Pentagon and the CIA furnished him with photo-reconnaissance pictures – in 1996, I met the German arms-dealer who took them from Virginia to Baghdad – but when Saddam invaded our friend Kuwait in 1990, he became the Beast of Baghdad. “Our” dictators must do as they are told.

We also like to control the abilities of Arab leaders, in both war and peace. “It is true that I made you lose the war,” Henry Kissinger told President Sadat after Ariel Sharon’s Israeli forces had crossed the Canal into Egypt in 1973. “But, Mr President, be assured that I’ll make you win the peace.”

We stayed faithful to Sadat – until he was killed by one of the Islamists he was supposedly controlling – and then we stuck by his successor, Hosni Mubarak, when he “controlled” the Islamist uprising in Egypt by torturing prisoners and hanging them after being sentenced to death in military courts. Even after Mubarak’s enemies had slaughtered a group of tourists in Luxor, Britons among them, the Foreign Office was still cheerfully telling us that holidays were more or less safe in Egypt.

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It is in this historical context that we should see the shameful events of the past few weeks. Yasser Arafat, blamed by President Clinton for not making enough “compromises” at Camp David – for which read capitulations – was accused by the Israelis of fomenting the very riots in which his people were dying.

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“Arafat can control his people if he wants,” the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s press spokesman announced.

Can Arafat really control the Palestinians? Can he control the violence? Did he encourage his people to violence? Within three days of the start of the bloodbath – a tragedy clearly provoked by the right-wing Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount – radio interviewers were parroting the same questions down the line to me in Beirut.

“Do you think, Bob, that Arafat can really control the streets?” a reporter asked me from BBC Radio Wales.

It was a bit like being interviewed by Israeli radio. Israel had set the news agenda – just as it was to do later by announcing a “deadline” to end the “peace process” – and journalists dutifully picked up the colonial line. Control, control, control. Like that old racist curse “terrorist” – used about Arabs but never about Israelis – “control” became the buzzword for our coverage of the savagery in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

And note how swiftly Arafat was called to account. He had failed, in his role of local dictator, to be a friend of the west, to make peace with Israel – albeit a “peace” that most Palestinians now seem to regard as unjust, humiliating and dishonest – and to control “his” people.

In 1993, he was turned from super- terrorist into super-statesman by CNN in just 24 hours; I shall always relish the satellite chain’s fawning interview with Arafat’s new wife on the day he flew to Washington, the reverential photographs of the young “freedom-fighter”, his new title of “Chairman” – as if the leader of the Long March was about to shake hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn.

Since being given the garbage tips of Gaza, the Bantustan of the West Bank and his tin-pot airport to run, the leader of the “Palestinian Authority” was supposed to curb all outward signs of anti-Americanism, anti-Israeli anger or opposition to the misnamed “peace process”. Anyone who suggested that Arafat was a dictator was locked up. Anyone who resisted Arafat’s rule by protesting in the streets was beaten up by Arafat’s CIA-trained “policemen” and often tortured in prison. Sometimes, indeed, tortured to death. So what was this loyal Arab leader doing when “his” people were throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and policemen?

The BBC’s coverage of the killings in the Occupied Territories – or “what you call the occupied territories”, as their UN correspondent snottily corrected the Palestinian Authority’s man at the UN – was a lesson in colonial reporting. Repeatedly, we were told that Palestinian “policemen” – they themselves did not qualify as “security forces” in BBC parlance – were shooting at “Israeli security forces”.

The BBC reporter told us on the World Service on the morning of Friday 6 October that “the Palestinians now have two extra days to stop the violence”. In other words, the reporters had accepted Israel’s claim that the Palestinians – and therefore Arafat – were “behind” the violence.

Had I not witnessed the same inverted logic in action during Israel’s 22-year occupation of part of Lebanon, I would not have believed my ears. It’s not that we reporters should be romantic about the corrupt, effete, nepotistic, brutal rule of Yasser Arafat. Nor sentimental about the cruel men of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But a Palestinian policeman’s first job – as is true of any policeman anywhere – is surely to protect his people. And when Israeli “security forces” were using automatic rifles and helicopter-fired missiles against rioters, it is not very surprising, surely, that Arafat’s men started shooting back. After all, they didn’t open fire on the first day of the rioting, when the Israelis had the killing-fields to themselves.

But, no, the Palestinian Authority was not exercising the authority invested in it by the Israelis and the United States to protect Israel, and to abide by the ever more humiliating clauses of a “peace” that will give the Palestinians neither a viable state, nor an end to Jewish settlements on occupied land, nor a capital in Arab East Jerusalem. No wonder the Israelis complained. Listening to some of their spokesmen last week – complaining about the inability of their serving soldiers to enjoy the peace of Yom Kippur at home – you would think it was the Israelis who were occupied by the Palestinians.

And so we come to the famous “deadline”. Barak, the BBC informed us, had given the Palestinians until the night of 9 October to “control” the violence or the “peace process” was at an end. On air, I repeatedly questioned this so-called “ultimatum”. The Israelis were always making such threats in Lebanon, and either backing down by delaying them indefinitely or blasting their way into another self-inflicted catastrophe.

My own guess was that the Israelis thought that Arafat – true to form – would back down at the last moment and announce that, alas, he could “control” the violence and would now bring it to an end. And I rather suspect that Barak’s six-hour cabinet meeting was spent vainly waiting for Arafat to crumble. But he did not – and the Israelis did what they so often did in Lebanon: they simply abandoned the deadline. On the BBC, Israel “bowed to intense international pressure”.

So could Arafat have “controlled” his people? Yes, if he had been offered a decent peace, something that really answered the aspirations of a people who want a state – a real state, not an American-Israeli subject nation.

But the real question was not asked. Why couldn’t Barak control the Israeli “security forces” who shot and killed more than 100 Palestinians, including children as young as nine, who fired missiles into a Palestinian apartment block and who then – according to an uncritical BBC reporter – threatened to use machine-guns? Couldn’t Barak control the Israelis who – just like their Palestinian neighbours – went on an ethnic burning campaign in Nazareth?

The question remained unspoken. For Israel’s role as a “peacemaker” cannot be questioned, its rule in the still-occupied territories has no need of any critical analysis, except in the mild “excessive force” language of the United Nations. Arafat’s role is colonial. To do as he is told. And to keep control.

Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent of the Independent