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That monument, the Muqarta (“headquarters”), stood like an epitaph to their dream – an avalanche of fractured concrete where once flew the hope of a state. Arafat, too, exuded an aura of glories past. He was an icon still, wrapped in an army greatcoat and vowing to return (“God willing”), but now of exhaustion as much as fortitude.
I last spoke with him in September, three weeks before he was taken ill. It was, said his aides, a lunch, not an interview, though questions were permitted. He sat down at the head of a long table covered in paper. The room was bathed in an olive green light. There were no windows, only shadows.
How did he feel?
“Well”, he said, biting into a chicken.
He looked ill. Denied sunlight, his skin had the pallor of parchment. His lips trembled. What were alive were his eyes, magnified by glasses like the orbs of a jellyfish.
The same contrast was in his conversation. He answered questions about today and tomorrow perfunctorily, as though it was impossible to see beyond the horizon of his room. But he was stirred by the past, drawing sustenance from the vast pools behind the eyes.
“It is like a prison. I’ve been here 41 months,” he continued, spooning corn from his plate onto mine. “I hope I will be able to leave soon”.
Did he exercise?
“I can’t exercise. There are Israeli snipers on the three buildings opposite. If I were to go to Ramallah, an Israeli helicopter would assassinate me. Silvan Shalom [Israel’s Foreign Minister] said only today that Israel would like to kill me”.
Did he think Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza offered some kind of opportunity?
“It’s not a withdrawal. It’s a military redeployment. Israel will still control the borders. It won’t allow the airport and port to be reopened”.
Did he think things might move after the US elections?
“Maybe, but I doubt whether Kerry will make any difference”.
Did he think there was any hope for a peace process?
“Yes, but only if the Quartet [the US, Europe, UN and Russia] acts to ensure implementation of the roadmap [peace plan]. The roadmap is not dead,” he said, with a roll of the eyes.
For much of that world Arafat blew his chance at the Camp David summit in July 2000. There – so the argument goes – Ehud Barak offered the most generous deal any Israeli leader will make the Palestinians. Arafat said no. Worse, he made no counter offer. He dismisses the charge with a shaky hand.
“Barak never made an offer at Camp David. It was Clinton – in December – who offered me 96/97 percent of the West Bank, plus land swaps of equal quantity and quality. And we were discussing that at Taba [in January, when Barak called off negotiations]”.
So what happened at Camp David?
“Barak wanted 89 percent of the land, minus military areas Israel wanted to keep in the West Bank. He wanted Israeli control over our borders, coastline and airspace. But Barak’s most explosive mistake was to demand Israeli sovereignty under the Harem al Sharif [Temple Mount] in Jerusalem. I took the proposal to the Islamic Conference’s Jerusalem Committee. I said, ‘If you accept this offer, I will accept it’. Every single one of the 16 countries refused”.
What about the right of return?
“Israel didn’t talk about the refugees at Camp David. It was Clinton. I told him, ‘What about the 320,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon?’ Clinton said there were only 180,000. I said, ‘Let there be 100,000!’ They must be allowed to return. There lives are miserable”.
He uncoiled a little. He drank his soup from the lip of the bowl.
Did he make any mistakes?
Did he make any tactical mistakes?
He peered through the steam of his soup.
What did he achieve?
“We have made the Palestinian case the biggest problem in the world,” he said. “Look at the Hague [International Court] ruling on the [West Bank] wall. One hundred and thirty countries supported us at the General Assembly. One hundred and seven years after the [founding Zionist] Basel conference, 90 years after the Sykes-Picot agreement, Israel has failed to wipe us out. We are here, in Palestine, facing them. We are not red Indians”.