November 9, 2004.
Since his admission to a Paris hospital last week, Mr. Arafat – whose days have
apparently been spent, braindead, attached to a life-sustaining respirator – has
been variously reported by his aides and wife as improving; not seriously ill;
ambulatory; in a good mood and jesting with his doctors; in a reversible coma;
and waking up to smile at President Chirac of France when the latter paid him a
If brain death didn’t preclude the possibility, one might almost suspect
him of having composed all these communiquÃ©s himself.
When and where hasn’t Mr. Arafat habitually lied about himself and the
Palestinian movement he helped found, starting with the moment of his birth?
He lied about this being in Palestine, his real birthplace having been Cairo, to
which his family had moved two years earlier.
He lied, too, about having spent his childhood and youth in Jerusalem, a
city in which he resided only between the ages of 4 and 8 – the one time he
lived in Palestine at all prior to his entry into Gaza as head of the Palestinian
Authority in 1994.
Mr. Arafat – a “‘bossy’ child with a penchant for ‘showmanship'”, according to
his biographers – lied about his role as a young man in the 1948 Arab-Israeli
war, claiming to have fought with Arab troops in Palestine when he was in fact
in Egypt all the time. He lied about taking part in anti-British hostilities in the
Suez Canal Zone in 1951.
He lied about having been imprisoned for months in Nasser’s Egypt for
anti-regime activities. He lied about the success of his business activities In
Kuwait,to which he moved from Egypt. He lied about the first guerrilla raids of
the Fatah into Israel in 1965, issuing statements about attacks that never took
place and wildly exaggerating the few that did.
So absurd were these declarations, in fact, that a year later, in 1966, he was
suspended as the organization’s military commander by his (none too honest
themselves) comrades for issuing “false reports”.
Yet after the Six Day War in 1967 he kept it up – lying about his
supposedly extensive underground travels in the Israeli-occupied West Bank,
lying about his role in the battle of Karama on the east bank of the Jordan in
1968, lying about not being responsible for Palestinian terrorist operations in
the 1970s and 1980s, including the murder of three American diplomats in
Sudan in 1973.
All of which was nothing compared to the lies that he told throughout his
political career about the promises he meant to keep and the obligations he
intended to honor – promises and obligations that were broken by him over and
He lied to King Hussein of Jordan when he vowed that his guerrilla forces there
would respect Jordanian sovereignty in return for the hospitality granted them;
lied to President Assad of Syria when – after his expulsion from Jordan to
Lebanon – he swore to keep his troops out of the Lebanese civil war; lied to the
various factions in that war about his support; lied to his Arab allies when –
expelled with their agreement from Lebanon, too, in 1982 – he returned there a
year later to resume fighting.
From birth to death, the man was a liar – one who presided over a Palestinian
cause that learned under his tutelage to lie like himself.This was why it was
such a terrible mistake for Israel to commence negotiations with him in the early
1990s and to allow these to conclude in the Oslo accords.
It was the conventional wisdom of those days, repeated over and over with a
patient smile to the opponents of Oslo, that, yes, Yasser Arafat was a terrorist
and Yasser Arafat had been Israel’s bitter enemy,but were not peace
agreements signed between enemies? And had not many an ex-‘terrorist’, as
leaders of national liberation movements often were called, ended up a
responsible head of state? Had not Israel’s Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir
been ex-‘terrorists’ themselves?
But this was entirely missing the point.The real reason for having nothing to do
with Mr. Arafat was not that he was an enemy or a terrorist. One does indeed,
when the time comes, negotiate with enemies; one can indeed, if they are
prepared to renounce it, negotiate with those who have practiced terrorism.
There is, in the world of diplomacy, only one type of leader with whom must
never negotiate under any circumstance.
This is the leader who is a liar.
It isn’t a question of moral principle. Lying isn’t a worse crime than terrorism.
It’s a purely pragmatic question of utility. A terrorist who can be trusted to keep
his word is a man you can do business with, even if you are shaking a hand
smeared with innocent blood. It is impossible, though, to do business with a
liar. There is no point in making agreements with someone who does not
believe in the importance of keeping them.
This is a truth so simple and so obvious that it seems all but impossible to
understand now how it could have eluded those – Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres,
the Israeli intelligence community, the commanders of the Israeli army – who
welcomed the disaster of Oslo with open arms 11 years ago. Did they not know
what a liar Arafat was?
The answer is that they did but were under a peculiar illusion. They thought
that lying, like terrorism, was something that, if done up to a point for a
purpose, could be after that point given up. They didn’t realize that a man who
has lied all his life will go on lying right up to his death.