On August 24, I flew to the Holmenkollin Park Hotel in Oslo, Norway, to cover a hastily organized “fifth anniversary” conference that was held exactly five years to exact day and the very place where the “Oslo accords” had been agreed to by the bonafide representatives of the government of Israel and the PLO.
While the governments of Israel and Norway have indeed changed, you could walk into the lobby of the Holmenkollin Park Hotel in Oslo and see many of the people who brought you the original Oslo process still at work, even if they were no longer in government.
In the hotel lobbies that were spread over two spacious floors, you could noticeably see Shimon Peres and Uri Savir, five years ago with the top brass of the Israel Foreign Ministry and now the heads of the Peres Center for Peace in the Middle East, hob-nobbing with Arafat’s top advisor, Abu Allah, as they loudly discussed the nostalgia for the good times of five years ago.
And in another corner of the lobby, you could see the Palestine Authority chief negotiator Hanan Asfour who was quietly ensconced with Likud majority leader Meir Shitrit, a man who was sent by the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, to attend the conference on behalf of the Israeli head of state. Shitrit emerged from his coffee table summit with Asfour to tell the press, quite matter of factly, that the differences between Israel and the Palestine Authority were not too significant, and that another deal was in the works.
And in another corner of the lobby sat Peres’s trusted protege, MK Dr. Yossi Beillin, who was meeting with Dr. Uzi Arad, the special national security advisor to Netanyahu. Arad had just stated a few days earlier that Dr. Beillin’s idea for a delayed recognition of Palestinian Arab independence was “worthy of consideration”.
And in the downstairs auditorium at the Holmenkollin Park Hotel was a reminder of the more difficult side of the Oslo process: It was there that Norwegian statesman, Kare Kristansen, conducted a full fledged news conference for the Norwegian media, where Kristiansen showed a recent comprehensive video clip from the official PA Palestine Broadcasting Corporation, complied by the Jerusalem- based “Peace for Generations” group, whose representative, Daniel Yosef, had come from Jerusalem to join Kristansen and present a video which showed that the official programs of the Palestine Authority were airing daily television programs that egged on Arab children to a life of “Jihad” holy war to liberate all of Palestine.
Upstairs, again in the lobby, one of the chief US negotiators, Aron Miller, declared that the greatest disappointment in the Oslo process was that the Palestinians had simply not changed their “tone” in Arabic.
Kristiansen, it will be remembered, was the one member of the Nobel Peace Prize committee to resign from the committee rather than to sanction the nomination of Arafat as a Nobel Peace prize laureate.
Kristensan declared that it was strange to celebrate this anniversary, since that day commemorated Arafat’s as-yet unfulfilled commitment to cancel the covenant and constitution of the PLO whose 33 articles calls for continued war and the eventual liquidation of the state of Israel.
Kristensan went on to describe Arafat’s record: The fact that Arafat has never issued a denunciation of the murder of Jews in Arabic, the fact that Arafat has continued to give speeches that preach Jihad and the liberation of all of Palestine, along with an analysis of Arafat’s human rights policies, which have included the arrest and execution of human rights workers, independent TV producers, and a host of Palestinian dissidents
The unkindest cut of all, in the words of Kare Kristensan, was that the “decision” of August 25, 1993 to cancel the covenant was never ratified, to this day, a factor which should have nullified any reason for the commemoration of that date.
Well, there may have been another reason for the hastily called conference.
That reason may have something to do with Arafat’s personal condition.
From the first day of the Oslo process, every major and minor decision rests on Arafat.
Like him or not as a “democrat”, Arafat has been a strong leader who makes his presence felt in the Palestine Authority.
Arafat has demonstrated, time and again, that he can turn the spigot of violence and terror “on and off”, according to his will.
On the economic front, not only do all decisions go through Arafat – all moneys flow through accounts in Israel and the Palestine Authority that actually require Arafat’s personal signature. That is written quite clearly in the Oslo accords.
The Oslo process dependence on Arafat was made most clear when Kjell Magne Bondevick, the Prime Minister of Norway confided in the press on the morning of the commemorative event that the success of the process is dependent on strong and personal support for Yassir Arafat. Only a few months ago, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl summoned Netanyahu to Bonn with precisely the same message.
After a festive meal at the Holmenkollin Park Hotel, a crowd of diplomats and dignitaries gathered at Norway’s famous “Nobel Institute”, where the Nobel Prize is bequeathed each year, and where Arafat, Peres and Rabin had received their award four years ago – an event that I had also come to Oslo to cover.
This was an unusual occasion – to honor Nobel laureates for a second time
After the crowd had gathered, Arafat walked in the room, holding on to Shimon Peres. Arafat was asked to speak first. Since I have covered and chronicled Arafat’s speeches over the past five years, I was expecting another dose of Arafat’s accomplished oratory, however reconciliatory it would be in light of the venue. Yet Arafat spoke in a hushed tone, in Arabic, reading from a prepared text and asking his aide, Saeb Erakat, to translate every few minutes.
Arafat simply stressed Palestinian nationalism and added a few thoughts about “education for peace”.
Peres followed suit with a call to peace, as did Meir Shitrit and US diplomat Dennis Ross, after which the conference adjourned for the panelists to meet just with the press.
During the informal break in events, as Arafat walked by me, I approached him with my microcassette and proverbial reporter’s pad, asking Arafat if he would make a statement in Arabic about the recent murder of Rabbi Shlomo Raanan in Hebron, since no statement had yet been issued from any official PA source on this matter.
Arafat placed a very jittery hand on my elbow. His lips were stammering. His legs were not steady. His eyes were bloodshot. His face was gaunt. Only eighteen months ago, when I had accompanied a delegation of Judea residents to meet him – he now seemed two thirds the weight he used to be. He could not hear me, even though I was speaking to him from point-blank range. He squinted, barely able to see me. Arafat stopped in his tracks, trying to focus on my question. Then his security man pushed Arafat ahead towards the toilet.
I had seen Arafat at a public presentation in Ramallah only a few months ago. He did not look or act like this. Perhaps Arafat had suffered some kind of stroke.
When Arafat returned to the hall, he sat at a press conference table next to Erakat, together with Ross, Peres and Shitrit, opposite about twenty. Arafat could not hear the questions from only a few feet away. Erekat communicated them to him. I, for one, asked about the Palestine Broadcasting Authority children’s programs that are televised each day on the official PA TV station, operating from Arafat’s own studio. I asked if these programs that promoted violence were the “education for peace” that he advocated.
Arafat responded by saying that there were 840,000 Palestinian children going to school in the Palestine Authority, and that the Jordanian and Egyptian curriculum would soon be changed.
I again asked Arafat whether the children’s TV programs on PA TV represented the kind of programs that would become the Palestinian educational curriculum. Eraket then whispered in Arafat’s ear. Arafat then said that he has issued orders for an investigation of the PBC TV children’s club program. Erakat then said that he was hearing about this program from many of his Jewish friends and that he had “told Arafat” to ask for an investigation of the matter.
What shocked the press in Oslo was that Arafat was no longer functioning.
Having been trained in medical social work and having watched my own father suffer through a series of mini-strokes for three years before his death, I do not have to be a medical expert to know that the Palestinian national movement that has been oriented around Yassir Arafat for a generation must now foster a new modus operandus.
What the press witnessed in Arafat’s behavior in Oslo is what European, American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have also seen. The cat is out of the bag. Arafat is on the way out. Even if he continues to live, he is no longer a functional leader.
Writing in the summer 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs, a leading Palestinian researcher writes that Arafat’s deterioration of health may bring about a Hamas take-over of the Palestine Authority.
And what feeds Moslem fundamentalism more than any other factor remains the allegation of corruption. From the Jewish-Moslem dialogue group that I attend, I have learned from Moslem colleagues that when a public entity is accused of stealing funds, it is like stealing from Allah (God)
Yet at a time when the US and some circles in the west face a new battle with Moslem fundamentalism, from Kenya to Afghanistan, the last thing that the US and the EU want to see now is a Hamas-led Palestinian entity.
It would be fair to say that the reason for a hastily convened summit in Oslo this week was to prepare for a post-Arafat period in the peace process, while giving Arafat an honorable send-off at the Nobel Insitute in Oslo.
It would seem that the relationships that were again fostered in Oslo will again form the basis of the next step in the middle east peace process.