Arafat: “Shamir is ‘Mr. No’ – not the Prime Minister of Israel”

The Prime Minister of Israel (1915-2012) forced the PLO out of the Madrid Peace Conference and only accepted the presence of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Abu Ammar does not forgive him. (Read more..)

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (left) confers with his Deputy Foreign Minister and spokesperson Benjamin Netanyahu at the Madrid peace conference in October 1991
© Associated Press |

“Mr. No is out of place, both in space and in time, as are his antiquated slogans and out-of-date dreams”. These were the carefully weighed and strongly pronounced words which Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, used in response to the speech of the Israeli prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, at the Peace Conference in Madrid.

“Shamir continues to be obstinate stressing the he is not accepting the new situation following the third world war [a reference to the 1991 Gulf war], said Arafat at a meeting in Tunis, sponsored by the United Nations with a group of journalists (I was one of them) from several European newspapers.

“He [Shamir] continues to use the old language; he continues to speak of a Greater Israel”, complained Arafat, without hiding the deep-rooted antagonism that exists between the two leaders.

Arafat also availed himself of the opportunity to repeat the accusation that the Herut Party’s ideology., one of the members of the Likud bloc and of the Israeli governmental coalition, “is to annex not only the West Bank but also the East Bank of the Jordan River, from Jordan to the Euphrates.”

Donning his military uniform and the traditional kaffiyeh to cover his baldness, and with a hand partly covered in an elastic bandage, Arafat showed himself to be a real actor.

He raised or lowered his voice to heighten the effect of his words, crossing his arms on the table, sticking out his finger like a prosecuting attorney, or pinning his eyes on his adversary, as if appealing for understanding.

His timbre gained further impetus when he mentioned Jerusalem and denied that the Jews and Israel had an exclusive right to that city.

Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir during a session of the Middle East peace conference, which started 30 October 1991 in Madrid
© Patrick Baz | AFP | Getty Images

The name “Jerusalem” derives from the term “Olsalim”, meaning the city of Salim, one of the kings of Canaan who built it, Arafat explained.

In order to make sure that his words were not misinterpreted, Arafat referred several times to his advisers who filled the room, where one of the walls was completely covered by a photograph of the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem.

“Shamir repeated antiquated and blatant lies and the old cliché about peace in exchange for peace”, Arafat remarked.

“Why did the Israelis come to Madrid, if the first item on President [George H. W.] Bush’s agenda, which we appreciate, was ‘land for peace’? I regret to say it, but Mr. Shamir is Mr. No, not the Prime Minister of Israel.”

What angered Arafat most were the conditions that Israel imposed on the Palestinian delegation to the Conference, forcing a joint one with Jordan, and excluding the PLO.

Only Palestinians from the occupied territories, as Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi and Haidar Abdel-Shafi, were allowed to participate, even if Israel and the US were aware that they were in permanent contact with their exiled leader in Tunis.

“Schwarzkopf did not select the Iraqis with whom to speak after the war… In the Cambodian peace process, no one dictate the names of the delegations. The exception is Shamir as regards to the Palestinians.”

For about two hours of conversation, Arafat showed himself several times to be conciliatory vis-à-vis the United States, having adopted an unusually severe tone towards Europe.

“I regret to tell you this, but you Europeans have pampered and spoilt your naughty boy, Israel”.

The unchangeable figure of  “Mr. Palestine”

© Sugimoto Hiroshi

Yasser Arafat’s character – like his speeches – never changes. The PLO leader received his guests in a military uniform, with a gun in his holster and a kaffiyeh covering his baldness.

Although his right hand was bound in an elastic bandage, he firmly shook the hands of the successive journalists who greeted him as if he were a head of State.

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. President!” This is how he likes  – and expects – to be treated, except if among friends. For the latter he is only Abu Ammar, his nom de guerre.

Like a ruthless child, he is constantly reaching down to hid hip – on alert; his expression changes quickly from anger to a beaming smile, and his gaze is piercing and penetrating.

He revels in being treated like a “star” and willingly poses to be photographed alongside journalists who seek the “privilege” of being next to “Mr. Palestine”, as Playboy magazine called him.

The security surrounding him was indescribable. The meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday [October 30, 1991]. It was postponed for the same night at a time to be determined.

An unexpected trip by Arafat to Morocco changed the rendezvous to the following day. At 7:30 p.m. everyone was in his place, but confirmation was not given until 9 p.m.

Two of Arafat’s messengers in a Mercedes led the bus to a residential zone two minutes away from the hotel. Traffic in the street was interrupted.

At the door of a modest house with a fence covered in a green plastic screen, dozens of men in plain clothes stood on guard, some of them showing machine-guns and others unsuccessfully hiding their weapons below their jackets.

Limousines surrounded the whole area around the house. In spite of the smoked-glass windows, it was possible to see that security officers were presumably occupying them. Several bodyguards searched the clothes and bags before allowing access to Arafat’s quarters.

There was a white house, in an indeterminate Arab style, a hastily built annex, a carved marble pillar in the doorway and windows with green wooden shades on the first floor. Several Merced were parked in the garage.

The inside was in complete disarray, which showed that it had not been well kept. The entire wall was covered with photographs of Arafat.

The Palestinian flag was everywhere. Behind Arafat’s desk there was a photograph of the Islamic sanctuary Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The PLO leader in Lebanon, before being expelled to Tunis. Until the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, Israel considered Yasser Arafat a master terrorist, its public enemy number 1. In 1994, he became president of the Palestinian National Authority but after the Second Intifada, in 2000, he was again demonised and kept like a prisoner in Ramallah. @All Rihgts Reserved

Yasser Arafat in Lebanon, before being expelled to Tunis, “the exile of the exile”, as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said

These two articles, now revised and updated, were originally published in the Portuguese newspaper PÚBLICO (November 1, 1991) and in a UN special edition called “Peace in the News”

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