The man in charge of the PLO diplomacy appears to be a somewhat pragmatic politician who even goes so far as to eulogize the President of the United States, a country that he used to consider an enemy. Kaddoumi says that he is prepared to set ideologies aside and to promote the commitments necessary for the world peace. (Read more…)
Farouk Kaddoumi, Foreign Affairs Minister of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), does not worry about the insults which Israel and Syria exchanged at the Madrid Conference [October 30, 1991]. On the contrary, he seemed convinced that the two parties would finally come to an agreement.
“They look like two fighters”. Said the PLO’s number two man, who is allegedly connected with the hardliners of the organization. “When they reach the point of exhaustion they will come to a draw after the struggle.”
These humorous comments, plus some more serious statements and a few stories, took up about 90 minutes of a meeting held in Tunis with a group of European journalists (where I was included) sponsored by the United Nations.
Kaddoumi received his guests in a middle-class neighborhood of the Tunisian capital, in one of the several houses used by the Palestinian leadership, which has its headquarters here.
The room’s atmosphere was thick with cigar smoke; everywhere we could see maps of Palestine and photographs of Yasser Arafat, late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, considered the pan-Arabism “father”, and other friends.
Bodyguards, openly displaying their machine-guns, were diligently keeping an eye, some superficially and others meticulously, on the whole building both inside and outside.
Inside there was a sense of danger – this man has many enemies –but when he started to speak the tension relaxed.
Kaddoumi has been a friend of Arafat’s more than 30 years. They were colleagues at Cairo University and founding members of Al Fatah, the main PLO faction, in Kuwait. The huge differences in personality between them finally faded out because they were complementary.
Kaddoumi’s passivity stands in contrast with Arafat’s constant restlessness. Kaddoumi’s monotonous voice is the opposite of the passionate tone that Arafat applies to his words; one shows simplicity and the other charisma; one resembles a grocer and the other an obvious warrior; one is an addicted cigar-smoker.
Kaddoumi is a reality and Arafat is a myth. But each of them in his own way knows how to captivate his listeners, because basically they are experts.
“I am not a pessimist, but neither am I an optimist as regards the peace process”, Kaddoumi said. “The difference between Syrians and Palestinians is that we are used to negotiate with the Israelis, inside and outside the occupied territories, and not with the Arabs.”
The man who placed all his hopes in Arab nationalism, who believed in the victory of Saddam Hussein up to the end and who did not conceal his satisfaction when the coup d’etat gang in Moscow tried to overthrow Gorbachev admitted that ideologies do not lead to practical results. “We are starting to cross to the other sides”, he remarked.
“Three cheers for Mr. Bush – he is a good boy”. This eulogy for President George H. W. Bush, coming from a man who has always shown his hostility towards the United States, may be explained by the phobia that Kaddoumi confessed he felt towards the British.
“I was born before the State of Israel, 61 years ago [in 1991], in Jaffa, Palestine, and I was shocked by the way which the Mandate authorities treated us at that time. The British bear the main responsibility for the catastrophe [in the Middle East].”
A Italian journalist asked Kaddoumi to comment on Saddam Hussein’s being compared with a serpent. He smiled sarcastically, took a deep puff from his cigar and said: “Christ once told us that we must be as wise as the serpents. Has Saddam read the Bible? I don’t think so.”
Kaddoumi believs that, with the USSR collapse and the end of the Cold War, Israel lost [its status as] a strategic asset for the United States in the region. “The Israelis have no alternative but to settle with the Palestinians. If they are unwise, they will be the main losers.”
Always refusing to show his cards, the PLO’s diplomacy chief did not indicate what type of territorial compromises the Palestinians would be prepared to accept with Israel.
In addition, he postponed for a later stage a solution for the thousands of Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and in Gaza Strip, the territories claimed for a Palestinian state.
Arafat’s “right arm” is convinced that most Israelis are in favor of the “land for peace” principle, and appeared confident about a good relationship with a new generation of politicians of the Likud block in power.
More than once Kaddoumi could not avoid telling a story: ‘A few years ago, when I was in the United Nations, I approached [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir and I asked him: ‘Why do you not speak to me?’ Shamir looked at me dumbfounded until someone explained: ‘It is Kaddoumi, the terrorist’, and he then ran off.”
Israel does not recognize the PLO or its parliament in exile; it adopted a law forbidding all contacts with members of the Palestinian organization.
As a realist, the PLO’s number two believes that the Palestinians do not have to do what the Angolans and Mozambicans did with the Portuguese. “I advised them: ‘Don’t send the white man away. Learn from him and, after an interim period for more or less five years, you take over the control. In Zimbabwe they were experts.”
In what concerns Israel’s accusations that, during the Intifada, there were more Palestinians killed by Palestinians than by the army, he blamed the occupier’s actions and the an atmosphere of suspicion generated by the occupation. “To a court of law, who is the criminal: who has instigated the crimes or committed the crime?”
The slump in living conditions, mainly in the Gaza Strip, was also pointed out by Kaddoumi as one of the main factors contributing to “Islamic extremist movements”, such as Hamas.
Kaddoumi is confident about the relations with other Arabs. Saudi Arabia already resumed financial aid to PLO. “Under the table”, he quipped.
“In Damascus, I met the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs and everything was arranged. Arabs know that they can count on us, because we are all Arabs. If I were an Iraqi, he would not have received me.”
This article, now revised and updated, was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper PÚBLICO (November 3, 1991) and in a UN special edition called “Peace in the News”