The Many Faces Of Arafat

<B>Mike Wallace</B> Looks Back Past Interviews With Palestinian Leader

On Friday, when thousands of Palestinians accompanied the coffin of Yasser Arafat to his final burial site in Ramallah on the West Bank, it was a tribute to his enormous popularity among his own people.

Arafat had dedicated his life to a Palestinian state, but he was considered an obstacle to that goal by the Israelis and the Americans.

Correspondent Mike Wallace interviewed Arafat several times over the years, and has put together a report on one of the most beloved and most reviled figures of our time.

"I am looking for peace. I am struggling for peace, but a just peace - a peace not against my people, a peace who can push me to return back to my homeland," said Arafat, in Cairo in 1977.

It was the day after President Jimmy Carter had dropped a bombshell. Carter was the first American president to endorse a homeland for the Palestinians. And in response, a cocky Arafat gave 60 Minutes a message for the president.

"I'm telling him now, through you, through this television, I will make all my best to help him to settle a just peace in this area. All my efforts," said Arafat. "All my efforts. [I'll] leave the details when I will have the details from him."

In the Middle East, the devil really is in the details, and more than 27 years after that interview, there's still no peace.

In their first meeting, Wallace asked Arafat about his own mortality. "I'm sure there would be people who would like to assassinate Yasser Arafat," said Wallace. "Is that thought ever out of your mind?"

"No," said Arafat. "For me, my life is nonsense. The life of my people, the existence of my people is the main and the major concern and aim for my life. My life is nonsense."

But that wasn't the case for Anwar Sadat. Two years later, Arafat urged Egyptians to assassinate Sadat. Why? Because he had just agreed to a peace deal with Israel, without securing a homeland for the Palestinians.

Egyptians assassinated Sadat two years later. In an interview, the otherwise self-assured Arafat turned defensive and was at a loss for words when Wallace asked about his little known connection with Idi Amin, the bloodthirsty ruler of Uganda who killed 200,000 of his own people.

Wallace: The butcher, Amin, you help, and you talk about human rights?

Arafat: I am not helping him as – only helping –

Wallace: You are helping to train his people. You admit it.

Arafat: I am helping the Ugandan people .

Wallace: Is he a man you respect, admire? Are you proud of your relationship with Idi Amin?

Arafat: Yes.

His press officer begged 60 Minutes not to broadcast that exchange. Of course we aired it nonetheless, and as a result, Arafat would not sit down for another interview for 10 long years.

During that decade, he was forced out of Lebanon. He finally acknowledged Israel's right to exist, and he even renounced terrorism.

The next time he met with 60 Minutes was in his comfortable new headquarters in Tunis.

Wallace: Mr. Chairman, here's what the Israelis tell us. Arafat lies, they say. He tries to come off as a peaceful man, a reasonable man. But look behind Arafat's words. "This current peace offensive is just a ploy, just a phase, a step on the way to the hope for the destruction of Israel."

Arafat: We are fed up of this bloodshed. We are looking to have peace for our children and also for their children. Otherwise, we have to blame ourselves and they have to blame themselves. And the next generations will not respect us. This is an historical chance. If we lose it, we are criminals.

Just four years later in 1993, Arafat signed a peace accord with Israel in Oslo, Norway, for which he and his Israeli partners, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, all received the Nobel Peace Prize.

A triumphant Arafat returned to Palestinian soil for the first time in 28 years. But the peace did not hold. So four years ago, President Clinton summoned Arafat and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Camp David to try to stop the escalating violence.

There, Barak stunned Arafat, and Israel, by proposing previously unimagined concessions – including turning more than 90 percent of the West Bank into a Palestinian state. But Arafat rejected the best deal he would ever be offered.

Soon after that, Wallace and Arafat met again in Gaza. This time, he was 71, with a noticeable tremor from an early stage of Parkinson's disease.

"I'm told that you said to President Clinton, 'If I accept what Barak has offered, I will go and have coffee with Yitzhak Rabin in heaven,'" said Wallace.

"I told him, 'If I would betray, no doubt one will come to kill me,'" said Arafat.

The man who had earlier said that his life was nonsense acknowledged that he'd refused to risk his life for that agreement. After that, Presidents Clinton and Bush deemed Arafat the main obstacle to peace.

Our final interview, two years ago, took place in Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah – where he was buried on Friday after thousands of his followers carried his coffin to his final resting place.

Wallace: You say you want peace, correct, Mr. President?

Arafat: Yes

Wallace: But you incite Palestinians, especially young Palestinians, to violence. Just this past week, you said publicly, "Millions of holy warriors are on their way to Jerusalem. Jihad, jihad, jihad, jihad, holy war, holy war, holy war." What does that mean?

Arafat: I am repeating some of holy Muslim words, not mine.

Wallace: On your state-controlled television, a cleric – here's what he said. "Whoever can fight them with his weapons should go out to battle. Nothing will deter the Jews, except the color of their filthy people's blood. Nothing will deter them, except for us voluntarily detonating ourselves in their midst." I found it difficult to believe.

Arafat: I didn't, I didn't hear it.

He told Wallace he hadn't heard it himself. Israel claimed that Arafat refused to stop the suicide bombers. Arafat said he tried to, but that no one could stop those zealots.

And he didn't want to go near Wallace's next question.

Wallace: Your state-controlled television carried a sermon by a sheik telling worshippers that martyrs will go to paradise and marry 70 beautiful virgins. Do you believe that's a correct interpretation of the Koran?

Arafat: I am not now in a position to translate for you what had been mentioned in our Koran.

Wallace: Will martyrs be met in heaven by 70 virgins?

Arafat: I will not inter—it's better not to, because I am not a ... scholar.

Arafat was often evasive over the years, especially when 60 Minutes asked about his wealth or alleged corruption. Fact is, he was a very wealthy man – with much of his money coming from Arab leaders who didn't want him and his troublesome Palestinians living and working in their countries. So, in effect, they paid him to stay away.

At the end of the interview, Arafat told Wallace of his yearning to be buried in Jerusalem.

"I hope that I will die in Jerusalem. I had lived there when I was a boy, so I would like, and I hope that I will have the opportunity to die there with my mother. I believe peace is coming, sooner or later, no other choice for the stability in this area," said Arafat, who hoped it would happen while he was alive.