Fri, Nov 12, 2004 - Page 9 News List

US has a long, troubled history dealing with Arafat

From secret deals in the 1980s with the PLO, to sidelining the PA in recent years, the US has rarely been consistent in its policies


When US President George W. Bush was mistakenly told Nov. 4 of Yasser Arafat's death, his reaction was curt.

"God bless his soul," Bush responded at a press conference, conspicuously not offering the praise usually afforded dead leaders.

Arafat was alternately a villain and a hero in the US, sometimes at the center of Washington's hopes for the region, and at other times the scapegoat for years of bloodshed and failed attempts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The high point in the US' complicated relationship with Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) came in 1993, when former president Bill Clinton put his arm around the icon of Palestinian nationalism on the White House lawn. Moments earlier, Arafat had shook hands with Israel's then-prime minister Yitzak Rabin as the two signed the Oslo peace accords.

Arafat died early yesterday in Paris after years of deteriorating health took a sudden turn for the worse in recent weeks. He had spent his last years under siege in his West Bank compound in Ramallah, accused by rightwing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of fostering a deadly wave of violence against the Jewish state.

Sharon supporters in the Bush White House also blamed Arafat for failing to halt violence, sharing Israel's view that the Palestinian Authority president was not a credible partner for negotiating peace.

Soon after taking power, Bush called for new Palestinian leadership and halted all direct contacts with Arafat, reverting to a policy of official estrangement that had marked relations prior to the Oslo accords.

But close observers and participants have detailed decades of secret discussions and cooperation between the US and Arafat's group.

The first US effort to work with Arafat came in 1969 in Beirut, where the CIA made indirect contact with Arafat's lieutenant, Abu Hassan, only for the talks to break off a year later when a bungling US agent tried to recruit Hassan as a paid spy.

Arafat's tenuous relationship with the US was typified when he first landed on US soil to appear before the UN General Assembly in 1974 -- carrying a gun and an olive branch.

During that visit, a top Arafat aid secretly met a CIA operative in the Waldorf Astoria and cut a deal to curb terrorist attacks against US citizens, according to a Washington Post account in 1988. Arafat hoped to secure US recognition of Palestinian aspirations for statehood, which came three years later in the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.

The two sides would continue working together behind the scenes, mostly in Beirut, where Arafat's group protected the US embassy and guarded American personnel.

Arafat claimed that he had been a key player in securing the 1979 release of 13 American hostages in Tehran. In 1981, Arafat's men prevented attacks against US embassies in Kinshasa and Rome.

The next year, Arafat's men stopped a kidnapping of the US military attache in Beirut. The US repaid the favor in 1982 by arranging for Arafat's escape from the Israeli-besieged city.

Throughout most of the 1980s, relations turned frosty. The US Congress called the PLO a threat to US interests and accused the group of murdering dozens of US citizens. The US State Department denied Arafat an entry visa to attend the UN General Assembly in 1988.

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