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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 13:33 GMT
The showman who failed to deliver

By Robin Lustig
BBC News

The first time I met Yasser Arafat was in 1987, at an Islamic summit conference in Kuwait.

Yasser Arafat
Mr Arafat understood the media and the power of the image
He was still living in exile in Tunis at that time, having been unceremoniously kicked out of Lebanon by the Israelis five years earlier.

For Mr Arafat, the conference was an ideal opportunity to be seen with other "world leaders", greeted by them in public as an equal, even if in private they were sometimes less than complimentary.

A handful of Western reporters were in Kuwait for the conference, and we all, naturally, asked for an interview with the enigmatic Mr Arafat.

One night, shortly before midnight, word reached us that our requests would be granted.

'Out of touch'

We were bussed from our hotel to his villa, where, in the small hours of the morning, he duly appeared, meticulously uniformed with his trademark black and white checked keffiyeh carefully arranged on his head.

(Everyone knew he was bald, but it was something he seemed peculiarly anxious not to reveal to the wider world.)

"Where are you all from?", he asked with an expansive smile. In turn, we each named our home town and the publication or broadcast organisation we represented.

"No, no," he grinned. "Where in Jerusalem do you all live?" This was guaranteed to make us feel distinctly queasy.

It was true that many of us were indeed based in Jerusalem, but it was not something we were keen to admit to, as no Arab state other than Egypt in the 1980s would accept travellers from Israel - hence, frequent overnight stops in Cyprus and hasty swapping of passports. Score one to the Chairman.

A boy holds up a poster of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a rally
He understood his people too, which is why he survived so long despite delivering so little
I met him again in London a few years later. This time he agreed to a formal interview for BBC World television, during which he did nothing but deliver formulaic, bland replies which revealed nothing of either the man or his plans.

So I decided to toughen things up a bit.

"Can you explain," I asked, "why an increasing number of Palestinians seem to regard you as corrupt and out of touch?"

At which point a senior Palestinian official leapt in front of the camera, waving his arms. The interview must cease immediately, he said, as the Chairman was very busy and there was no more time.

But Mr Arafat had a twinkle in his eye, and insisted that he was perfectly happy to answer the question.

He offered a dream

He was, when all was said and done, as much a showman as a politician, a man who knew only too well the power of the image, and who understood the Western media much better than perhaps we gave him credit for.

He understood his people too, which is why he survived so long despite delivering so little.

He offered the Palestinians a dream - a state of their own.

And for a brief period after the signing of the Oslo agreements in 1993, when he returned from exile in chaotic triumph to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it even looked as if it might happen.

Robin Lustig is a BBC broadcaster and journalist and was Middle East correspondent for The Observer newspaper in the 1980s


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