As Arafat Gets a Hero’s Welcome, Israelis Find It Hard to Celebrate : Return: Even liberal Jews say they despise the man. But they concede he is best chance for peace.


For more than 25 years, his name was an evil word in Jewish households. So it wasn’t easy for Israelis, even those who support the Mideast peace process, to watch the live broadcasts Friday of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s triumphant return to Gaza.

“I’ve got to say I don’t enjoy watching him,” said Michael Hocherman, 60, a businessman who saw the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman’s arrival and speech to thousands of Palestinian supporters on Israeli television. “I know that if we want to move forward, he’s the man we have to deal with. But he is someone I actually detest.

“He heads an organization whose sole aim was to kill as many of us as possible,” Hocherman said. “I just can’t forget that.”


Those feelings of ambivalence were echoed by political moderates and liberals across much of Israel.

Of course, the day belonged to the Palestinians and Arafat. And many Israelis preferred to regard Arafat’s visit as just another step in a peace process that they hope will guarantee their security in the future.

The Israeli political right, which opposes any attempt to relinquish territory occupied by Israel, was relatively quiet Friday as well.

Thousands of police were deployed in Jerusalem and the Old City against threatened right-wing protests. But, for the most part, the demonstrations were small, disorganized and poorly attended. Larger protests were planned for today.

For most Jewish Israelis, though, the day was another reminder of how much the political face of the region has changed in less than a year--and a reminder of how much change is still likely to come.

Arafat’s return was featured in the country’s most-watched weekly TV magazine show, which opened with the grinning leader being warmly welcomed to the Gaza Strip by a former Israeli military commander of the territory, which is now run by Palestinians.


“We’ll work for peace, together,” Arafat was heard saying.

Some in Israel found the whole scene a bit difficult to stomach, given Arafat’s long status as Israel’s No. 1 enemy.

“For years, we believed that Arafat was the devil, and it’s not easy to change your opinions,” said Naomi Kasow, 27, who works in marketing for a Tel Aviv company. “Today, looking at his face on TV, it didn’t inspire me. I don’t think he’s credible in any way. But he is obviously a symbol to Palestinians.”

Nevertheless, she said, “I try to detach myself and realize this is just part of the peace process. Most of us in Israel have changed our thinking.”

Romy Teshuva, 31, a teacher of special-education classes on Israel’s coast, said she is not quite ready to accept the change in Arafat’s image from terrorist to political moderate.

“I thought I’d be sick to my stomach when I saw him, and that didn’t happen,” Teshuva said. “But he still represents a very fanatic type of people. If he’s participating in this peace process, it’s not for us. It’s for what he hopes to gain.”

It may be only natural that Israelis, even those now coming to terms with the national aspirations of Palestinians, would be suspicious of the PLO leader, a man they believe still harbors designs on all of Israel and, especially, the holy city of Jerusalem.


At one point during more than four hours of television coverage of Arafat’s arrival, one of the Israeli TV reporters said he believed that he was “starting to feel some of the excitement that these Palestinians feel.”

“Come on,” his co-host replied. “Don’t get carried away.”

“That’s how I feel,” said Teshuva, who was watching at her home in Netanya. “Even if you go along with it, you don’t have to get swept up by it.”

Israeli rightists have vowed to protest Arafat’s visit, and militant Jewish settlers have threatened violence if he decides to come to Jerusalem.

Jewish settler leaders had put a reward of 100,000 shekels, about $33,000, for his “capture.” Posters around Jerusalem refer to Arafat as the “arch-murderer.”

Right-wing protesters disrupted some traffic in Jerusalem on Friday. But they scaled back their estimates of the turnout they expect at a mass rally planned for Jerusalem today from 250,000 to 100,000. The rally will be an important show of support for the government’s opponents.

Some right-wing leaders insist that Arafat plans a secret stop in Jerusalem, the city claimed by both Israel and Palestinians. The government and PLO officials say no such trip is planned this weekend, although an Arafat visit to Jerusalem at some point is inevitable.



Arafat’s militant remarks in recent months have worried many Israelis.

Many point out that when South Africa’s Nelson Mandela emerged from prison in 1990, he issued an unequivocal commitment to work for peaceful solutions to that country’s problems. Arafat, however, has kept some of his militant rhetoric.

“These things he says don’t affect my commitment to the rightness of the peace process,” said Michael Hocherman’s daughter, Riva, a 32-year-old book editor in Tel Aviv. “But it creates a nagging doubt in people’s minds. They think that there might be some credence to the right’s concerns. And that makes it difficult for moderates like myself.”

Kasow says she is a “true believer” in the peace pact.

“But this hope of mine is tainted, because I know that most of our peace partners do not wholeheartedly see this peace the same way that we do,” she said. “We Israelis are changing our attitudes, but I worry that (the Palestinians) haven’t.”

Hocherman added: “I don’t feel comfortable when I see Arafat here, for reasons I don’t completely understand myself. But the man has to establish a base here and become a permanent fixture on the political landscape. In some ways, I’m happy it’s him and not someone else. But I don’t have to like it.”