‘President Arafat’ Finally Runs for Office--His Way


Yasser Arafat is running for president, but voters here don’t see him kissing babies or munching falafel at the neighborhood diner. He doesn’t don a hard hat to shake hands at the factory gate or go jogging with Force 17, his presidential guard.

In fact, since the assassination two months ago of Yitzhak Rabin, his Israeli partner in peacemaking, Arafat hardly mixes with the people at all.

Instead, for example, he stands here on the roof of an emptied Israeli prison, waves his arm over tens of thousands of cheering Palestinians as he declares their city “liberated forever” and urges them to take part in the first election for a Palestinian government.


Arafat does not ask for the crowd’s votes in his run for raees, or president, of an 88-member council to rule over the Palestinian autonomy area. He challenges the masses below to cast their ballots against him if they disagree with his leadership.

“If you see in me distortions, then fight me with your swords,” he says.

Early Victory Claim

Of course, he does not really mean that. Arafat is simply quoting Omar Khattab, the 7th century Muslim warrior who conquered Jerusalem by defeating the Christian Byzantines. Arafat is making the point ever so unsubtly that even before the vote Saturday, he is the victor.

He is running a non-campaign campaign throughout the Gaza Strip and West Bank with a series of “liberation rallies” that show him to be the one who finally got the Israelis out of Ramallah, Janin, Nablus, Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns and villages after 28 years of occupation.

Arafat, 65, is chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization that fought Israel for nearly four decades, chief of the PLO’s legislative Palestine National Council and partner in the 1993 peace agreement with Israel that gave birth to the patchwork autonomy area now under his rule. He has been calling the shots in Palestinian politics for a lifetime.

And whether or not they like him, Palestinians call him “President Arafat.”

Asked whom she will vote for in the presidential election, a Ramallah woman in the crowd gathered below Arafat answers with a bewildered look.

“For the president,” she says. Obviously.

The Opponent

Arafat does have an opponent--a feisty 72-year-old grandmother from Ramallah who, despite a history of struggle for Palestinian women and against Israeli occupation, has almost no chance of winning.


Samiha Khalil has what Palestinians consider credentials. She is a member of the 480-member Palestine National Council. During the intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, she was arrested six times for inciting violence and was forbidden to leave Ramallah for 2 1/2 years.

She is campaigning on one theme: opposition to Arafat’s peace agreement. Khalil believes that Arafat settled for too little in the step-by-step peace agreements he signed with Rabin before the Israeli prime minister was slain by a Jewish extremist.

Khalil strikes a popular chord when she insists on a sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. She wants the return of all Palestinian refugees who were forced out or fled when the Israeli state was formed in 1948 and during the 1967 Middle East War, plus the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

But even she acknowledges that Arafat’s election is a foregone conclusion, telling reporters that she will “not be sad” if she loses.

For Arafat, the vote will be a referendum on his policies; independent polls show that almost 85% of Palestinians support the peace process in which he has engaged them. Most Palestinians say Arafat should get the chance to finish the job he began and undertake final-status negotiations with Israel that are to begin in May on the difficult issues of refugees, Jerusalem and statehood.

But Arafat isn’t taking any chances. Another reason Khalil cannot compete with “the president” is that she is having a tough time getting her message out to the more than 1 million registered voters.


The Palestinian media do not cover her. Edward Abington Jr., the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem--who is generally enthusiastic about the Palestinian elections--acknowledges that one of the problems with them is that “the Palestinian media is slavishly devoted to Arafat. There is no policy of fair coverage.”

In the unlikely event that a newspaper adopted such a policy, it would not last. When Arafat went to Bethlehem for the first time after its “liberation” last month, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodorus I welcomed him as “the successor of the Caliph Omar al Khattab.”

Arafat’s people asked the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds to play the story on the front page. When it was published on the back--because of so many other Arafat stories out front--Al Quds Editor Maher Alami was thrown into a Palestinian jail for 10 days.

Palestinian human rights worker Bassam Eid, who came to Alami’s defense and criticized Arafat’s campaign practices, was held by Palestinian police for 24 hours. According to Abington, Arafat ordered the prominent activist’s release only after receiving a request from Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

When Arafat is told by friends and advisors that such moves may be counterproductive during an electoral campaign with hundreds of international observers around, he reportedly does not seem phased.

Drawing on the Past

After all, he is not running a presidential campaign as it is known in the West. Arafat is drawing on Middle Eastern history, the Islamic religion and Palestinian nationalism when he addresses his people from high above.


“My brother, my sister, my loved ones, my family, members of my tribe,” he says at every stop.

The Palestinian response is mixed.

A large picture of Arafat hangs in the window of Adel Shuaiki’s Ramallah frame shop. Another picture of Shuaiki shaking hands with Arafat sits on his desk. But the owner shakes his head at Arafat’s likening himself to the Muslim conqueror.

“With all due respect to Arafat, he is nowhere near Khattab,” Shuaiki says, noting that Arafat made peace with compromises rather than winning a military victory. But Shuaiki adds that he thinks Arafat faces a more politically diverse population than Khattab did.

“Today we need someone more like Arafat who has to be tough and lenient at the same time. There is opposition, people who disagree,” he says.

Among those are leftists and Islamic extremists who have refused to participate in the elections. Shuaiki also has a picture of one of them on his desk: Yehiya Ayash, the bomb maker for the militant Islamic group Hamas who masterminded a suicide bus bombing campaign in Israel and was assassinated, reportedly by Israeli agents, in Gaza City this month.

Despite Ayash’s efforts to sabotage the peace process, Shuaiki views him as a freedom fighter on a par with Arafat. Like so many Palestinians, Shuaiki is a pragmatist who sees no contradiction in honoring the two men.


“I am with Arafat because we have no power to fight Israel in a war,” Shuaiki says. “We rejected many [peace] proposals that were better than this one, and if we rejected this one, we would have lost everything. Arafat is the best leader we have.”

Shuaiki’s neighbor, tailor Mustafa Said, agrees: “There is no one else who can hold the people together. We need someone with his strength to hold us together so that we can form the Palestinian state.”

Palestinians want a strong leader, but not a complete strongman. Arafat is neither a committed democrat nor a total dictator, observers say. In the tradition of Cuban President Fidel Castro and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, he is accustomed to making decisions at the top and having them obeyed. He is a man with authoritarian tendencies, forced by circumstances to keep them in moderate check.

Hamad Ahmed, 25, a vegetable vendor, says he does not trust Arafat to run clean elections and will not vote.

“You don’t open your wells with the first rains,” Ahmed says. “These are the first elections, and I know there’s going to be a lot of cheating. I don’t want to be part of that.”

Tempered Support

Others say they believe the longtime leader will win cleanly, if not altogether fairly. But while these people support Arafat, they do not necessarily back his handpicked candidates for the Palestinian council.


In lengthy back-room meetings, Arafat signed off on each of the 88 candidates running for the council from his moderate Fatah organization within the PLO. Many of those who did not make his list are PLO leaders and popular figures in their communities. They are running as independents who observers believe will serve as a loyal opposition to Arafat, supporting the peace process but criticizing some of his policies and demanding accountability.

That leaves Arafat largely in control, if not 100% happy. Israel’s Peres, who did much of the hands-on negotiating with Arafat leading up to elections, tells of a recent conversation with the Palestinian leader in which Arafat said jovially: “Who invented this democracy? It’s so tiring.”