Israeli Peace Activist Uri Avnery: “Arafat is the Father of the Nation”

StoryOctober 29, 2004
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As Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrives in Paris to receive emergency medical treatment, we go to Tel Aviv to speak with Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery about the potential implications of Arafat’s death on the “peace process” and the Palestinian people. [includes rush transcript]

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is on his way to France for emergency medical treatment after his health deteriorated this week when he collapsed and lost consciousness. Associates described Arafat as too weak to stand Thursday, and say he appeared confused and spent most of the day sleeping.

The 75-year-old president and former guerrilla leader waved to crowds from a helicopter as he flew out of his shell-battered compound in Ramallah. He was accompanied by his wife, Suha, who had arrived in Ramallah from Paris a day earlier to see her husband for the first time in four years. Arafat has been holed up in the compound for the past three years due to travel restrictions put in place by the Israeli government.

Scores of tearful bystanders, bodyguards and officials chanted, using his nom de guerre, saying “We will sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Abu Ammar.” Arafat serves as the president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He has been the international face of the Palestinian resistance for over three decades.

After arriving at Amman airport in Jordan, he was carried by doctors on a wheelchair to a waiting French presidential jet. Lying on a stretcher inside the jet he told aides “God willing, I will come back.”

Israeli officials have said that if Arafat recovered, he would be able to return to the West Bank. Reuters reports the promise came from senior Sharon aide Dov Weisglass In the past, Israel was unwilling to make such promises.

A senior Palestinian official told Reuters that Arafat was believed to be suffering from leukemia, though more tests were needed for a firm diagnosis. After his health deteriorated, officials said he had been slipping in and out of consciousness, though on Thursday he was able to eat, talk and say prayers.

Numerous questions have been raised as to who would succeed Arafat if he becomes incapacitated or dies. He has refused to name a successor. Many fear his death would plunge Palestine into a profound crisis. Arafat’s mother-in-law Reemonda al-Tawil said “He is more than a spiritual leader–he is a father, he is everything to us.”

  • Uri Avnery, an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a former member of the Knesset and was a member of the rightwing Irgun underground in the 1940s. He joins us on the line from Tel Aviv.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Tel Aviv to Uri Avnery. He is an Israeli writer and a peace activist with Gush Shalom, former member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, member of the rightwing Irgun underground in the 1940s. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

URI AVNERY: Good day.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. When did you last see Yasser Arafat?

URI AVNERY: About a month ago. He was — he appeared quite healthy.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your reaction to his state of health now, and what this means for him to be leaving Ramallah and going to Paris for medical treatment?

URI AVNERY: Well, it’s bad that his state is as it is. I think we need Yasser Arafat. The Palestinians need him. I think Israel needs him. Because he is the only man who can not only sign a peace treaty but get his own people to accept the peace treaty. Any peace treaty will demand from the Palestinians very painful concessions to give up things which are sacred to them, and only a leader with a great personal moral authority such as Arafat can do that. Arafat is indeed the father of the nation. He is the Palestinian George Washington, and I don’t see anyone around for the time being who could fulfill this task, who does have the authority, has deep roots in the consciousness of the Palestinian people, as Yasser Arafat, who has led the Palestinian nation and movement right from the beginning during 44 years. So I hope that he will recover, and if he recovers, he will come back. No one can stop Yasser Arafat from coming back. There has been a promise by Ariel Sharon to the foreign minister of the European Community that he will be allowed back, and I don’t believe that even Sharon can afford to break a promise like this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But at the same time, though, both Sharon and President Bush for the past four years have refused to deal with Arafat in any significant way, and do you think that if he does — if he is incapacitated or passes away that the — what will be your sense of what will occur within the Palestinian authority? Will the Palestinian movement move more in a rejectionist path or more in a path of trying to develop leaders who will be able to negotiate with the Bush administration and with Sharon?

URI AVNERY: That is very difficult to foresee, because such a catastrophic event as the passing away of Yasser Arafat will create conditions which cannot be foreseen, which can work in many different ways. What will happen in the beginning, I suppose, will be a kind of collective leadership by some Palestinian officials who until now had based their authority on the backing of Yasser Arafat. Yasser Arafat appointed all of them. Now, if they have to stand on their own legs, it’s very doubtful how effective they can be. They can administer the day-to-day affairs of the Palestinian people, and you know, it’s extremely difficult, because all of the Palestinians are still living under Israeli occupation and under the daily incursions of the Israeli army. But any initiative beyond that either way will be very difficult for these people to take, and I don’t expect them to take any initiative beyond what Yasser Arafat has prescribed, which is to agree to a peace based on the creation of the state of Palestine in all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the evacuation of all Israeli settlements and creating a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. They long — and re-establish the pre-1967 borders. That is a tall order, and I don’t see any takers on the Israeli side or the American side either. So, you might expect that it will take years for really effective Palestinian leadership to emerge composed probably of people we don’t think about at this moment, people who are sitting in Israeli prisons at this moment. There may be, of course, catastrophic events, too. There may be confrontations between Palestinian — the Palestinian fighting organizations themselves, but I don’t think this will happen, certainly not very soon, because Palestinians are very much against any kind of civil war among themselves, and I think that such a struggle will be prevented.

AMY GOODMAN: Uri Avnery, I want to thank you for being with us. Israeli writer, peace activist, former member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, speaking to us from Tel Aviv.

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