Arab leaders long ago stopped liking or respecting Yasser Arafat, or indeed believing a word he said. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once referred to him, in the presence of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, as “a son of a dog.” The Syrian defense minister called Arafat the “son of sixty thousand whores.”
Yet until the very end, some prominent Western journalists never stopped heaping praise on him, or covering up for his countless crimes and misdeeds.
It didn’t matter how many Jews, Arabs, and others died on his orders, or how many times he let down his own people, or stole from them. For these journalists, as well as for many European governments, he remained a worthy Nobel peace-prize winner and the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people.
To judge by some of the reporting as he lay on his deathbed in Paris–the hushed tone of the television newsreaders, the flattering touched-up portrait photos on the cover of the London Times–Arafat was a figure who deserved to be deeply revered, a kind of ailing pope.
There was little mention of the fact that he played a central role in the growth of modern terrorism, and continued to instigate it until the end. That his hijacking of airplanes inspired al Qaeda, that he ruined the modern Olympics by gunning down athletes, that he had a wheelchair-bound American pensioner shot and thrown into the Mediterranean, or that the PLO’s massacre of 21 young Israeli children in their school pre-dated Beslan.
Instead, on the BBC, for example, correspondent Barbara Plett revealed that she had cried last month when Arafat was whisked away from Ramallah by helicopter for medical treatment in France. She spoke of her “connection to the man.”
The last time BBC correspondents were so emotional during their reporting was when Princess Diana died. (Plett’s program, “From Our Own Correspondent,” was broadcast throughout the world on BBC World Service Radio, which attracts over 150 million listeners daily.)
But it comes as little surprise that BBC reporters were so moved, given the network’s long-held admiration for Arafat. For example, one BBC profile in the summer of 2002 (a year in which Arafat-inspired terror attacks against Israeli Jews–from the Netanya Passover massacre to the Hebrew University bombing–reached a peak) described him as a “hero” and “an icon.” It spoke of him as having “performer’s flair,” “charisma and style,” and “personal courage.” He was not only “respectable,” but “triumphant” and “the stuff of legends.”
Other prominent Western media, such as the New York Times, have also long sought to downplay Arafat’s dictatorial rule, his endemic corruption, or his close connection to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade–the terror group which has rivaled Hamas in the number of suicide attacks perpetrated against civilians in recent years.
Jonathan Steele, of the Guardian, wrote last week that Arafat was “a respected and approachable human being.” South Africa’s City Press said he “marshaled freedom fighters.”
Arafat knew how to turn on the charm with gullible Western reporters. When one American journalist brought his young daughter to meet him in Ramallah shortly after the Al Aqsa Brigades murdered several Israeli children, Arafat spent half the interview playing with her. As recently as last July, the lead editorial of the New York Times was still sanitizing Arafat’s image, referring to him as “a democratically elected leader” and a “romantic” revolutionary.
But in other parts of the world, journalists are less enamored of Arafat. In the Times of India, for example, Lalita Panicker wrote last week that Arafat’s record “has been disastrous.”
“It is cause for celebration for the Palestinians,” she wrote, as he lay near death in a Paris hospital, that he “will never again control their destiny.”
“Dressed in ridiculous battle fatigues,” she went on, ” he has demonstrated that he neither wants nor can he deliver peace. Arafat’s lasting and most pernicious legacy is that he has contributed to completely changing the Palestinian psyche. The Palestinians were once the most secular, tolerant, and educated people in the Arab world. Today, Palestinian classrooms have become the hotbeds of recruitment for jihad… As a result, an entire younger generation has grown up on a diet of hate and fanaticism.”
Even the Arab media were more critical of Arafat than the BBC and others in the West. The profile of Arafat currently on al Jazeera’s website (“Arafat: Man with a Mission“) makes clear in its very first line that Arafat was born in Cairo (not in Jerusalem as he claimed) and that his father had “some Egyptian ancestry.” Al Jazeera added that “Arafat’s governing style tended to be more dictatorial than democratic.”
Writing last week on Islam Online (Arafat: The Enigmatic Leader“) Kareem Kamel spoke of the “the cronyism and corruption that have been rampant in the Palestinian territories since Arafat came from exile” and of the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars of European Union aid money–news that may be familiar in the Middle East but has rarely been subject to scrutiny in Europe itself.
The widely read anti-Israel website, the Electronic Intifada, unlike the BBC Online profile, doesn’t shy away from using the word “terrorism” in its profile (“The End of the Arafat Era“). Indeed, it says that he “defined ‘terrorist chic’ for the Western world.”
It’s a fair comment, but what should also be said is that nowhere did Arafat find more starry-eyed fans than among some deluded European and North American journalists.
–Tom Gross is a former Jerusalem correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph of London. Among his recent articles for NRO is “Living in a Bubble: The BBC’s very own Mideast foreign policy.”