In a Ruined Country

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine
Two old friends who didn't Make it to Arafat's funeral

Dennis Ross was the chief Middle East negotiator for the United States from 1993 to 2000. I interviewed him in Washington, and I see him again one evening at the American Colony Hotel, in Jerusalem, beneath the starry ceiling of the Pasha Room.

"I walked into this villa in Tunis," Ross tells me, "nice but not extraordinary, and the first thing I noticed when I walk in is it had the feel of a revolutionary hangout, but not revolutionary in the sense of these guys who are out there blowing up people. It reminded me of when I was a student activist in Berkeley. You saw posters of Arafat as a young man. You saw posters of Abu Iyad and Abu Jihad, and you had the feeling 'Geez, these were the founders of Fatah,' and it was like a lair, a revolutionary lair, and I'm struck by this feeling, like I'm back in a kind of activist hangout where people are thinking, What can we do today? And I have that feeling until I get through the outer room, and then I see these guys through a mesh curtain laughing at The Golden Girls. I hear Bea Arthur's voice, and the incongruity of being in this revolutionary lair and Bea Arthur's voice—you know, I started to laugh. And I thought, What kind of revolutionary hangout is it where the people watch The Golden Girls?

"The first time I went to complain to him about the bombing—the first set of bombings were, I guess, in April '94, in Hadera and Afula—and I'm with him, and he leans over like this and he whispers, 'You know, it's Barak. He's got this group, the OSS, in the Israeli military, and they're doing this.' And I said to him, 'Don't be ridiculous.' I said, 'You know the Israelis are not killing themselves.' This was classic Arafat, never wanting to be responsible."

Q: "So you don't think that he was actually a hysteric?"

A: "No, I think it was all an act."

Terje Roed-Larsen was the father of the Oslo Accords and is the most visible representative of the United Nations in the Middle East. A handsome man with a puckish sense of humor, he is also a bit of a dandy. On the afternoon that I meet him for a long conversation about Oslo, he is wearing a white pocket square in the breast of his dove-gray suit, which he has accented with a pair of silver cufflinks. He met weekly and often every other day with Arafat for more than a decade.

"Usually he would say, 'I agree in principle,'" Roed-Larsen told me, "which means 'No.' Or 'Why not?'—which also means 'No.' Or 'I have to think about it.' Or 'It's not me, it's Hamas.' Or 'I'm doing my best.'"

Q: "What was it like when he lied to you?"

A: "He lied all the time. And he knew it. I'd say, 'Abu Ammar, cut the crap. Let's talk serious.' And then he could either talk serious or not talk serious. He'd say nonsense."

Q: "The nonsense would consist of what?"

A: "'It's not me—it's al-Qaeda.' 'It's the Iranians.' 'It was a Lebanese ship.' 'It's the Syrians.' All that kind of stuff. Of course everybody around him knew he was behind it. He didn't tell any of his closest companions. Because he always operated with layers and layers and layers and layers. He was extremely compartmentalized. His dirty-tricks domain—he didn't inform any of his ministers. They didn't have a clue about it. He had a financial cupboard. He had a dirty-tricks cupboard. He had a white-business cupboard. He had a black-business cupboard. Everything was compartmentalized. He was a master manipulator, and in a way he was a master politician who made catastrophic mistakes in both moral and political terms. He thought he was immortal; he trusted that he had God's hand protecting him for everything. And he goes away in the middle of the biggest defeat of his life. That was one of the reasons he was so miserable before he died."

Q: "Do you remember the last time you talked to him?"

A: "I was at home in Herzlyia on a Sunday. I remember it vividly. I hadn't spoken to him in eighteen months. My cell phone rings."

Roed-Larsen's voice suddenly gets higher, and then he starts screeching like someone's crazy old aunt.

"'Terje! Terje! It is Abu Ammar! How are you? How are you? How was the holiday?' And then he says, 'Ah-dah-dah, always remember, Terje, eh, your wife is my sister! my sister! my sister! And I am the uncle of your children. Your children, the uncle!' And then he said, 'And you are always welcome to see me when you wish.' That was it. He got sick the week after, and then he died."

"We announce Tourism!"

The drive from Jerusalem to Nablus, the West Bank city that is known in the Hebrew Bible as Shchem, home to Jacob and his children, takes about two hours. Or it might take three hours. Or it could take five. My friend Nadir is driving me there to visit Munib al-Masri, one of Yasir Arafat's oldest friends and now the richest man in Palestine.

The line of vehicles at the Nablus checkpoint this afternoon is short. Cabdrivers wait on the other side of the barrier to take passengers to their destinations inside the city. In the separate lane for settlers three religious Jewish children, two boys and a young girl, try to hitch a ride back to their fortresslike dwellings on the rocky hillside.

Nablus is a city built between two biblical mountains, Har Grizim and Har Ebal. In the Bible, Har Grizim was blessed with a bountiful spring, and Har Ebal was cursed. Al-Masri's gorgeous neo-Palladian house sits on top of Har Grizim, overlooking the refugee camps and the old casbah of Nablus. Visitors are greeted by a statue of Hercules in the center of the hall. Sunlight shining in from a dome above traces the hour on the polished marble floor. Other rooms, which I wander through with the gentle encouragement of my host, contain such varied treasures as the floor of a 2,000-year-old Roman villa, a Rafaelo tapestry, seventeenth-century French dining-room furniture, and what al-Masri proclaims to be the oldest mirror in the world, which originally came from Venice, and which broke on its way here from Ramallah. One of al-Masri's sons designed the house. Five hundred men with donkeys carried out his plans at the height of the intifada, carting the stones and the precious antiques up the side of the mountain.

A hawkishly handsome man of seventy-one, al-Masri was born in Nablus and graduated from the University of Texas. He is the rare example of a wealthy Palestinian who made his money elsewhere and came back to Palestine out of nationalist motives.

"Yes, the Palestinians missed a lot of opportunities, but don't blame us," he tells me. "We were a million people in this land, and the Israelis were less than a hundred thousand people. But they came here very determined, and they worked very hard. Then they committed a few massacres that made people afraid, and then our stupid leaders told the people to leave. We always tend to say it's a Zionist plot with the British. What we call a plot, they call a plan."

As one of the leading financiers of the Palestinian national movement, al-Masri was close to Arafat for almost half a century. His first acquaintance with the movement came when he was the head of Phillips Petroleum operations in Algeria, where he met Khalil al-Wazir, otherwise known as Abu Jihad, the organizational genius of the Fatah movement, who was assassinated in Tunis in 1988. Al-Wazir had been sent to Algeria to open Fatah's first official bureau at the invitation of the Algerian revolutionary Ben Bella.

"One day I found somebody in front of me who said his name was Khalil al-Wazir," al-Masri recalls. "He made a favorable impression. I liked him. Maybe six months later another guy came. It was Arafat. It was late '63, and he starts coming back. I didn't like at the time the way Yasir Arafat spoke, because he spoke in Egyptian dialect. Arafat told me, 'What can I do? I went to school there. I did this and I did that.' And we became very good friends. I felt a great sympathy toward him, this little guy. He made believe that he was born in Jerusalem. He loved Jerusalem. He loved Jerusalem a lot. Oh, in that early period he was very dynamic. Piercing eyes, and always 'the cause.' Always a pamphlet or something to show me."

Al-Masri made a fortune in the oil-services business, and was invited to serve as a minister in the Jordanian cabinet by his friend the Jordanian prime minister, Wasfi al-Tal. By then Yasir Arafat was the head of the PLO and the hero of the battle of Karamah, in March of 1968, when he led a strong fight against an invading Israeli column and then displayed captured Israeli vehicles in the streets of Amman. The PLO forces in Jordan carried weapons in the street and began to take over the country, setting up roadblocks, collecting tribute, and meting out punishment. As the Hashemite Kingdom tottered, al-Masri became an important bridge between his friends Arafat and King Hussein. He remembers visiting Arafat, where he was holed up in a bunker on top of a mountain at the end of the failed Palestinian revolt that became known as Black September, surrounded by 6,000 or 7,000 Jordanian troops.

"It was a nice day, but he always wants to make it dramatic, Arafat," al-Masri says, with a forgiving wave of his hand. "He wants to take us down to the bunker. It stinks, it's smelly, dark. I said, 'Come on'—he made his point. He took us down anyway. He made us cry about how bad it was for the Palestinians. He said the Jordanian army went to Palestinian houses and they were killing the men and doing things to the women. Of course, when we went down the mountain, the first Jordanian soldier we saw said you did this and that to us, and now you Palestinians will have the gun."

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David Samuels has written for Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, and The American Scholar. This is his first article for The Atlantic Monthly.

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