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GAZA CITY, PALESTINEAs Al Sharpton sped along a dusty road in the Gaza Strip to a historic meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat last week, he and a top aide, riding in the backseat of a black Mercedes Benz, imagined the look on Jesse Jackson's face. It would be one of disbelief, they conjectured, as Jackson watched his rival dodge the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and become the premier black statesman on the world stagebrokering peace through shuttle diplomacy.
Since the Taliban embarrassed Jacksonby denying he had an agreement with them to negotiate the handover of Osama bin Laden and the release of eight Christian aid workers detained in AfghanistanSharpton, 46, has been maneuvering through the ranks of the civil rights movement, vowing to lessen Jackson's political influence abroad. Sharpton's aide predicted that following the meeting with Arafat (and a high-profile huddle earlier the same day with Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres), Sharpton would emerge bigger and blacker than Jackson; and "the poor little fat boy from Brownsville" who grew up parroting the politics of Jackson's PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) might even be invited next by the Taliban to negotiate the release of the Christians.
"Outside of Colin Powell, you're probably the only prominent African American today who top Israeli and Palestinian officials would meet with," the aide told Sharpton. "Jesse can't do it. Farrakhan can't do it. This is unprecedented." After commenting on how the visit with Arafat might play back home, Sharpton began to think about "right-wing zealots in New York's Jewish community" who'd long portrayed him as "a friend of the terrorist Arafat" when in fact he'd never met the man.
"Finally! Finally we meet!" said a grinning Arafat as he grabbed Sharpton's hand in an upstairs office of his headquarters overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
"I've been wanting to talk to you," replied Sharpton, who seemed awestruck as he tightened his grip on Arafat's hands, which have grown feeble and shaky over the years from Parkinson's disease.
"He trembled; he looked pale; he was much smaller in stature than I'd imagined," Sharpton later recalled about his host, who was clad in his traditional olive military uniform and keffiyeh headdress. "I remember asking myself, 'Is this the Yasir Arafat who for decades some have called the world's most dangerous terrorist?' "
During their fleeting introduction, a lot had crossed Sharpton's mind. He remembered growing up in the civil rights movement and advocatingwhen it was unpopular to do sothat the Palestinians had the right to a homeland. He remembered that the dovish Wyatt Tee Walker, the former top aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had described Palestinians as "the niggers of the Middle East" when equating their struggle to that of black Americans to get to the Promised Land that King gave his life for.
Sharpton recalled thinking that in some quarters it is still considered a crime for high-profile blacks to coddle Yasir Arafat. He thought about the firing of Andy Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, for meeting with a Palestinian official during the Carter administration. "I remembered that 22 years ago Jesse Jackson got in trouble for embracing Yasir Arafat," he said. "For many years they used that photo against Jesse. I remembered that I was in Washington during the signing of the Camp David Accords with President Clinton, watching some of the same leaders who had condemned Jesse for hugging Arafat jostle each other on the White House lawn for the opportunity to shake Arafat's hand. All of this was on my mind as I was looking at Arafat and shaking his hand."
In a moment loaded with all of this history, the two leaders hit it off. After they posed for photographers, Arafat aides kicked out the media. Sharpton, flanked by Jewish attorney Sanford Rubenstein and his closest aides, Dedrick Muhammad and Edward Harris, wasted no time bringing up the subject of random killings of Israeli citizens by Palestinian gunmen. On October 28, the day Sharpton arrived in Tel Aviv, five people were slaughtered in two separate incidents by gunmen who were killed by Israeli police. Since the assassination of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi on October 17, more than 50 Palestinians have been killed as Israeli army and tanks assaulted towns and villages in the West Bank classified as Palestinian-controlled areas under Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
According to Muhammad and Harris, Sharpton let Arafat know in unequivocal language that he was "extremely disturbed" by the targeting of civilians. Sharpton explained that he, like many African Americans, has come face to face with terrorism. He told Arafat about 12-year-old Travis Boyd, a friend of his two daughters, whose mother is buried in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Arafat interrupted Sharpton and waved off a translator. "I denounced what happened in the World Trade Center," Sharpton aides quoted an animated Arafat as saying. "You should tell people I donated blood to the victims. I consider it one of the most horrific acts in the history of mankind. I have rejected Bin Laden misusing the Palestinian cause. What he did has nothing to do with Palestine. It had nothing to do with Islam."