Lunch With Arafat

Inside Al Sharpton’s Controversial Meeting With the Palestinian Leader

Once more, Sharpton raised the issue of the killing of the five civilians. "Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said you should stop the killings; that you could control the militants even if you don't directly control them now," the activist said. Arafat repudiated the killings, but denied that his people were involved. Sharpton then asked Arafat if he would announce publicly that he'd be willing to resume stalled talks with the Israelis. "I do want to resume talks with the Israelis," Arafat proclaimed. "Though the Americans and the Vietnamese were at war, the peace talks never stopped. They never said, 'We'll only talk peace if the problems go away.' There are always problems. They need to come back to the table with no conditions."

Several times Sharpton invoked the role of special envoy, urging Arafat to take serious measures to immediately end the ongoing violence and return to the negotiating table. But the shrewd veteran of the Camp David and Oslo accords probed to ascertain whether the street preacher from Harlem was in way over his head. "Are you aware of the Mitchell Report?" asked Arafat, referring to the document that called for an end to violence, a crackdown on militants by Palestinian security forces, and a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sharpton seized the moment for levity. "Last Monday I met with Henry Kissinger, who also mentioned the Mitchell Report to me," he said. "I never believed I'd live long enough for Henry Kissinger and Yasir Arafat to instruct me in the recommendations of the Mitchell Report in one week." Arafat chuckled. As the leaders joked, an Arafat aide pulled back a sliding door that divided the meeting room from a dining area.

"Come, let's have lunch," said Arafat, ushering the delegation toward a massive table laid with platters of food. Arafat arranged the seating, putting "Sharpthin" (the name some friends gave the slimmed-down activist after his three-month stint in a federal prison) across from him. "They served us lentil soup, some rice, some lamb, and chicken," Sharpton recalled. "We continued to talk about the violence over lunch."

During the meal, Arafat departed from diplomacy to display his own sense of humor. He began to tease Rubenstein about the garlic Rubenstein was sprinkling in his soup. "This is good for you," he said.

"It's good for your cholesterol," Rubenstein responded. Sharpton shook his head and smiled at the jousting Jew and Arab, pontificating on the power of garlic in soup. "I thought about this Jewish lawyer from Court Street sitting with Yasir Arafat," Sharpton said later. "I thought about how all life really comes together in basic stuff like putting garlic in soup."

They talked for another 40 minutes. Again Sharpton said he appreciated Arafat's statement that he would take steps to control violence and combat terrorism. "President Arafat seemed perplexed, asking why the world wouldn't cover, in a credible way, his condemnation of terrorism and attacks on Osama bin Laden," Sharpton said. "He kept reiterating, 'It is important to me that you tell the world that I do not want the Palestinian cause to be misused by Bin Laden."

Arafat also expressed a desire to visit the twin towers. "I would love to see Ground Zero to show my sympathy for the victims, just like you have come to Israel to show your sympathy," said the man who was hounded out of Lincoln Center six years ago by Mayor Rudy Giuliani during a summit of world leaders in New York. "But given the politics, I don't know if I would be welcomed."

Sharpton laughed. "I am inviting you to come to New York to speak at the House of Justice," the activist said. "I extended the same invitation to Mr. Peres this morning. Maybe I'll have you do a double sermon in one day." The leaders and their aides giggled. Suddenly, Arafat rose from his chair. "I want to give you this gift," he said pointing to a red-velvet-upholstered box an aide was holding.

"This is handmade in Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus," Arafat said, describing the box's contents. It was a hand-carved rendition of the Nativity Scene.

"I was shocked," Sharpton said. But it wasn't because the Muslim leader had given him a Christian gift. Arafat's gift caused Sharpton to reflect on the sermon he'd preached at his House of Justice just hours before departing for Israel. "In my message I talked about growing up in a broken home, and how I had to depend on a friend who was born in the Middle East, in a little town called Bethlehem. I used to sing my favorite song, then turn toward Bethlehem. I said that I owed it to my friend from Bethlehem to fight until I had erased the blood from the streets of his hometown."

After Sharpton handed the box to Dedrick Muhammad, Arafat locked arms with the minister. "He took my arm to hold himself steady," Sharpton later recalled. Arafat then showed him artwork portraying the Torah, the Koran, and the Ten Commandments in Arabic hanging on a wall. Pointing to a picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's first president, Arafat revealed that he himself had been a soldier in the Egyptian army.

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