GAZA CITY, PALESTINE—As 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 stage—brokering peace through shuttle diplomacy.
Since the Taliban embarrassed Jackson—by 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 Afghanistan—Sharpton, 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 advocating—when it was unpopular to do so—that 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.”
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.
“Who is the leader you most admire?” Sharpton asked.
“Mao Tse-tung,” Arafat replied briskly.
“Because Mao Tse-tung is the only leader who fought four occupying forces, and beat them all—at a time when so many of his people were addicted to opium,” Arafat explained. “He got them off opium and freed them from occupation. He was a phenomenal leader.”
The discussion about Arafat’s hero clearly energized him. He seemed to have bonded with Sharpton as they walked hand in hand toward the door leading to a flight of stairs. Arafat stopped briefly and showed Sharpton a picture of Jerusalem by night. He told Sharpton how he grew up in his uncle’s house in Jerusalem and how he used to pray in the temples of the Old City.
“Look at this,” Arafat said pointing to the photo. “I’m not anti-Israel.”