Waking Yasir


For days, New York’s tabs could hardly contain their glee over the impending death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. “May he rot in peace,” was the Daily News‘ editorial get-well card on Monday. On October 29, Arafat’s transfer to a French military hospital combined two of the Post‘s favorite targets, producing a leader titled “France & Arafat: Perfect Together.”

So, when the terrorist and Nobel Prize laureate was finally exiled to that big Ramallah compound in the sky, it was little surprise that neither paper wept. Nor did they — or other media outlets — abandon an oversimplification that has become quite popular: that Arafat turned down the deal of a lifetime at Camp David in 2000.

The Post‘s cover proclaimed “ARAFAT DEAD and he won’t be missed,” and inside catalogued the “Life & crimes of a leader who rose on myth and lies.” The Post even got a chance to use that most awkward of News Corp. watchwords, “homicide bombing” — suggesting that Palestinians in the mid-1990s were the first to use bombs to kill people (Hiroshima? That was just for show). At the Daily News, Zev Chafets led the eulogizing, saying Arafat, among other misdeeds, “peddled Holocaust conscience balm to Europeans” and sold “false hopes to the Israelis.”

Both tabs at least nodded to the complexity of Arafat’s life and the world he left behind. The Daily News ran a lengthy bio piece, and even the Post allowed in its editorial that Arafat “kept the Palestinian cause alive, serving as a living symbol of its revolutionary fervor.”

The Times‘ coverage stressed the leadership vacuum left behind in Arafat’s wake, printing a “who’s who” of potential successors. In a brief editorial, the Gray Lady praised the quick agreement by Israeli and Palestinian leaders on a burial site for Arafat, seeing hope for peace in their newfound cooperation. The Times expanded its coverage Thursday morning on the Web, posting an obituary by Judith Miller, the paper’s WMD grand dame.

With the news of Arafat’s death breaking just before 11 p.m. Wednesday night, late-night local newscasts jumped on the story, with WNBC offering the most extensive coverage — after anchor Sue Simmons asked the control room to, “Roll the prompter, please.” A lengthy bio reported by Gabe Pressman followed, and then Simmons and partner Jim Rosenfield conducted phone interviews with New Jersey-based Arab American advocate Hani Awadallah and Middle East expert Stephen Cohen.

From print to tube, almost all the coverage painted Arafat as a flawed and, ultimately, failed leader — and depicted the collapse of the Camp David summit in July 2000 as the climax of that failure.

The conventional wisdom is that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat a dream deal that included the lion’s share of the West Bank and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, but Arafat turned it down. That led to frustration in the Palestinian street, which spiraled into violence that caused thousands of Israeli and Palestinian deaths and triggered Arafat’s isolation by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (Barak’s successor) and President Bush.

But that popular version of Camp David glosses over a few fine points, according to former U.S. diplomat Robert Malley, who wrote in August 2001 that the debacle at Camp David was as much a product of Barak’s failure to fully implement earlier accords, his close-to-vest negotiating style, and his domestic political concerns, as it was the fault of an intransigent Arafat.

So it may have been more complicated than “BARAK: Yes? ARAFAT: No!” But Arafat’s “No” is what stuck on Thursday, the Times‘ Miller describing the PLO chief as “a leader who rejected crucial opportunities to achieve his declared goal.” Observers closer to the olive groves and settlements over which Arafat fought and negotiated, however, embraced the complexity. “Even to his many acquaintances,” wrote Danny Rubenstein in Haaretz, “Yasser [sic] Arafat remained largely an enigma.”