Los Angeles-based Stanley K. Sheinbaum was, in his "younger years," referred to as the head of the Malibu Mafia, a self-styled group of L.A. Westside liberals active in Democratic politics which included his wife, Betty Warner Sheinbaum. He was also a key player in the original negotiations with then Palestinian President Yasser Arafat -- negotiations that eventually led to the Camp David Agreements. The following is a compilation taken from his recently published memoir, Stanley K. Sheinbaum: A 20th Century Knight's Quest for Peace, Civil Liberties and Economic Justice. In this compilation, Sheinbaum describes his relationship with Yasser Arafat, for which he was reviled, and , in light of current discussions to exhume Arafat's body, Sheinbaum's observations on Arafat's health near his death.
I eventually came to like Yasser Arafat. In all my meetings with him, he never failed to listen, to give his own opinions without being strident or aggressive about them, to be polite, charming, even gracious. Yes, he was a tenacious fighter for his people, and yes, he caused a lot of pain to the Jewish people at the very moment when we were still suffering from the greatest tragedy in our long history of suffering.
I do believe that Arafat also believed the Holocaust was a horrendous event in human history, but I also believe that he believed there was no justice in making his people pay the most precious price, their lives and their land, for a tragedy that they did not cause to happen. In our many conversations, Arafat did eventually come to accept that the world demanded the Jewish people be given a refuge, that they have a restored homeland, a haven from the Holocaust and a promise such a horror would never happen again. Lastly, I believe for all that, Arafat could never really accept that a Jewish homeland meant so many Palestinians had to lose theirs.
If Arafat was difficult, it was that in balancing the demands and desires of so many disparate elements in the Palestinian resistance, from the ultra-radical terrorists like George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine which specialized in airline hijackings on one flank, to Palestinians who remained in Israel and sat in the Israeli parliament--the Knesset--on the other, he was often very evasive and unwilling to be tied down to a clear and specific proposal.
Our own ethnic prejudices tend to attribute this quality to an Arab personality trait--that Arabs are wily, slippery and untrustworthy. My own experience would attribute this trait more accurately to the inherent personalities of politicians, even some who are my good friends. And Yasser Arafat was, above all else, a politician.
After the first Camp David Agreements were signed and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat reached across to each other and shook hands while President Clinton stood behind them, arms outstretched, to join the three of them together in a mutual gesture of peace making, just as those feelings of hope and opportunity filled the diplomatic air, our hopes were all blown away by the senseless act of a right-wing madman, not an Arab, not a German, not an Iranian, but a fellow Jew--Yigal Amir.
During this time, I made what efforts I could to try and keep peace negotiations on track, but, of course, I couldn't accomplish much in that poisoned environment. I did meet with Arafat in Ramallah, in Arafat's compound the Muqataa where he lived and had his headquarters. The Israelis contend that Arafat was in fact a very, very rich man while the Palestinians contend that the funds in banks around Europe and the Middle East, while in Arafat's name, were used for various projects on behalf of the Palestinian people. I really don't know where the truth lies, but I can tell you that Arafat's compound, while reasonably comfortable, was definitely not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination.
When my wife Betty and I met with Arafat, he was gracious and upbeat, presenting us with gifts including a beautiful white mother of pearl box intricately carved and set with different colored sea shells. He wore his signature kefiyyeh--his black and white checkered scarf, but unless I gave him something to read, he did not wear his oversized glasses. He also wore his olive green uniform and his beard was the same scraggly beard he'd worn in every picture I'd ever seen of him, all the way back to when he was a young man.
His health actually seemed good at that point, although his lower jaw quivered a bit when he spoke. He was energetic, but underneath it all I sensed he was nervous, worried, somewhat distracted. We actually spent most of our time reminiscing about when we first met in the snows and cold of Stockholm, Sweden, where we hammered out his positions on recognizing Israel and renouncing terrorism. I asked him if he liked me then, if he trusted me from the beginning.
"You were very friendly, very warm," he said.
"Well, I was comfortable with you too," I said. "I knew we could get some good work done."
Arafat appeared almost wistful. "We did do some good work. I thought then that by now we could have moved things further along."
"There's still hope, I said.
He wet his lips and looked off into the middle distance, thinking thoughts I'm glad I couldn't know. I repeated myself, "There's still a chance for peace."
Again, he didn't answer me. He turned to Betty. "Your husband is a brave man. He doesn't let anything stop him. I wish there could be more like him."
Betty nodded. "You know," she said to Arafat, "Stanley really does believe peace is possible. He really does."
For the third time, Arafat didn't actually respond, but a sorrowful smile passed across his tired face.
Well, in the years that followed, things got worse for Arafat. He became increasingly isolated. The Intifada continued; the violence spiraled. Fences were erected. Jewish settlements spread further and further into the West Bank.
Finally, near the end of Clinton's presidency, the President brought Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak together, also at Camp David, to make one last attempt to reach a final status settlement.
According to the historical record provided by Americans and Israelis, Barak offered Arafat the best deal the Palestinians could ever get and Arafat turned it down. The Palestinians, on the other hand, insist to this day that there was no negotiating at all, that Barak and Clinton presented Arafat with a take it or leave it agreement which contained certain provisions that would have been impossible for Arafat to accept. I don't know. I wasn't there. And even though I had contact with both Clinton and Arafat, I have never been sure about what really occurred at Camp David.
After the collapse of the Camp David talks, the situation in the Middle East went from bad to worse. Clinton left office. George Bush became president. The Iraqis invaded Kuwait; the United States invaded Iraq; King Hussein and Arafat backed the Iraqis; Al-Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. So much was happening. It seemed that each day brought another source of conflict and increased tension.
Eventually, the Israeli army laid siege to Arafat's compound. The walls were breached, most of the buildings were destroyed and although the army knew that international opinion would not allow them to enter the building where Arafat was living under deplorable conditions, they made life hell for Arafat and the few advisors who remained inside with him.
In 2003, the Palestinian diplomat, Nabeel Shaath was able to come to the US for a visit. Shaath was gregarious and upbeat when he arrived at our home, but his mood turned despondent once we were alone and able to talk.
"The situation is very, very bad, Stanley. Very bad. Arafat is not well. We don't know what's really wrong with him, but he can't get good medical attention there in what's left of the Muqataa. Meanwhile Hamas grows stronger every day. I'm afraid the prospects for peace are really gone. I'm sorry, Stanley. You worked so hard." Obviously, I did not particularly want to hear that.
Then, near the end of October, 2004, news came that Arafat had become ill during a meeting and he had vomited profusely. He agreed to leave the Muqataa and go to Paris for emergency medical attention. We knew the situation was dire because Arafat swore he would never leave for fear he would not be allowed back. He was flown on a French government jet to Paris and entered the hospital immediately. His condition worsened, and on November 11, 2004, he died in Paris. His body was returned to Ramallah, and although he had requested, and his family again requested, that he be buried in East Jerusalem, the Israeli government absolutely refused to even consider allowing him to be buried there. And so, Arafat's funeral and burial took place in Ramallah where his tomb is considered a "temporary" resting place until he can be buried in East Jerusalem, as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. The Israelis swear this will never, ever happen.
I was almost broken by Arafat's death. I truly believe, although others disagree, that if he had lived, there was still a path to peace. That's a big if I know. If Rabin hadn't been assassinated. If Arafat had lived. We can change the present, but we can't change history.
After Arafat died, the situation in the Middle East only became more chaotic, the positions of the various parties more extreme. A peace agreement has been my most fervent dream and I have devoted so much of my life to achieving one. My failure is the greatest disappointment I have ever experienced, and I can only take solace from the knowledge that I really, really tried. I really did.