THE DECISION TO BAN YASSER ARAFAT ANGERED THE ARAB WORLD AND PERTURBED U.S. ALLIES
REMOVING THE WELCOME MAT
THE DECISION TO BAN YASSER ARAFAT ANGERED THE ARAB WORLD AND PERTURBED U.S. ALLIES
It was one of the most controversial decisions in George Shultz’s six-year term as U.S. secretary of state. With only seven weeks left in office, and against the advice of a large segment of Washington’s defence and foreign policy establishment, Shultz turned down PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s request for the U.S. visa he needed to address the UN General Assembly in New York City last week. In doing so, the outgoing secretary of state infuriated the Arab world, perturbed America’s Western allies, including Canada, upset Washington’s newly improved relations with the UN—and entirely failed to
deprive Arafat of the world platform he sought.
The General Assembly simply voted—by 154 votes to 2—to move its debate on Palestine from New York City to the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva. And there, next week, Arafat will have his say, his case and his international prominence significantly enhanced by the uproar over the ban.
Shultz’s decision to deny Arafat a visa, in apparent violation of the agreement under which the UN set up its headquarters in New York City 42 years ago, had swift repercussions in Canada. In joining the chorus of criticism against Shultz, Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark became involved in his second confrontation this year with the influential Canada-Israël Committee. And in fact, after Canada takes its seat on the 15nation UN Security Council in January, more confrontations seem likely. As a nonpermanent member of the council for the next two years, Canada will inevitably be called upon to vote on controversial resolutions concerning the Israel-Palestine issue.
The showdown over Arafat’s visa began to shape up after the Nov. 15 meeting in Algiers of the PLO’s parliament-in-exile, the Palestine National Council. The PNC voted unanimously to declare an independent state in the Israelioccupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and appeared in doing so to give implicit recognition to the Jewish state. Sixty-eight states recognized the embryo Palestinian state in the first two weeks of its theoretical existence. Many other nations welcomed the PNC announcement, which included for the first time PLO acceptance of UN Resolution 242, which calls for the surrender of territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, while at the same time recognizing the right of all Middle East states—including Israel—to exist within secure boundaries.
In seeking to address the General Assembly on Dec. 1, Arafat had the clear intention of promoting more recognition for the Palestinian entity. But American Jewish groups and 51 members of the U.S. Senate urged Shultz to refuse Arafat a visa—and, on Nov. 26, Shultz did so. Citing a clause in the headquarters agreement between the UN and the United States that he claimed allows Washington to bar individuals it considers a security risk, Shultz described Arafat as “an accessory to terrorism.” In a written statement, he referred to a number of operations carried out in recent years by units under the command of Arafat’s AÍ Fatah organization. The Shultz statement also mentioned the presence at the PNC session in Algiers of PLO executive member Abu Abbas, leader of the Palestinian faction that hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 and killed Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly, wheelchair-bound American Jew.
In Washington, President Ronald Reagan said that he strongly supported Shultz’s decision. And answering media questions on the Shultz statement, a state department official spoke of the secretary’s “personal and deepseated concern” about terrorism. Indeed, “Force 17,” one of the PLO terrorist units mentioned in the statement, had claimed responsibility for two apparent attempts on the secretary’s life— one in March, 1985, and another three years later—when car bombs were planted close to Jerusalem hotels where he was staying. And Washington insiders said that Shultz was deeply incensed by a grisly joke that Abbas made to Western reporters in Algiers.
An Italian court, in July,
1986, had found Abbas guilty in absentia of murdering Klinghoffer, who was shot in the head and dumped overboard in his wheelchair. But when questioned about this, Abbas quipped, “Maybe [Klinghoffer] was trying to swim for it.”
Still, observers pointed out that Abbas, the leader of a tiny PLO faction, was one of 46 radicals who had voted against the PNC’s acceptance of Resolution 242. And members of the UN secretariat, Western diplomats and Middle East experts expressed amazement that Shultz would allow his personal revulsion to dictate
U.S. policy at such a critical moment in the evolution of the Middle East situation. William Quandt of the liberal Washington think-tank Brookings Institution said that most governments took a “more realistic and less moralizing” view of terrorism than the Reagan administration. “After all,” he said, “what Third World revolutionary movement has not resorted to these kinds of acts? The Algerians did, so did the Kenyans and the Israelis, too. We didn’t like it then, but we deal with them now.”
Even stronger criticism came from Joseph Verner Reed, the most senior U.S. citizen in the UN secretariat. Reed, a UN undersecretary general, is a Republican supporter and former Wall Street banker who is on first-name terms with President Reagan. In a letter to Reagan at week’s end, Reed called the Shultz decision “baffling and contradictory,” and said that it had done “incalculable damage” to U.S. credibility.
Earlier last week, in the UN Committee on Host Country Relations, UN legal counsel CarlAugust Fleischauer quoted from the headquarters agreement to show that Washington could not bar individuals invited to address the General Assembly—even those it considered security threats—provided they remained within “the Headquarters District and its immediate vicinity.” Asserted Fleischauer: “The host country was and is under an obligation to grant [Arafat’s] visa request.”
Meanwhile, in Europe, many of America’s friends and allies were openly critical of the ban. The Italian government expressed its “deepest amazement” and called in the U.S. ambassador for an explanation. A West Ger-
man spokesman said that Shultz’s ban was “not of the type to facilitate the Middle East peace process.” And a French foreign ministry spokesman appealed to Washington to reconsider, saying that it would be “normal” for Arafat to go to the UN as he has in the past—a reference to the PLO chief’s 1974 visit, when he wore an empty holster on his belt and said that he had come with “an olive branch in one hand and a gun in the other.” Even the British government, normally the Reagan administration’s staunchest supporter, was clearly disturbed. Although Britain abstained when the General Assembly voted 151 to 2 to “deplore” the U.S. ban—and did so again when the assembly voted last Friday to move the debate to Geneva—the British delegate, Sir Crispin Tickell, said that the United States had “a legal obligation” to let Arafat in.
Canada voted for the resolution deploring the ban, although Canadian chief delegate Yves Fortier said that the language of the resolution “could have been more constructive.” And again on Friday, Canada voted for the resolution moving the site of the debate, which was opposed only by the United States and Israel, with Britain once more abstaining. “At this time in particular,” said Fortier, “all those voices which could make a contribution to resolving the difficult situation in the Middle East should be heard in this forum.”
This echoed a statement issued in Ottawa earlier in the week on behalf of External Affairs’ Clark, who was on holiday. In it, Clark said that he was “very concerned” about the ban on Arafat. “We believe that now, more than ever before, it is important that Arafat’s views be heard before an international forum,” the statement added. The Canada-Israël Committee responded quickly. Speaking on behalf of its sponsoring bodies—B’nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Zionist Federation and the Canadian Jewish Congress—the CIC said that it “strongly disagrees” with Ottawa’s position, and called Arafat “the longtime leader of the world’s foremost terrorist organization.” The conflict of views recalled the uproar last March after Clark, in a speech to the CIC, called Israeli tactics in dealing with the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza “unacceptable.”
But beyond the issue of Arafat’s visa, many observers, diplomats and UN officials expressed dismay last week at the wider, long-term consequences of the ban. In voting on Dec. 2 to move the debate to Geneva, the General Assembly involved the deeply indebted UN in an estimated $440,700 in additional costs and set what many diplomats and UN officials said was a very bad precedent. The General Assembly had never before met outside its New York City headquarters, and one senior UN bureaucrat, who requested anonymity, commented, “This affair has broken down a major barrier against the miserable idea of letting the General Assembly go traipsing around the world to hold its debates.” He added: “It has also given Arafat a special prominence he would not otherwise have had. The whole business is an unrelieved mess.”
Still, in Washington, Shultz remained unrepentant. “It was the right decision,” he said. “I stick by it.” But, as many observers pointed out, it was Shultz’s successor, secretary of state-designate James Baker, who would have to live with the consequences.
JOHN BIERMAN with BEN BARBER in Washington and PETER LEWIS in Brussels
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