Friday, November 08, 2013

Flashback: Arafat's Baby and Rabin's Gift, 1995

Almost a decade after the death of Yasir Arafat, his widow is trying to build a case that he was murdered. A recent forensic report out of Switzerland gives her theory partial support. But there was a moment in the early 1990s when it actually seemed there might be peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and Arafat's baby girl became a part of that process. 


September 18, 1995 , UNITED STATES EDITION

The Tiniest Diplomat



LENGTH: 570 words

HIGHLIGHT: Arafat: Having a baby warms relations with Rabin

BABIES DO HAVE WINNING WAYS. THEY melt hearts and help break the ice socially. But can a baby contribute to peace in the Middle East? If the little girl in question is Zahwa Arafat, daughter of the PLO chairman, then the answer may be yes -- in a very Middle Eastern sort of way. And she's not even teething yet. Actually, her work started before she was born.
The problem she's helping solve is how to smooth relations between her father. Yasir Arafat of the PLO, and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin hates Arafat, and always has. Even when they shook hands for peace on the White House lawn two years ago, Rabin held back for a second. But their political futures depend on their ability to help each other. They've been forced to move from a handshake to a wary embrace.
Formal "confidence-building measures" aren't the only way to establish trust. Blood ties and family milestones count for a lot in the Mideast -- and have slowly made the contacts between Rabin and Arafat more personal. Aides exploring back channels have played an important role, too. But baby Zahwa helped when she needed to. She set the tone.
A moment of bonding between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders came in Oslo last December, when they met to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Suha Arafat had just announced that she was pregnant. There was "a strange, very familiar atmosphere in Oslo," says a source close to the Arafats. Rabin's wife, Leah, "said in front of everybody, "If you don't mind, we'd like you to have the baby in Israel." As if that were normal for Palestine's First Lady. And before the Rabins left Norway, according to this friend of the family, the two of them made a point of stopping by the Arafats' room to say goodbye.
For medical reasons Suha decided she would have the baby in the American Hospital near Paris. By midsummer most of her own family had gathered there. Then, suddenly, Suha's father died. Arafat sent word that he wanted his father-in-law buried in the West Bank. That part of the occupied territorities was under negotiation, and the talks were at a very problematic moment. "Arafat told Suha that everything was cleared [for the funeral] with Rabin and to go there," says the family friend. In the end, the family decided not to go, because Suha couldn't travel in her last month of pregnancy -- but Rabin's accommodation was any important gesture.

Zahwa was born on July 24. Rabin called Arafat the next day to congratulate him. Leah Rabin phoned Suha Arafat to ask how she and the baby were doing. And a gift arrived in Gaza: a basket in which to carry the baby. The gift was sent by Yossi Ginossar, an aide to Rabin, a key back-channel contact between him and Arafat -- and a former internal-security officer implicated in abuses against Palestinians. An odd man to choose as a go-between with Arafat, it would seem. But Ginossar's own son was killed while serving with the Israeli Army in Gaza in 1991. "The fact that he 'paid the price' puts him on an even basis," says a former gabin adviser on security. Ginossar, whose brief is to discover the fate of Israeli MIAs. now strongly supports coexistence with the Palestinians. And Arafat's help with MIA issues has been a key to improving his relations with Rabin. It's not likely Rabin and Arafat will ever be friends. But over the long run, lost sons and newborn daughters may do a lot to help the old warriors make peace.

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