The Middle East According to Robert Fisk
In the age of Geraldo, it seems almost an anomaly that a rumpled, 56-year-old professorial British-newspaper foreign correspondent could draw a string of standing-room-only throngs to American university auditoriums. But that's exactly what the London Independent's Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk has been doing from Chicago to Los Angeles, generating an often rock starlike reception (a crowd of 900 saw him last week in Cedar Falls, Iowa!). Though he's rarely published in the United States (except for occasional short pieces in The Nation), Fisk has built a loyal following that pores over his every word via the Internet with almost cultlike devotion. Fisk, who has covered the region for 26 years, is considered by many to be simply the best and most knowledgeable correspondent currently working in the Middle East.
But Fisk also has his detractors: critics who allege that he is knee-jerk anti-American and anti-Israeli, a patsy for Yasser Arafat.
But any in-depth discussion with Fisk reveals a thoughtful man, immersed in Middle Eastern history, tempered by decades of reporting and ready to argue in ways guaranteed to rankle true believers on any side of the conflict. The L.A. Weekly's Marc Cooper interviewed Fisk on Sunday at the home of the Independent's Los Angeles correspondent.
COOPER: In your public speeches, you have been suggesting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might turn into something as apocalyptic as the French-Algerian war of four decades ago -- a horrendous war that took well over a million lives. Are things that dark?
ROBERT FISK: I think we already have reached those depths. If you go back and read the narrative history of the Algerian war, you'll see it began with isolated acts of sabotage, a few killings of French settlers, followed invariably by large-scale retaliation by the French authorities at which point, starting in the '60s, the Algerians began a campaign against French citizens in Algiers and Oran with bombs in cinemas and discotheques, which today translates into pizzerias and nightclubs in Israel. The French government kept saying it was fighting a war on terrorism, and the French army went in and erased whole Algerian villages. Torture became institutionalized, as it has by the Israeli authorities. Collaborators were killed by Algerian fighters, just as Arafat does so brazenly now. At the end of the day, life became insupportable for both sides.
At Christmas, Ariel Sharon called French President Chirac and actually said, We are like you in Algeria, but "we will stay."
And it's quite revealing that Arafat himself keeps referring to "the peace of the brave." Whether he knows it or not, that's the phrase De Gaulle used when he found it necessary to give up Algeria.
COOPER: For those who have watched this conflict over the years, it sometimes seems confounding what Ariel Sharon is thinking strategically. If one accepts the common view that Arafat has been a reliable and often compliant partner with the Israelis, what does Sharon think he has to gain by undermining him and opening the door to the more radical groups like Hamas?
FISK: Remember that when Arafat was still regarded as a superterrorist, before he became a superstatesman -- of course he's reverting back now to superterrorist -- remember that the Israelis encouraged the Hamas to build mosques and social institutions in Gaza. Hamas and the Israelis had very close relations when the PLO was still in exile in Tunisia. I can remember being in southern Lebanon in 1993 reporting on the Hamas, and one of their militants offered me Shimon Peres' home phone number. That's how close the relations were! So let's remember that the Israelis do have direct contact with those they label even more terrorist than Arafat.
In the cowboy version of events, they both hate each other. In the real world, they maintain contact when they want to.
As to Sharon, I was speaking with [former Palestinian official] Hanan Ashrawi last week, and she made the very good point that Sharon never thinks through the ramifications of what he's going to do, beyond next week or the week after. That's what we are seeing now.
In that regard, Sharon has many parallels with Arafat. When I had the miserable task of living under Arafat's awful regime in Beirut for six years, you could see that Arafat also would get up in the morning and not have a clue as to what he would be doing three hours later.
But back to Sharon. One thing he knows is that he is opposed to the Oslo [peace] accords; he doesn't want it. He's systematically destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. It's interesting to note that the European Union is now pointing out to the Israelis that $17 million of our taxpayers' money, investment in the West Bank infrastructure as part of the American peace plan, has been bombed and smashed to pieces by the Israeli military.
COOPER: Your critics accuse you of being a mouthpiece for Arafat. But in your public talks you openly disdain Arafat, calling him -- among many other things -- a preposterous old man.
FISK: I'm more than disdainful! More than disdainful. I always regarded him during his time in Lebanon as being a very cynical and a very despotic man. Even before he got a chance to run his own state, he was running 13 different secret police forces. Torture was employed in his police stations. And so it was easy to see why the Israelis wanted to use him. He was not brought into the Oslo process, and he was not encouraged by the Americans, and his forces were not trained by the CIA so that he could lead a wonderful, new Arab state. He was brought in as a colonial governor to do what the Israelis could no longer do: to control the West Bank and Gaza.
His task was always to control his people. Not to lead his people. Not to lead a friendly state that would live next to Israel. His job was to control his people, just like all the other Arab dictators do -- usually on our behalf. Remember that the Arab states we support -- the Mubaraks of Egypt, the Gulf kingdoms, the king of Jordan -- when they do have elections, their leaders are elected by 98.7 percent of the vote. In Mubarak's case, 0.2 percent more than Saddam!
So Arafat fits perfectly into this lexicon of rule. He's confronted with the choice of either leading the Palestinian people or being the point man for the Israelis.
COOPER: So does Arafat now, for his own cynical reasons, encourage or support the suicide bombings inside Israel as the Israelis insist he does?
FISK: Arafat is a very immoral person, or maybe very amoral. A very cynical man. I remember when the Tal-al-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut had to surrender to Christian forces in the very brutal Lebanese civil war. They were given permission to surrender with a cease-fire. But at the last moment, Arafat told his men to open fire on the Christian forces who were coming to accept the surrender. I think Arafat wanted more Palestinian "martyrs" in order to publicize the Palestinian position in the war. That was in 1976. Believe me that Arafat is not a changed man.
I think that if he ever actually sees a wounded child, he feels compassion like any other human being. But he's also a very cynical politician. And he knows that Sharon was elected to offer security to the Israelis. And Arafat knows that every suicide bombing, every killing, every death of a young Israeli, especially inside Israel, is proof that Sharon's promises are discredited.
On the one hand, he can condemn violence. He can be full of contrition. And in the basic human sense, he probably means it. But he also knows very well that every suicide bombing hits at the Sharon policy, and realizes how that helps him.
COOPER: Is this current phase the endgame for Arafat? Or his 10th life?
FISK: Actually, both Arafat and Sharon are in danger. Throughout Arafat's life, the more militarily weak he becomes, the stronger he becomes politically. Equally, you might say Mr. Sharon has thrown his entire military at the West Bank, but he is not achieving the security he promised. Further, one day we will have to find out what has happened in the Jenin refugee camp, with the hundreds of corpses -- some of which disappeared, some of which appear to have been secretly buried. That will further damage Sharon. So as he becomes stronger militarily, he weakens politically. Way back in 1982, Sharon said he was going to root out terror when 17,500 Arabs were slaughtered during three months in Lebanon. And here we are again.
COOPER: I heard some contradictory notions in your talks regarding the U.S. I can't tell if you are just plain sarcastic about the American role in the Middle East, or if you are merely disappointed.
FISK: I'm way past being disappointed. I am very sarcastic. And deliberately so. A week ago, I wrote in my newspaper that when Colin Powell goes to Israel and the West Bank, we shall find out who runs U.S. policy in the Middle East: The White House? Congress? Or Israel?
On an ostensibly urgent mission, Secretary of State Powell -- our favorite ex-general -- wandered and dawdled around the Mediterranean, popping off to Morocco, then off to see the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, then he went to Spain, then he went to Egypt, then he went to Jordan, and after eight days he finally washed up in Israel. On an urgent mission!
If Washington firefighters turned up that late, the city would already be in ashes. As Jenin was. It was generally hinted at on the networks, in the usual coy, cowardly sort of way, that Powell wanted to give Sharon time to finish the job, just as he got to finish the job in '82 in such a bloody way.
And now Powell arrives and we see the two sides of the glass. On the one hand, he quite rightly goes to inspect by helicopter the revolting suicide bombing in Jerusalem where six Israelis were killed and 80 wounded.
But faced with the Israelis hiding their own activities, where hundreds [of Palestinians] have been killed, Powell does not ask to go to Jenin. Why? Because the dead are Palestinians? Because they are Arabs? Because they are Muslim? Why on earth doesn't he go to Jenin?
Powell is not being evenhanded. American policy never has been. It's a totally bankrupt policy. No wonder the Europeans are saying, "For God's sake, we have to play a role in the Mideast now."
COOPER: But till now the Europeans have not acquitted themselves much more honorably in the Middle East. And their role in the Balkans was abominable.
FISK: Well, they haven't had a chance yet to make a mess of the Middle East in the way you Americans have. But yes, if you look at European foreign policy within Europe, we totally screwed up in Bosnia. We didn't have the courage of our convictions over the breakup of Yugoslavia -- that's if we had any convictions. We allowed the horror and the tragedy and the most horrible atrocities to take place in Srebenica.
We needed the Americans in Bosnia. We needed the Americans in Kosovo. We still need American support with their influence over the Republican movement in Northern Ireland to keep that peace process together.
But Europe has a much clearer understanding of the Middle East. Owing partly to much more forthright press and television coverage of the region, of what's going on. We do not hide from our readers and viewers what's happening there. Unlike the American press, we do not hide the brutality of the Israelis. And we certainly do not hide the brutality of the Palestinians.
The peoples of the Middle East -- Jews, Muslims, Christians -- are our neighbors in Europe. Not only do we have large numbers of Muslims living in Europe, but the fault line between the Muslim world and Europe runs down the Mediterranean -- in many cases through Europe itself, like in Bosnia.
And we have got to have a proper, grown-up, modern relationship with our neighbors in the Middle East. You Americans don't have to. You can play Wild West out there because they are 9,000 miles away from you, and you will never have to be neighbors. But for us, there are new priorities. America doesn't even have a real policy in the region. You say, "Well, it's up to the parties." That's what we Europeans said in Bosnia, and look what happened.
How odd. Here's a superpower with enormous leverage, if you care to use it, over the Israelis. Yet you don't do so.