I had the opportunity in late July, on a trip organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to meet Binyamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat on successive days. These encounters made for a quite remarkable contrast.
Start with the superficial level, where the two men have just about nothing in common. The Israeli prime minister is 46 years old, the Palestine Liberation Organization's chairman is 66. The former had been in charge for some 30 days, the latter for 30 years. One is clean-cut and handsome, the other stubbly and (in the words of an American diplomat who sees him regularly) "ugly as a toad." One lived nearly half his life in the United States, the other has barely spent a week visiting here. One speaks an impeccable English, the other uses an idiosyncratic, mostly self-taught vernacular.
The approach to meeting these two leaders could not have been more different. My group went to see Netanyahu at his Tel Aviv office, located in an undistinguished building on a military compound; no one paid us any attention. Going to see Arafat is much more eventful and ceremonial. At the Erez checkpoint (the effective border between Israel and Gaza) we left behind our handsome new Israeli bus and entered into an aged (and none too clean) Palestinian bus. This vehicle then did its best to keep up with two heavily armed police cars as they careened through the streets of Gaza, blue lights flashing, sirens screaming, pushing all traffic to the side. (We no doubt made for an odd sight, bouncing in our jalopy behind the escort cars.) You know that everyone paid us attention.
The site of the meeting also differed. Netanyahu met us in a windowless, drab, and too-warm conference room of the sort that might belong to a lawyer who has not seen a client in years. The room contained no artifacts belonging to the prime minister. Arafat received us in his airy office overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by momentos and insignia. On the walls hung testimonials to the "martyrs of the Palestinian revolution."
Netanyahu arrived to the conference room without announcement and unaccompanied by aides. He casually went around the room and shook hands with the guests, almost every one of whom he already knew. To meet Arafat, we formed into a receiving line and were ceremonially greeted by him, with cameras popping. Although he had our names whispered to him as we shook hands, he clearly had no idea of our names or occupations, nor did he seem to care.
My turn in Arafat's receiving line at his office in Gaza in July 1996. In the background, from left to right, are Daniel C. Kurtzer, Edward Abington, Jr., Robert Satloff, an employee in Arafat's office, and Douglas Feith.
During the meeting itself, Netanyahu remained by himself. In contrast, Arafat was flanked by a host of security guards, aides, a photographer, and a stenographer.
Once the meeting started, the differences increased. Prime Minister Netanyahu sketched out a vision of Israel in the next century in the style of Newt Gingerich, speaking of high tech, unparalleled opportunities, and unlimited economic growth. He noted that Israel today has a per capita income equivalent to Great Britain's - and has achieved this despite the many obstacles to the country's economic growth (such as high military expenditures and a legacy of socialist institutions).
In a particularly dramatic assertion, Netanyahu claimed that Israel has the potential to have the highest per capita income in the world. He noted that the old considerations - economies of scale, proximity to markets - no longer matter, reducing Israel's liabilities. Instead, what now counts are "conceptual thinkers," and Israel has more and better of these per capita than any other country. Its computer programmers and medical specialists, for example, number among the finest in the world. Some of its strengths are more subtle: the air force, he noted, keeps track of a million parts, and does so with great success. The intelligence services already are "playing the information highway."
In contrast, as though he was a mayor, Arafat dwelt on small-scale worries, danger, and problems. He bitterly complained that Israel's not letting Gazans to work in Israel is leading to "starvation" in Gaza. He claimed that the Jewish inhabitants living in Gaza, who make up far less than 1 percent of its population, use up 85 percent of its water supplies. He spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince us of a conspiracy theory: that the devastating series of bombs that took place in Israeli cities during February and March 1996 resulted from collusion between "fanatical" Jewish groups and "fanatical" Palestinians (both of whom sought to disrupt the peace process). To prove this point, Arafat dispatched an aide to bring him some blank Israeli documents, which he then insisted were part of the plot. In a bizarre exchange with one of his aides Arafat threatened him with jail; the chairman seemed to be jesting (the aide never stopped smiling) but none of us foreigners knew for sure.
These two meetings were of a piece. The Israeli prime minister, commander of a powerful state, could afford to be modest, whereas the Palestinian had to impress with his authority. Netanyahu glowed and looked to the future, Arafat whined and showed the painful costs of past and present mistakes.