Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

WikiLeaks’ Insight Into Arafat

The State Department cables show that the Palestinian leader was a key asset to the U.S. during the Kissinger years

Print Email
Yasser Arafat, the late president of Palestine Liberation Organization, speaks before the United Nations on Nov. 15, 1974. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; cable Wikileaks and original photo AFP/Getty Images)
Related Content

The Cold War’s Arab Spring: How the Soviets Created Today’s Middle East

Stolen Kremlin records show how the Soviets, including Gorbachev, created many of today’s Middle East conflicts

Of the 1.7 million declassified State Department cables—some 700 million words long—that WikiLeaks put online this week as part of the Kissinger Cables, dating from 1973–1976, one records Maryland Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias’ April 1976 trip to Beirut to meet with Yasser Arafat. At the end of the meeting, a journalist from Arafat’s entourage criticized Washington’s regional policy, telling the Republican senator that, unlike the Soviet Union, “the United States had no strategic policy toward Middle East, only tactics.”

The cable reports that the senator was greatly impressed with this piece of advice. It had been, he later noted to the Beirut embassy staff, “the portion of interview which had stood out and impressed him the most.” But the reality, which the U.S. foreign service officers knew very well, is that the United States did have a strategy in the Middle East and, at least for those years, Arafat played a central role.

Over the past few days, I’ve read hundreds of these vivid, well-reported cables—often written in abbreviated, diplomatic note-taking style—and they offer a window into this fascinating period of U.S. policy in the Middle East. One story the documents tell is an almost epic one about Washington and the Palestinians, with Israel playing a much smaller role than the vaunted reputation of the special U.S.-Israel relationship would lead one to expect. Arafat is the story’s wily hero, its Arab Odysseus, alternately serving and tricking the great imperial power, America, in order to accomplish his single-minded goal: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

U.S. diplomats knew Arafat was a terrorist and that he was responsible not only for the deaths of Israelis but also other American diplomats, like Ambassador Cleo Noel, who was assassinated in Khartoum in 1973 under Arafat’s orders. But Washington overlooked those facts for the sake of winning what it perceived, rightly, to be a much bigger game: the Cold War.

During the Kissinger years, what mattered most in the Middle East to the United States was the Persian Gulf, because of its vast energy resources. The eastern Mediterranean was important only insofar as it was another venue to contend with the Soviets. Accordingly, Kissinger saw the Israelis as a strategic ally capable of vanquishing Soviet assets—including Egypt, which after the 1973 war jumped from the Soviet camp to the American one. But just because Israel was a valued American ally didn’t mean that Washington would turn its back on Arab figures capable of serving larger American interests by thwarting Moscow’s regional ambitions. The cables show that the Americans were keen to have Arafat on their side.

It’s not clear if the Israelis entirely understood how close the Americans were to Arafat and his outfit. For instance, Israel long believed that Arafat’s intelligence chief Ali Hassan Salameh, one of the masterminds of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic games, was a CIA asset. The truth is that the so-called Red Prince meant much more to the U.S.-Arafat relationship, serving as one of their key intermediaries and a symbol of the nature of their relationship.

The cables show that two years after Munich, the American ambassador to Beirut, George McMurtrie Godley, met with Salameh—described in the cables as Arafat’s “security adviser”—to negotiate the size of the entourage that Arafat would take to the U.N. General Assembly meeting and how many of them would be allowed to carry guns.

When the embassy explained that none of them would be allowed to take arms into the United States, the cable reports that “Salameh purported to be horrified, reporting that ‘Arafat has already developed notion that USG [United States Government] is trying force him into changing his mind by appearing at UNGA by delaying issuance of visas to his party and by ‘demeaning’ his pride and self-image.” Fidel Castro, Salameh noted to the ambassador, “had appeared armed in New York.” In the end, Arafat got his way and brought his weapon to the General Assembly, where he famously offered his audience a choice between an olive branch and his sidearm.

The Americans weren’t stupid or naive. When Arafat sent Salameh to meet with them, he was telling them who he was, his methods, and his goals. When the Americans agreed to meet with Salameh, they essentially signed off on Arafat. Terrorism, from their perspective, wasn’t in itself an insurmountable obstacle. After all, Washington was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with another nuclear superpower. Compared to a nuclear exchange wiping out large American, Soviet, and European population centers, Arab terrorism was small potatoes.

As Ambassador Godley cabled after the May 1974 Maalot massacre, in which members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestinian killed 25 Israeli hostages, 22 of them children: “long-term implications of Maalot tragedy on Fedayeen movement and Israeli-Arab relations are even more upsetting than loss of young lives and anguish of Israeli nation.” The American diplomat might have added that the implications for American interests vis-à-vis the Soviets, who controlled much of the Fedayeen movement, were also dire.

To that end, Godley explained in the same cable that the Americans sought to “curb extremist Fedayeen elements … and channel action by more moderate fedayeen into preparations for political discussions rather than violent action.” Arafat, from the perspective of American diplomats, was that “moderate,” even though by any rational standard he was an extremist. To the Americans, he was moderate only by virtue of the fact that he worked with the United States. What Arafat, the father of Arab terrorism, offered was the fact that he was a power on the ground with men and weapons and called his own shots. Unlike other Palestinian factions, he wasn’t beholden to Moscow, or owned by the Syrians, Egyptians, or any other Arab states. In other words, Arafat had made himself available to the Americans, and they scooped him up.

During the Kissinger years, Arafat was important to the United States for a number of reasons. As the cables show, Washington thought he could help stabilize Lebanon. Another cable, in which Salameh describes a rival Palestinian group’s attempt on the life of Jordan’s King Hussein, shows that Arafat’s cadre could offer a window onto the world of international terrorism largely financed and supported by their Cold War rival the Soviet Union.

But most importantly, the United States wanted to put an end to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict that they feared was damaging their regional prestige, as well as that of their allies who might eventually be forced to flip sides and sign on with Moscow. Kissinger and his State Department believed that solving this conflict would win the good will of the Arabs and hurt the Soviets—and they saw Arafat as their ace in the hole.

What Arafat wanted in exchange, according to one cable from 1974 was U.S. “support of concept of Palestinian ‘National Authority’ in West Bank and Gaza.” It’s worth noting that Arafat struck the exact phrasing that would be adopted two decades later. However, in the mid-1970s, the problem was that two of Washington’s chief regional allies were against it. Both Israel and Jordan thought the idea of Palestinian self-rule was absurd.

The Jordanians, explained another cable, believed “that in long run Israelis would prefer an agreement soon with Jordan rather than hanging on and leaving way open only for Arafat or someone like him.” Jordan of course had another reason for wanting to hold on to the Palestinian card—they were struggling with the Syrians and Egyptians for regional influence—but their assessment was correct. The Israelis wanted nothing to do with Arafat.

Another cable from the period describes a meeting between the American ambassador to Israel and then Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who “confirmed Israel’s refusal to deal with PLO or accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank.” “Why,” the future author of The New Middle East asked, “introduce a tragedy just for good public relations?”

Then Labor Minister Yitzhak Rabin laid out his objections in the strongest possible terms, captured in a 1974 cable. Rabin, who would become the father of Oslo, “pointed out that a proposal for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank in the context of an association with Jordan and Israel was a non-starter primarily due to Palestinian hostility to Israel. They could not, therefore, be conned into an arrangement whereby they are accorded nominal independence under the ‘auspices’ of the Israeli—and probably Jordanian—security forces.”

Except that’s exactly the deal that Rabin signed in 1993, some 20 years after Arafat gave birth to the idea. The Americans sponsored it not just as part of the peace dividend, but also, as we see now, to reward a useful, though not always trustworthy, Cold War ally. The United States got what it wanted, victory over the Soviets, and so did Arafat, his Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and Gaza. For a short while, Israel thought that it, too, got what it wanted—a lasting peace with its Palestinian neighbors. But there’s no evidence—not in the cables and nowhere else either—that was ever part of Arafat’s dream.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Grathi says:

“Arafat is the story’s wily hero, its Arab Odysseus, alternately serving and tricking the great imperial power, America, in order to accomplish his single-minded goal: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.”

This is a naive reading of his goal. His goal was a foothold in the areas that were not declared as parts of Israel, not to establish a state there. If there were any doubts about this, they were dispelled after 2000.

Assuming Smith’s general assessment of America’s nurturing of Arafat is accurate, in hindsight we can now see that Americans have not benefited from their fealty to Arafat and he most certainly was of no assistance in Lebanon or any other Middle Eastern stage. It could be argued, in fact, that one consequence of support of this particular Palestinian leader and his movement, Fatah, is one of the primary reasons that thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have been killed since 1974. Imagine what could have been had the Americans supported local Palestinian leaders such as those who initiated the first intifada (Barghouti for example). I’d wager there would be peace already. Instead, there are now two Palestinians mini-states, both ruled by despotic leaderships and organizations sworn to Israel’s destruction (yes, Fatah no less than Hamas, just with nicer language) and both corrupted by the power they wield locally and even internationally (though not regionally, of course). Are these US sponsored entities of strategic value to the US? Not at all. In fact, as I recall it was just a few months ago that Abbas refused to heed America’s demands and humiliated the US at the UN for the second time since the current US President entered office.

    Natan79 says:

    Abbas is a Holocaust denier. What is the surprise there?

    the corrupted support the corrupted..ugh

    Marina Sapir says:

    Grathi writes:

    ” Imagine what could have been had the Americans supported local Palestinian leaders such as those who initiated the first intifada (Barghouti for example).”

    From Wikipedia:

    “The First Intifada (also known as simply the “intifada” or intifadah[note A]) was a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories,[5] which lasted from December 1987 to 1993….
    Palestinian actions primarily included violent attacks and bombings targeting Israeli citizens.[7] … Intra-Palestinian violence was a prominent feature of the Intifada, with widespread executions of alleged Israeli collaborators. While Israeli Defense Forces killed an estimated 1,100 Palestinian combatants and Palestinians killed 164 Israeli civilians, Palestinians also killed an estimated 1,000 other Palestinians as alleged collaborators, although fewer than half had any proven contact with the Israeli authorities.[3][4]”

    There is no difference between the first and the second intifada, between Arafat and Barghouti. Arabs are Arabs, they do not have a concept of peace, neither between themselves, nor with others.

      Grathi says:

      “Arabs are Arabs…”

      Silly remark.

      Look, there’s no question that as it progressed the first Intifada became far more violent. It evolved into a different type of intifada than at the beginning, and especially became a power grab within Palestinian society. However, this transformation was generated to a large degree by the influence of Arafat’s PLO outside of Israel and the Territories AFTER this outside leadership realized that this intifada could be used as a power-play within the territories. In fact, this was probably their response because they realized that if they didn’t take steps, a different and new leadership might undermine their role. If you read about the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, you can learn more about this.

      I’m not suggesting that an ultimate resolution of the conflict would have been simpler for Israel with the local leaders of the first Intifada. Rather, I’m suggesting that there would have been less violence ultimately and a much greater chance that a solution could have been found with local leaders than outside leaders. Perhaps one of Israel’s greatest mistakes was initiating Oslo with Arafat instead of local Arabs because it was a virtual guarantee of failure.

      Local leaders had far more to gain and far more to lose and also knew the Israelis to a better degree. They were not revolutionaries schooled in military solutions and violence but civilian leaders seeking predominantly pragmatic solutions. Did they use violent means? To some degree, but nowhere near what Israel would see later. Two of the three initial leaders, Ashrawi and Hussainy, were civilians and far more reasonable people than Arafat. Unlike him, they did not come from a militaristic and fighting background and their objectives were to resolve immediate local problems, not the destruction of Israel. Likewise Barghouti. I was referring to Mustafa, not Marwan. Marwan was outside of Israel at the time and probably guiding some of the dirtier aspects of the PLO’s war from outside. Mustafa, while certainly no friend of Israel or a Jewish state, was, like the other local leaders I’m discussing, a civilian leader and a doctor who was approaching the intifada from a different outlook than the professional “revolutionaries.”

      Had the outside leadership of the PLO not become involved to the degree it did, this intifada would have been very different. And who led that outside leadership? Arafat. Hence my point that ultimately he has cost thousands of lives on both sides that might have been far fewer with the local leaders of the first intifada.

        Marina Sapir says:

        “”Arabs are Arabs…” Silly remark.”

        Silly? Did you read Lee Smith’s “The strong horse”? What about P.C. Salzman’s “Culture and conflict in the Middle East”? This is called anthropology. This is science. There are years of hard and rigorous research behind it. There is nothing “silly” about it.

        Arabs do not have a concept of peace, only the tribal war for elimination, with some temporary truce when neither tribe can dominate and exterminate the other.

        Arabs understand only zero-sum games. For them the only solution is to take everything from the other.

Clearly the western politicians have no idea how the Arab/Moslem mind works. Despite all the evidence to the contrary they still believe in negotiations and a peace process. Is this simple racism? Are the Arabs/Moslems inferior beings who are to be held to a very low standard of behaviour as if they were uncivilised savages who know no better? Is international law and treaty to be ignored in order to gain favour with the Arabs who have oil? Are Israeli politicians to be allowed to committ treason in the interests of USA oil supplies? The USA constitution still recognises the anglo-american treaty which mirrors the Palestine Mandate. The USA presidents are duty bound to encourage Jewish settlement on all the land west of the Jordan river. That they do the opposite with impunity is an outrage.

Lowell Blackman says:

Rabin was not the father of Oslo, as stated. Peres and his team worked behind Rabin’s back under the auspices of the Norwegians. Peres presented the agreements made and informed Rabin that a date for a ceremony signing the accords had been set and that Pres. Clinton had been informed of the proceedings. A month before Rabin’s assassination, he made a Rosh Hashana speech in the Knesset and unambiguously stated that there would be no Palestinian state, but some thing like an “entity” with autonomy and that Israel would hold on to major settlement blocs and maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley. Jerusalem, he stated, would not be divided. Rabin understood Arafat all too well, even if the US erroneously and naively believed they did.

    Habbgun says:

    I believe that was well documented in this book (but I am not totally sure….I did read an account but don’t remember the exact title but the author sounds pretty familiar).
    Peres made a lot of money off of Oslo as well as Arafat. Familiy members from both were in top positions of the companies moving the supplies from Israel to the PA that were mandated under the treaty. The treaty mandated that companies for both delivering and receiving goods compete for the positions through open competitive bids but instead Peres and Arafat rigged the system and split the money.

    There was not so much a peace treaty but a piece of the action treaty.

      Dorothy Marez says:

      til I looked at the paycheck of $7002, I be certain that my friends brother was like actualie making money part time from there labtop.. there aunt started doing this 4 less than twenty two months and as of now repaid the morgage on there mini mansion and got a great new Ariel Atom. go to, fab22.comCHECK IT OUT

Hard Little Machine says:

And so it is today with Obama double dealing and kissing up to Turkey and quietly letting Iran go nuclear. No doubt Obama is in close contact with Hamas and Hezbollah too. The US will sell out the Jews the instant they think it’s in his advantage.

Raymond_in_DC says:

It would appear that, despite over 200 years experience dealing with the Middle East, US leaders repeatedly show how little they understand the region and its dynamics. Just as they attempted to use proxies like Arafat and his Palestinians for their greater interest 40 years ago, today they use the “moderate” Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They believed in “linkage” then, and they still believe in it. It’s why Kerry is wasting his time doing shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah, rather than focusing on the growing crisis in Asia.

Lamay Darnel says:

People will say what they will,but he had the respect of the common people,There where attacks on his life by other Arabs, But there was no 9-11 on his watch,we are cousin lock in an eternal struggle by our father,Abraham,Paradise should be sitting next to our father and hearing Him say I love you both With the Almighty King saying It’s true

I’m glad that Lee clarified this following point at the very end, for the assertion in the very beginning that all Arafat wanted was a state in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza was not correct. He was repeatedly caught saying, in Arabic, such things as agreements with Jews being like “the Peace of the Quraysh,” and so forth…temporary hudnas designed to further the real destruction-in-stages game plan. His model moderate, showcased for Western consumption, Faisal al-Husseini, spoke of “Trojan Horses,” and so forth.

Now, on an updated matter about “peace” with the latter-day Arafatians, please see this and

herbcaen says:

This argument is why the State Department needs great budget cuts. As the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated “Three generations of idiots is enough”. The State Dept was led by Heinrich Kissinger, a man traumatized by having to leave Germany because he shared the Nazis disdain of Jews but wasnt allowed to contribute to his beloved Germany, so he did the next best thing, serve the State Dept

    Natan79 says:

    I don’t like Kissinger but you herbcaen are a real piece of shit. Kissinger was a persecuted Jew who escaped Nazi Germany at age 15 in 1938, and then fought with distinction asa US soldier in World War II in Europe. What exactly have you done, rosh katan?

      herbcaen says:

      Benedict Arnold also served the US with distinction, arising to general before he changed sides. He has thus been reviled as a traitor for over 200 years. You on the other hand are a m@sturbator, who lacks the courage to do anything except insult people on the future. You are aware that it is the same Heinrich Kissinger that opposed US aid to Israel during the 1973 war and stated that the fate of Soviet Jewry is not his concern. The fact that you defend a person who didnt oppose genocide against Jews even though he escaped from it tells us more about you than it does about me. Seek help


      of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign
      policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in
      the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian

        Natan79 says:

        Whatever you say is pure hatred and garbage. You’re proof that some Jews can be as bad as anti-Semites. I met fascists like you in Israel, quite invariably of the extremist variety. Some were from extreme Right, of the fundamentalist religious variety (Shas, assorted haredim), other were from the far Left – of the Ha’aretz kind. Luckily your kind doesn’t have the power. Most Israelis are better than that.

        What unites you all – far Left and far Right (of which you aren’t eloquent example) – is hatred and authoritarianism. You’re a filthy and vulgar man. On this website you most resemble yevka, your mirror in hatred and obscenity. In the press the closest you come to is Amira Hass and Gideon Levy.

          Yechiel Gordon says:

          So, you are saying that herb possesses the rare courage and honesty of people like Amira Hass and Gideon Levy?

          Natan79 says:

          Levy and Hass are the voice of Hamas in Israel. If that’s who you like, thanks for letting everyone know.

        Natan79 says:

        In true herbcaen style, you didn’t reply to any factual argument about Kissinger’s service and combat duty. Instead you changed the subject and said I do what you most do in life. You’re projecting! Go to a psychiatrist’s ward, that’s where you belong. Otherwise sooner or later you’ll murder someone given how much hatred you have in you.

This is why America is empire has lasted that goes against Israel and the Jews..just history

Preseident YASSER ARAFAT was poisoned by the criminal zionsits. The same criminals who kiilled AHMED YESSIN, doctor ABDEL AZIZ RANTISI, and 1417 gazawi in 2008 december to 17 january 2009. Same criminal. Let’s help HAMAS and all the people who fignt against the jew quartel. Let’ìs boycott the so called isra-hell!!

Jacob Arnon says:

Well, it looks like the much vaunted Jewish influence on American policy i the mid east was way overstated even in the era of the “Jew” Kissinger.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

WikiLeaks’ Insight Into Arafat

The State Department cables show that the Palestinian leader was a key asset to the U.S. during the Kissinger years

More on Tablet:

Obama: Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as a Jewish Homeland is Anti-Semitic

By Yair Rosenberg — The president draws a line in the sand in his latest interview