Hug of Arafat no longer a mark against Jackson

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Long before The Handshake, there was The Hug.

Long before Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn and ushered in a new era of peace, he hugged and kissed Jesse Jackson and ushered in years of controversy.


It became the hug that would not die. Nine years after it took place, Jackson's political enemies were still using it against him:

"I am dismayed by his embrace of Arafat!" presidential candidate Al Gore said of Jackson during the New York primary in 1988. "I categorically deny [Jackson's] notion that there's a moral equivalence between Israel and the PLO."


The embrace became a brand. This, for example, is how a 1992 Newsday profile of Jackson began:

"From the moment the Rev. Jesse Jackson's picture was snapped hugging Yasser Arafat in 1979, through the day in early 1984 that the Washington Post reported that Jackson had privately referred to New York as 'Hymietown.' his words and actions about Jews and Israel have been a patchwork of controversy and apology."

But how do we view the embrace today, now that Arafat is pumping hands and being embraced (symbolically, anyway) all over Washington?

To Jackson, the events of this week are a retroactive vindication for his hug of 13 years ago.

"We had to take a lot of pain and rebuff," Jackson said. "Because at the height of this no-talk policy, to say, 'Let's talk,' was to be painted as anti-Semitic, which is not true."

Others, however, point out that timing is everything. Today, Arafat rejects terrorism. But in 1979, he was practicing it.

And Bayard Rustin, a giant of the civil rights movement, the man who organized the march on Washington in 1963 at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech, had denounced the PLO a month before Jackson hugged Arafat.

"Looking back on the history of the PLO, one thing has become abundantly clear," Rustin wrote in the New York Times. "The PLO from the day of its creation in 1964, has never once uttered a word in support of any form of nonviolent resistance, peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians, or a political solution to the complex problems of the Middle East. . . . Between 1967 and 1977, for example, the PLO was directly responsible for killing over 1,100 unarmed men, women and children."


In February, 1984, when Jackson was running for president for the first time, I asked him to explain why he had embraced and kissed Arafat.

"They keep running that picture," he replied. "The pope met with Arafat and they don't keep running that picture. I met with Arafat one time. When you go to Japan, you take your shoes off before entering the house. In the Mideast, you embrace and exchange kisses. I embraced Arafat; I wasn't embracing his politics. When I went to see Arafat, I challenged him to fight for a mutual recognition policy with Israel. But that got lost in all the hype."

But the next time Jackson ran for president, the issue of the hug was still being used against him, this time by Al Gore. And while it didn't help Gore much, it did force Jackson to distance himself from Arafat.

Pressed during the 1988 New York primary as to whether, if elected president, Jackson would sit down with Arafat, Jackson said: "I would not. It is not necessary to do that."

For years Jackson has fumed about how the hug has been remembered. As recently as February of this year, he said in an interview that he had embraced Arafat in 1979 and had not been forgiven by American Jews, yet Ronald Reagan had gone to a Nazi SS cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, in 1985 and had aroused no such lasting enmity.

But today, in light of the peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, has Jackson been vindicated?


No, says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

"When the Rev. Jesse Jackson was embracing Yasser Arafat in 1979, he was embracing a man who was throwing grenades and Molotov cocktails and instructing his soldiers to blow up planes and murder athletes," Foxman told me yesterday. "The man that Jesse Jackson embraced then was not the same man we saw at the White House this week."

Even so, I suspect the hug can no longer be used against Jackson by his political opponents.

Hymietown? Now that's another story.