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Digital Archive International History Declassified

September 15, 1988

NOTE OF A MEETING BETWEEN THE GENERAL SECRETARY OF THE CENTRAL COMMITTEE OF THE SED AND CHAIRMAN, COMRADE ERICH HONECKER, AND THE CHAIRMAN OF THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE OF THE PLO, YASSER ARAFAT, ON 15 SEPTEMBER 1988

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    Arafat reports that the First Intifada, which began ten months earlier, has strengthened the PLO. He describes the PLO’s plans going forward and their anticipated impact on Israel. Honecker expresses East Germany’s steadfast support for the PLO and talks about potential progress towards peace on the international stage.
    "Note of a Meeting between the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the SED and Chairman, Comrade Erich Honecker, and the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, on 15 September 1988," September 15, 1988, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, SAPMO-BA IV 2/1/685. Contributed by Stefan Meining and translated by Bernd Schaefer. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/112755
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[SED Central Committee]

[Department of International Relations]

Berlin, 15 September 1988

N o t e

of a Meeting between the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the SED and Chairman, Comrade Erich Honecker, and the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO, Yasser Arafat[1], on 15 September 1988 in the House of the Central Committee of the SED [in Berlin]

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At the beginning, Yasser Arafat expressed the condolences of the PLO leadership for the death of Werner Felfe[2]. He called the death of Werner Felfe a great loss also for the Palestinians.

Comrade Erich Honecker thanked for the condolences of the PLO leadership. He emphasized that the GDR is following the developments in the Middle East with great interest, especially the uprising in the occupied Palestinian territories. With this, the struggle for a Palestinian state will receive a large boost. He welcomed the talks of Yasser Arafat at the European Parliament in Strasbourg as an important political initiative.

Yasser Arafat made the following remarks about the recent developments regarding the Palestinian question:

The uprising in the occupied territories is ever more growing. Now it is already entering its tenth month. The beginnings of the uprising reach back to the year 1986. The PLO leadership had succeeded in mobilizing large parts of the people’s masses in the Arafat. Five new universities had been established where now about 15,000 students are educated. These students became a leading political force in the organization of the uprising. The Israeli authorities saw themselves forced to close the universities because the students had become too active.

A substantial impact on the surge of the uprising in the Arafat had the results of the Palestinian National Council Meeting in Algiers in April of 1987. Those contributed substantially to the strengthening of the PLO.

The uprising is led by an internal and an external leadership. Members of the leadership within the Occupied Territories are representatives from all segments of the people, among them also religious forces. The people’s masses are getting well organized by people’s committees. In the people’s committees all issues are dealt with in a democratic manner, from supplies to education up to maintaining public security. The people’s committees feel also responsible for local administration. Two weeks ago Israel attempted to declare these people’s committees illegal. However, they have already been existing for 10 years and will also continue to exist in the future, even though under different names.

At the same time the Palestinian people had to make great sacrifices during the uprising. There have been more than 450 dead and 12,000 injured. 25,000 Palestinians haven been arrested. More than 50,000 people have fled into the mountains. The PLO is attempting to recruit from them the core of a future people’s army.

Of major importance was the decision made by the PLO leadership at the beginning of the uprising not to use weapons and to defend oneself only with stones and petrol bombs. One does not want to provide a pretext to the Israelis to use heavy weapons, since in this regard they are clearly superior. Armed operations are still only conducted outside of the Occupied Territories. The fighting methods in the Occupied Territories are limited to protests, petitions, strikes, and boycotts of Israeli goods. It is the goal to break down any relationship between the Palestinians and the occupation authorities.

For the future struggle, there are also plans for actions of civil disobedience. This includes that the 120,000 Palestinians currently working in Israel will end their labor. So far 50 percent of those Palestinians have voluntarily declared their willingness to do so. Now they have to be supported by the PLO, for what the PLO is in need of additional funds.

The negative impacts of these protest actions are much greater though on the situation in Israel. For instance, there are problems there with the orange harvest and the organization of religious tourism. This year the profits of El Al Airlines have been down by 40 percent. Israel cannot replace the Palestinian workers through guest workers from other countries because this would become too expensive for the Israeli economy. For the use of laborers from Cyprus or Greece they would have to provide additional residential space, additional social benefits, and payments in hard currency. Israel's losses from the retreat of Palestinian workers amounted in the current year to about 1.3 billion U.S. Dollar. Also, for the use of police, army, and security forces in the Occupied Territories to repress the Palestinian uprising additional funds outside the budget had to be provided. Currently half of the Israeli Army is deployed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

As a result of these high economic burdens, there also have been psychological impacts in the Israeli population. A growing polarization has occurred in Israeli society. Many democratic forces in Israel are now rejecting what currently happens in the Occupied Territories. At the same time, fascist and rightist-conservative forces strengthened their positions in Israel. They conducted terrorist operations that were in part worse than in South Africa.

The PLO is eager to increase its contacts with all democratic forces in Israel. The first ever meeting of the PLO leadership with representatives from Israel had taken place in Berlin with Meir Vilner.[3] It traced back to an initiative by the SED which had facilitated the meeting. Today such meetings are occurring in various places and so frequently that Israeli Prime Minister Shamir[4] has issued a decision to criminalize contacts with the PLO. However, ever more forces in Israel are turning against the official policy. Among them are writers, former officials, and representatives of leftist parties like MAPAM[5] and RAZ[6].

The Palestinian uprising has also impacts on the neighboring Kingdom of Jordan. It demonstrated to Jordanian King Hussein[7] that he has no basis among the Palestinian people of the West Bank area. This is why he announced that Jordan will completely withdraw from the West Bank area and leave any future responsibility for developments in this area to the Palestinians. This step by Hussein was a surprise to the PLO leaders and not in any way coordinated with them in advance. A political vacuum had arisen which had to be rapidly filled. Apparently the Jordan King had been advised in this regard by Great Britain. He also was afraid of the implementation of the threat by Israeli Minister Sharon[8] to expel all Palestinians from the Occupied Territories to Jordan. He [Hussein] was afraid that the uprising would spread to Jordan.

Since the publication of this decision, many meetings of the Palestinian leadership have been held in Tripoli[9] and Tunis to prepare the next session of the Palestinian National Council. Legal and political commissions have been formed to discuss the following versions for the further development of the Palestinian problem:

1. The Occupied Palestinian Territories will be under international mandate for a certain period. Therefore the consent of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council is required.

2. The proclamation of a Palestinian state, with the condition of Israel occupation continuing.

3. Simultaneously with the proclamation of a Palestinian state, a government is formed.

4. There will be only a provisional Palestinian government formed.

We want to discuss these questions with our friends, among them the leading representatives of the SED. Which option is the best? What is possible under current conditions? The PLO wants to use the favorable international atmosphere that is beginning to emerge in the whole world as a consequence of the Palestinian uprising. Even in the United States and the Jewish community all over the world one cannot defend anymore what is done against the Palestinians in Israel. It is most important for the PLO that all versions mentioned above have to lead to the preparation of an International Middle East Conference.

The most recent visit to Strasbourg and the appearance before the European Parliament served this purpose. Participants of an International Middle East Conference would have to be all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and all sides involved, including the PLO and Israel. The visit to Strasbourg was about exerting positive influence on public opinion and to create conditions for facilitating the establishment of peace with our enemies. The efforts of the PLO are helped by the current international situation, especially by the numerous activities towards political resolutions of local conflicts. Today the PLO is working in the direction of Israel, Europe, and America. It is constantly consulting with the Soviet Union and is coordinating all concrete steps with her.

The PLO has come here [to Berlin] because it is proud about its great friends in the GDR. For the first time there is a glimmer of hope, a possibility for the concrete solution of the Palestinian question. One could notice that during the talks in Strasbourg, both with communist parliamentarians and with representatives from social-democratic parties, who previously used to be heavily under pro-Zionist influence. Representatives of conservative parties from Western Europe officially boycotted the talks with the PLO delegation, but at the same time they were eager for many unofficial contacts. Overall, the visit to Strasbourg can be assessed as very successful. At the international press conference, a clear message by the PLO was announced. It is characterized by the courage to establish peace with Israel. Yet today Israel is in need of a man who is as courageous as De Gaulle[10] during the Algerian War or at least like Botha[11] in recent talks with Angola.

Comrade Honecker thanked for the explanations from the guest and stated: Today there are new opportunities in international relations. However, the solution for international problems is not yet at a point where it should be. There is a still an intensive struggle needed to move from confrontation to detente. The GDR is deeply impressed by the uprising of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories. We are willing to grant the PLO all necessary aid and support in order to seize on the currently offered opportunities to create a Palestinian state. The decision by Jordan King Hussein has created a new situation for the PLO. After the session of the Palestinian National Council in Algiers, pressure has increased on the Arab states to contribute towards the resolution of the Palestinian problem.

At the [recent] meeting of the Political Consultative Committee of the Warsaw Treaty, we directed attention towards the need for convening an International Middle East Conference. The end of the war between Iraq and Iran had also positive effects on the Palestinian uprising in the Occupied Territories. The world opinion does understand ever more that it cannot continue with the Palestinian question as it did in the past. One has to make the best of the new situation.

The decision by Jordan King Hussein has also positive effects for the further struggle of the Palestinians. The television of the GDR has reported extensively about the talks by the PLO delegation in Strasbourg. This way the positions of the PLO leadership have been shared with circles who thus far were not ready to accept the creation of a Palestinian state under PLO leadership. Now representatives from conservative parties have not completely rejected these positions. The decision to visit Strasbourg was a smart one. Now the success has to be solidified, with the PLO leadership developing thoughts about drafting a new program, a new political platform. It must contain the idea explained by Comrade Arafat in Strasbourg: the creation of two independent states in this area. This means the formation of a Palestinian state and the continuation of the State of Israel.

Both the decision by King Hussein and the appearance of the PLO delegation in Strasbourg are demonstrating that the process for a solution of the Middle East problem has entered a new phase. It is the result of a struggle by the PLO rich in sacrifices, as well as because of its clever strategy and tactics in leading the uprising in the Occupied Territories. This way the activities of the PLO at the international stage were supported.

The SED can hardly give advice regarding concrete questions. This is a matter of the PLO. It has to decide itself about the correct tactics. Like the Soviet Union and the other socialist states, the GDR is also supporting all efforts towards the foundation of a Palestinian state and the formation of a respective government. The idea of an U.N. mandate in combination with the withdrawal of the Israeli forces can also play a certain role for the process of resolution, because the United Nations and its Secretary General[12] have gained in authority. This is especially a result of the successful efforts by the U.N. and its Secretary General to end the war between Iraq and Iran. This conflict resolution occurred in a period when a representative of the GDR happened to be President of the U.N. General Assembly[13].  

The main contribution towards detente of the international situation and continuation of the disarmament process is made by the Soviet Union and the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, Comrade Gorbachev. However, there might be setbacks in this process since imperialism is continuing with the policy of more armaments. A main aspect of talks between the Soviet Union and the United States is devoted to resolve regional conflicts through negotiations. These negotiations are prepared by various means. The PLO did so through the uprising in the Occupied Territories.  This furthered within broad circles of Israel the opinion that political solutions are needed to resolve the Palestinian question. This includes the creation of a Palestinian state under the leadership of the PLO. Jewish representatives, to whom I had talked recently, noted that there exists not just the Israel of Prime Minister Shamir, but that there are also peaceful and democratic forces living in Israel. The upcoming elections in Israel[14] will demonstrate the strength and influence of these forces.

Today the task is to implement the U.N. resolutions pertaining to the Palestinian question. At the meeting of the Political Consultative Committee it was said, that the Soviet Union is willing to achieve together with the United Nations the convening of an International Middle East Conference by exerting pressure on the United States.

The PLO can always fully rely on the GDR. At the end of September, I will go to the Soviet Union for a working visit. In the talks with Comrade Gorbachev the Palestinian question will also play a role. I will inform Comrade Gorbachev about your statements during our talk today.

(Comrade Honecker commissioned Comrade Hermann Axen[15] to continue with the conversation, as he had to attend another important meeting in the Politburo).

In his further statements to Comrade Hermann Axen, Yasser Arafat still referred to three problem areas:

1. On the preparation of the Knesset[16] elections in Israel: The PLO has formed a commission for exactly monitoring the preparations for the elections in Israel. The votes of the Arabs living in Israel have an impact on the distribution of about 16 seats[17] in the Knesset. If one is adding here the votes of the democratic Jewish circles, an effective third force could emerge in the Israeli parliament. So far there are only 4 seats for the Communist Party of Israel and 2 for the Progressive List for Peace. Through exact organization a gain of at least 12 seats would be possible. Yet for that it is necessary for all democratic forces to form a broad alliance with the Communist Party of Israel, or at the least to end the fighting against each other. This infighting has cost many votes.

The PLO is asking the SED and Comrade Axen in person to help with improving the relations of all these forces with each other and to nudge the Communist Party of Israel towards agreeing to a meeting with the PLO on these issues. The Communist Party of Israel needs more flexibility on these questions. At the next election, the citizens of Israel have to make a decision between war and peace. Whoever is for peace has also to support an International Middle East Conference.

The elections is Israel are also a kind of continuation of the Palestinian uprising. We want our meeting today in Berlin to create a new impulse for the strengthening of cooperation between the PLO and the progressive forces in Israel.

2. On the question of an international mandate for the Occupied Territories: The PLO wants to benefit from the experiences of the GDR regarding questions of working with the United Nations. During a recent meeting with the U.N. Secretary General, Arafat made the proposal that the U.N. Secretary General should launch for the Palestinian question a similar initiative as with ending the war between Iraq and Iran. Also, the five permanent members of the Security Council should play a similar role during this resolution process. What opportunities does the GDR see in this regard?

3. The PLO also wants to benefit from the good relations of the SED with social-democratic parties. The PLO wants to have opportunities to explain its position in an open dialogue with social-democratic parties.

In his response Comrade Hermann Axen outlined:

1. It is in the interest of peace that in the elections in Israel the extreme aggressive forces around Shamir will have to suffer a defeat. These elections are primarily about peace. This is also the chance for Israel. In the context of our contacts with the Israeli comrades, we got ourselves informed about the situation there. The comrades were also talking about a growing polarization of forces in Israel.

It is correct that the democratic forces in Israel have to cooperate more closely. They are not supposed to tear each other apart. The Communist Party of Israel for which, as it is well known, the Arabic citizens of Israel have voted for decades, is concerned that just for the election of the 1st of November the new formations of Arab electoral alliances could splinter the opposition - which is in the interest of the Likud government. This is why the Communist Party is for accommodation and the alliance of all democratic Arab and Jewish forces in the elections. It operates from the doctrine to direct the main strike against the main enemy. We will inform the Israeli fraternal partly, so that the requested meeting with the PLO will soon materialize and an alliance of action will be formed. We will immediately inform you about the results of our efforts.   

2. The Soviet comrades are negotiating intensively with the United States about the preparation and soonest possible convening of the Middle East Peace Conference. The United States, however, want to postpone this far into the future. The proposal of Yasser Arafat to win over the U.N. Secretary General for a new initiative is certainly warranted. The GDR will support this. We will inform the other socialist states about this initiative of yours. Maybe one can also act in the same way towards the U.N. Secretary General through the governments of Northern Europe, Spain, and Latin America.

3. Important changes are currently under way within the Socialist International and the social-democratic parties. The SED has made progress concerning the cooperation with these parties, a couple of important documents could have been agreed with them. We will use the opportunities to win the social-democratic parties for a positive statement regarding your proposals.

Yasser Arafat expressed his complete accordance with these statements. He asked to express to Comrade Erich Honecker deep gratitude for this repeated fraternal, valuable, and political support.

The meeting, which occurred in a cordial and comradely atmosphere, was further joined by: the members of the Executive Committee of the PLO, Suleiman Najab and Yasser Abed Rabo, the Acting Ambassador of the PLO Embassy in the GDR, the members of the Central Committee of the SED, Günter Sieber[18] and Ewald Moldt[19], and Peter Rabenhorst[20], Deputy Head of the Department of International Relations of the Central Committee of the SED.

[1] 1929-2004.

[2] 1928-1988. Member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the SED from 1976 to 1988.

[3] 1918-2003. Leader of the Communist Party of Israel, Member of the Israeli Knesset.

[4] Yitzhak Shamir (1915-2012), Prime Minister of Israel 1986-1992.

[5] United Workers Party.

[6] Misspelled, actually RATZ. Movement for Civil Rights and Peace.

[7] 1935-1999. King of Jordan 1952-1999.

[8] Ariel Sharon (1928-2014), in 1988 Minister of Industry, Trade, and Labour in Israel. Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006.

[9] Tripoli in Libya.

[10] Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), President of France from 1950 to 1969.

[11] Pik Botha (1932-2018), Foreign Minister of South Africa from 1977 to 1994.

[12] Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1920-2020), Secretary General of the United Nations from 1982-1991.

[13] Peter Florin (1921-2014).

[14] 1 November 1988.

[15] 1916-1992. Member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the SED from 1970 to 1988, Secretary of the Central Committee of the SED for International Relations.

[16] The Israeli Parliament.

[17] Out of 120 seats.

[18] 1930-2006. In 1988 Head of the Department of International Relations of the Central Committee of the SED.

[19] Born 1927. In 1988 Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the GDR.

[20] Born 1940.

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