When I told people I was writing a history of the Nobel Peace Prize, they had a common reaction: “Didn’t Arafat win that?” (I am speaking primarily of Americans.) He did win it, yes, in 1994. For some, that’s all you need to know about the Nobel Peace Prize.
Elena Bonner, the widow of Andrei Sakharov, said that she could not “understand or accept” the fact that her late husband and Yasser Arafat shared membership “in the club of Nobel laureates.”
It’s well to remember, though, that Arafat did not win the prize by himself. He won it in concert with two Israeli statesmen: the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the foreign minister, Shimon Peres. They were happy to go to Oslo to share the prize with Arafat, or at least willing to do so.
And one of them, the foreign minister, went so far as to say in his Nobel lecture that Arafat’s share in the prize was “fitting.”
The three of them won, of course, for the Oslo Accords – which were named after the Nobel committee’s own city (in which those accords had been negotiated). There have been many controversial awards in Nobel history, with the most controversial of all being the 1973 award to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. But the 1994 award is right up there.
And it was controversial from the day of the announcement. People said, “Why are two Israelis winning and just one Palestinian? Why the imbalance?” The chairman of the committee explained that half the prize was going to the Israeli side of the equation and half to the Palestinian. It was just that the Israeli half was being shared by two men.
People said, “Well, what about Mahmoud Abbas (who amounted to Arafat’s foreign minister)?” But there was the problem of the Nobel Foundation’s rules, which allow up to three laureates – no more.
Rabin and Peres were old rivals, and each was claiming credit for a breakthrough with the Palestinians. As Announcement Day approached, everyone expected Rabin to get a share of the prize – he was prime minister, after all. But Peres’s friends were campaigning for the foreign minister to get a piece of it as well.
After the announcement, The Washington Post made a sly note: “Last month, on the anniversary of the Sept. 13 Declaration of Principles, Peres managed to spend the day in Oslo, where he met with Norwegian legislators.”
Announcement Day saw the usual press conference with the committee chairman. But there was a second press conference, unprecedented: One of the committee members announced that he was resigning. He could not stomach a prize to Arafat, even if that prize was shared by Israel’s top statesmen.
He was Kare Kristiansen, a Christian Democrat, and a staunch friend of Israel (something rare in Norway). After his resignation, he received a great deal of mail, both from abroad and from his fellow Norwegians. The mail from abroad was mostly supportive; the mail from home, not. He let his wife answer the mail from abroad – it was easier on her nerves.
On that Friday night, Rabin said, ‘I would happily give back the Nobel Peace Prize to bring back the lives of the soldiers who fell.’
Announcement Day that year was October 14, and it was a tragic day for Israel. Five days before, a soldier named Nachshon Waxman had been kidnapped by Hamas terrorists. He had been seized while hitchhiking in central Israel to visit his girlfriend. On the night of the 14th, Rabin ordered a raid on the terrorist redoubt. The terrorists killed Waxman and one of the rescuing soldiers.
On that Friday night, Rabin said, “I would happily give back the Nobel Peace Prize to bring back the lives of the soldiers who fell.”
In December, the three laureates and their camps got themselves to Oslo for the prize ceremony. Chairman Arafat made a concession to local sensibilities: At public events, he removed his sidearm, that .357 Magnum.
The course of the Oslo peace process need not be rehearsed here. It did not work out the way many had planned, or hoped. But Arafat stands forever as a Nobel peace laureate, along with Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, and many others.
When the 1994 prize was announced, The Washington Times asked, cheekily, what Arafat and Mother Teresa had in common: “Is it the unusual headgear?”
In my view, Arafat is the worst man ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, unless it’s Le Duc Tho (a hard-liner even within a totalitarian dictatorship). But the 1994 prize is far from the worst prize. The very worst, in my opinion, may be the 2005 award to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its then-director general, Mohamed ElBaradei.
But that’s another story.
Jay Nordlinger is senior editor at National Review and the author of “Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World” (Encounter Books).