Washington Watch: Paul Findley, ‘Arafat’s best friend’

Yasser Arafat in 1968 at the then PLO head quarters. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yasser Arafat in 1968 at the then PLO head quarters.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Former Republican congressman Paul Findley, who died this week at 98, blamed his 1982 defeat on AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby giant. That is understandable since so many in the pro-Israel community tried to take credit, but as so often happens, his career really succumbed to self-inflicted wounds.
The veteran representative lost his bid for a 12th term from his Springfield, Illinois, district to newcomer Dick Durbin, a Democrat and now the state’s senior senator. Findley was a champion of agriculture but that was overshadowed by his self-assigned mission to bring peace to the Middle East by championing the very unpopular Palestinian cause.
He’d begun as a conservative and moved to the middle by supporting civil rights, helping write the War Powers Act and opposing the Vietnam War. He voted consistently for foreign aid, including generous amounts and terms for Israel.
In the years following his defeat he became increasingly harsh, even bitter, in his criticism of the pro-Israel lobby and the Israeli government, which he blamed for his loss. But in the years I knew him, in the 1970s and early 1980s, he wasn’t anti-Israel or antisemitic. He genuinely felt it was in America’s and Israel’s best interest to open dialogue with the Palestinians. He seemed to downplay Palestinian terrorism and repeated calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
He worked closely across the aisle with my boss, Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal (D-NY) on common interests, particularly their opposition to establishment of a separate Department of Education. Both were members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, opposed to the Vietnam War and critics of excessive Pentagon spending.
Findley met Yasser Arafat for the first time in 1978 while on a congressional trip to Damascus, Syria. He returned to Washington with a new sympathy for the Palestinian plight and a friendship with the PLO leader. In our conversations and his public statements, Findley put more of the blame on Israel than on Palestinian leadership, and almost none on Arafat, where the bulk (if not all) belonged.
After we’d both left the House of Representatives, he came to see me at AIPAC, where I was legislative director. “Why me?” he asked.
IN HIS 1985 book about critics of the pro-Israel lobby, They Dare to Speak Out, he wrote:  “In my wonderment, I pressed Doug Bloomfield, a friend on the AIPAC staff, for an explanation. He shrugged, ‘You were the most visible critic of Israeli policy. That’s the best answer I can give.’ It was hardly adequate.” 
As I recall our meeting I told him, “You made yourself a target by portraying yourself as Yasser Arafat’s best friend in Washington.” To which he replied with a sigh, “But I was ineffective.”
That’s true. And I’d add naïve.
“Critics called his [book] simplistic and biased in favor of the Palestinian cause,” said The Washington Post, and The New York Times review called it “angry, one-sided.” He accused “the Israeli lobby and the Jewish lobby” of suppressing free debate, compromising national secrets and shaping US foreign policy.
He became an inviting target for pro-Israel activists looking for a way to flex their political muscle in the wake of a narrow defeat – and lack of Republican support for Israel – in efforts to block the 1981 sale of AWACS early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
He was vulnerable because had called himself “Arafat’s best friend in Washington,” and he seemed to care more about the Palestinians than Illinois farmers.
Returning from one trip to the Middle East, Findley had said he’d brought written proof of Arafat’s commitment to peace, but when asked to produce it all he had to show was a scrap of paper with what appeared to be the signature of the PLO leader, nothing else.
During that period the PLO and Arafat were considered terrorists by the United States and running a terrorist state-within-a-state in Lebanon, from which they routinely shelled Jewish communities in northern Israel and launched terrorist attacks on civilians.
Arafat was everyone’s poster boy for terrorism, except Findley, who became his advocate.
In the end it didn’t matter whether Findley was defeated by an opponent heavily financed by Jewish contributors or by failure to pay enough attention to his constituents. Findley blamed the Jews. He blamed them and their influence in his speeches, articles, books and at every opportunity. Like the biblical Balaam, he set forth to curse them but wound up praising them. Sadly, that may be the defining element in his political legacy.