Toward the end of last week, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) returned to Ramallah from a series of quick meetings in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan and Tunisia. He came home early because of the suicide bombings in Rosh Ha'ayin and Ariel. But his abridged overseas stay also had another reason: The Kuwaiti authorities canceled his planned visit to the emirate.
The cancelation sparked mutual recriminations and insults from Palestinian and Kuwaiti spokesmen. Both sides dredged up painful memories from the 1990-91 crisis in the Persian Gulf and the subsequent war and then the expulsion of 300,000 Palestinians from Kuwait. But there's more to the rift that surfaced last week than anger over the past: It is also connected to events in the present.
Abu Mazen's visit to Kuwait would have been the crowning glory of his first trip to the Gulf states as Palestinian prime minister. It's been years since a prominent Palestinian leader visited Kuwait. The Kuwaiti-Palestinian rift began in 1990, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and expelled its rulers. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinians in general supported Saddam Hussein. They viewed him as a hero in the mold of Egypt's legendary president, Gamal Abdel Nasser - someone who defied the United States and threatened Israel. Many Palestinians thought at the time that Saddam Hussein would be their savior.
When the Iraqi leader announced that he would be willing to withdraw from Kuwait if Israel would withdraw from the territories, all the Palestinians cheered him. In occupied Kuwait, meanwhile, residents charged that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lived and worked in the emirate collaborated with the occupation army and betrayed those loyal to Kuwait's deposed rulers to Saddam's forces.
Thus after the U.S. and its allies liberated Kuwait and returned the emir's family to their kingdom, the Kuwaitis decided to expel all the Palestinians from their country. Many of the deportees returned to the West Bank and Gaza, but most moved to Amman. Twelve years have passed, but the wound in Palestinian-Kuwaiti relations has not healed.
Palestinian personalities did occasionally visit the emirate (such as Faisal Husseini, who died in Kuwait during a fund-raising trip in 2001), but Yasser Arafat and other senior Palestinian leaders were not allowed to enter the country.
Against this background, the Kuwaiti government's announcement that it was willing to host Abu Mazen generated some excitement among the prime minister and his people. "This is the first visit to Kuwait by a senior Palestinian since the war in 1991," proclaimed the headlines in the Palestinian media. But after Abu Mazen had left for Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his journey, he was suddenly informed that his visit to Kuwait had been canceled. Why?
At first, Abu Mazen's staff said it was a technical matter: There had been a misunderstanding regarding the Kuwaiti ruler's schedule. Later, however, it became clear that the matter was far more serious: Abu Mazen had refused to sign the text of the joint declaration that the Kuwaitis had prepared for the end of the visit's ceremony.
The East Jerusalem newspaper Al-Quds published details of the dispute between Abu Mazen and the Kuwaitis last week. Apparently, Abu Mazen refused to agree to the following two sentences that the Kuwaitis had included in the joint declaration: "Regarding the developments in Iraq, both parties, the Palestinians and the Kuwaitis, denounce the ugly crime, which is remembered with pain, that the former Iraqi regime committed on August 2, 1990 [the invasion of Kuwait] against the rights of the Kuwaiti nation and its people. Both parties, the Palestinians and the Kuwaitis, denounce the tragic actions of the former Iraqi regime, which for years infringed on human rights, particularly in its concealment of information about Kuwaiti prisoners and its continual denials of their existence."
Implied in these two sentences are two grave Kuwaiti accusations against the Palestinians. The first is the PLO's well-known support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. The second is that the Palestinians collaborated with the Iraqi invader and helped the Iraqis to arrest prominent Kuwaitis who remained in the emirate. Many of these prisoners disappeared in Saddam's jails and their fate remains unknown.
When, in the middle of last week, it became clear that this was the real reason for the cancelation of Abu Mazen's visit to Kuwait, Farouk Kaddoumi, the head of the PLO's political department, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television that he regretted the Kuwaitis' decision. "It's too bad that logic never entered the heads of Kuwait's rulers and they continue to think that brother Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat's nom de guerre] is the one who ordered Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait," he said. Kaddoumi knows the Kuwaitis well: In the 1950s and 1960s, he lived and worked in Kuwait, and it was there that he first met Arafat and became part of the group that secretly founded Fatah, which later became the leading faction of the PLO, in Kuwait in 1959.
Kaddoumi's remarks infuriated Kuwait's rulers, and a Kuwaiti government source issued the following response: "Kuwait vehemently rejects this manner [of speech] and announces that it will not be willing to receive any Palestinian leader on its territory unless an official apology is issued for the Palestinian stance during the brutal invasion by the former Iraqi regime." The Kuwaitis also demanded an apology for Kaddoumi's remarks in the television interview.
Abu Mazen reacted with restraint throughout the affair. During his visit to Abu Dhabi, he explained that the Kuwaitis had prepared the concluding statement and he had a few reservations about its wording, but he was convinced that it would be possible to meet and find a solution. "We need to think of the future and not be bound by our painful memories of the past," he said. When reporters asked him whether he would be willing to apologize on the Palestinians' behalf, as the Kuwaitis demanded, he replied: "Since 1991, we have issued many statements against the Iraqi invasion that Kuwait suffered; I myself have said so dozens of times. An apology is not the solution. If we begin a round of apologies in the Arab world, we will soon reach a state in which every Arab will have to apologize to every other."
Kaddoumi, however, felt no obligation to exercise restraint. In an interview with Al-Quds toward the end of last week, he said: "It is not we, the Palestinians, who need to apologize, but the Kuwaitis" - for having expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians without even paying compensation for the property they left behind. Kaddoumi claimed that for years, the Kuwaitis thought that the Palestinians had a secret plan to seize control of the emirate, and for this reason, they had always wanted to expel them. "I personally was deported by the Kuwaitis in 1966," he said. As for the charge that the Palestinians collaborated with the Iraqi invaders and helped them to catch Kuwaiti loyalists, who later disappeared in Iraqi prisons, Kaddoumi said: "The ones whose fate has really been unknown since those days are 66 Palestinians who disappeared at the time of the Kuwaiti expulsion, including one of my relatives, Jalal Amin."
It is hard to say exactly why the 12-year-old wound of Kuwaiti-Palestinian relations has suddenly reopened now. Kaddoumi's statements undoubtedly reflect the prevailing sentiment among the masses of the Arab world, who loath the Kuwaiti rulers. This animosity has grown recently, because Kuwait is viewed as the Arab state that most strongly urged the Americans to invade Iraq and that gave them considerable assistance in doing so. The Arab world was not especially fond of Saddam Hussein, but it had reservations - to put it mildly - abut the war and the American conquerors. The Kuwaitis, for their part, are infuriated by attempts to portray them as traitors to the Arab cause, and they therefore sought to enlist Abu Mazen's visit in their effort to clear their name. The result was last week's crisis.