There was no sign of Israeli tanks immediately outside the compound in Ramallah. But the place was a mess of rubble and trashed cars, kept that way to impress a clear message. Here was the leader of the Palestinian people held in virtual captivity by the brutal occupying power. Chairman Arafat sat at the head of the table flanked on one side by four of his ministers. No doubt this was a courtesy; there was no need for such ceremony in welcoming a retired foreign secretary, members of his family and Her Majesty's consul general in Jerusalem. It was not clear what the ministers made of this waste of their time.
The Chairman was surrounded by files, but there was no sense of a head of government transacting the present business of his country. The files seemed to deal overwhelmingly with the past. The Chairman searched them from time to time for quotations or evidence to back up his anecdotes. He talked at length in a friendly spirit about my past dealings with him at the Foreign Office, made possible by the reluctant agreement of Margaret Thatcher.
It was impossible to pin him down with any precision on the problems of the moment. At that time, with Foreign Office encouragement, I tried to persuade him that he should delegate full authority to the Prime Minister, Abu Mazen. He replied, of course, that he would do what was necessary, but then veered off into stories to illustrate his own right judgements in the past.
Arafat used the past to protect his own power. Even a year ago, at the time of this visit, criticisms of his rule were becoming more frequent. Palestinians hardly bothered to deny the accusations about corruption, lack of accountability and neglect of the rule of law. They suffered daily from Arafat's failure either to make peace or to direct a successful uprising against the occupation.
In spite of all this, Palestinians would take no initiative to replace their leader. The past was his strongest ally. Despite all the tactical mistakes, he brought the PLO back from exile in Tunis and established the Palestinian cause in the eyes of the world. Why should they change their leader at the behest of Israel the oppressor, and the United States - the oppressor's chief friend? How could the American President reconcile his proclamations in favour of democracy in the Middle East with his refusal to deal with the one freely elected Arab leader?
Arafat had none of the characteristics needed for the successful leadership of a modern state. Although, like the rest of the Arab League, he accepted the existence of Israel, he was too weak to hold back the terrorists, yet strong enough to retain power. No successor will inherit that strength derived from the past; they may well inherit the weakness in dealing with the present. One day a leader may emerge out of the misery of the Palestinian people who is capable of negotiating peace.
For the moment, the best outcome may be a coalition of the factions within Arafat's Fatah party. Such a coalition is bound to fail without a change in the external pressures on it. The Israelis and Hamas play into each others hands. The Israelis kill terrorists and create others in the same military operations. Hamas, by its combined policy of welfare work and promises of revenge, is just able to keep going despite its losses. The result is Gaza, the most miserable place of human habitation I have ever visited.
Can this disastrous equilibrium be changed by Ariel Sharon's policy of withdrawing from Gaza? Conceivably, if he can actually carry it through on the ground, but also on two other conditions. First, as he well realises, the policy will not work if the result is fresh Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel. What he may not accept is the logical answer to that question, namely the presence of international forces, including European and Arab troops, to back up the security forces of the Palestinian Authority. The second condition is a rapid move led by President George Bush to cope with the problems of the West Bank by reopening negotiations for a Palestinian state and guarantees of security for Israel.
Is it too late? Visitors to occupied Palestine sometimes come back discouraged. When they see the physical facts on the ground, not just the Israeli settlements but the roads linking them and dividing up the Palestinian villages, they can be forgiven for their despair. The security wall may offer Israel itself enough protection to blunt the edge of pressures for a compromise peace; yet the demographic facts point the other way, as Sharon clearly realises. As the Palestinians multiply, it is impossible to imagine an Israel which includes the West Bank, let alone Gaza, and which remains democratic.
So the interests of each side, accurately calculated, point to peace. What stands in the way is the piled-up slaughter and mutual hatred of all concerned, accumulated over nearly a century. I suspect that new leaders of both Israel and the Palestinians will be needed before any effort to break this barrier can be successful. George Bush will need to deploy his full energy in the same cause, backed by the other authors of the road map, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Tony Blair is right to argue the case, and will no doubt as usual receive a warm welcome in public. Action is a different matter. It will involve brushing aside powerful pressures inside the American political system, in theory easier now for President Bush in his second term.
By a powerful stroke, President Bill Clinton called the decisive conference to Dayton, Ohio, and ended the Bosnian war. A similar American initiative in this dispute would be more difficult, but the alternatives are dire. There is no point in preaching democracy to Syrians, Saudis or Egyptians while Gaza and the West Bank remain as they are. Two decades ago, other Arabs only knew about the sufferings of the Palestinians by hearsay. Now they watch them every day and night on their popular television stations. For the influence and reputation of the West in the Arab world, Iraq is one test - but Palestine, without Arafat, remains the other.
Lord Hurd was Foreign Secretary during the 1991 Gulf War. He recently published his memoirs and is now working on a life of Sir Robert PeelReuse content