FCO files reveal British officials were ordered to thwart Yasser Arafat visit

Newly-released papers show how officials set out to frustrate planned visit by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader

By Jonathan Owen

24 Aug 2016

Previously secret government papers reveal how civil servants were tasked with making sure that a proposed visit to Britain by Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, never went ahead.

The documents, released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the National Archives today, highlight how officials set out to frustrate Arafat’s representatives at every turn.

Senior civil servants were presented with a dilemma in the summer of 1984, when Arafat’s biographer Alan Hart proposed that the PLO leader be allowed to visit Britain.

National Archives chief Jeff James: "The shift to digital means nothing will ever be the same again"
Somme centenary: Let's not forget the outstanding civil servants who braved the trenches

Due to the political problems an outright refusal may have prompted, officials opted to take a different approach.

They suggested that any visit would only be possible if it was purely private, with no contact with officials or ministers and Arafat not allowed to move freely.

Civil servants from the Home Office, FCO and No 10 engaged in a flurry of correspondence which not only revealed prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s personal opposition to the proposed visit, but also highlighted tensions within Whitehall.

A letter dated 7 September 1984 from C.W. Long, from the FCO’s Near East and North Africa department, to Stephen Egerton, assistant under-secretary responsible for the Middle East, said: “The Prime Minister has asked us to discourage Arafat from seeking a visa but does not think we can exclude him if he undertakes to adhere to the terms proposed in the Private Secretary’s letter of 3 September to PS/No 10.”

He recommended that Britain’s ambassador to Tunis be tasked with contacting Arafat.

Long revealed that Sir Geoffrey Howe, foreign secretary, had asked officials to find out “how far the home secretary’s formal powers to grant visas require him to consult with, and take account of advice from the foreign secretary, and what has been the normal practice in cases of this sort.”

He added: “Legal advisers inform us that there is no provision for consultation of the Foreign Secretary…It is however standard practice for the home secretary to consult his Cabinet colleagues in cases which bear on their responsibilities.”

Long noted: “The FCO has persuaded a reluctant Home Office to allow visitors with dubious security references to pay short visits to this country.”

The two Whitehall departments had clashed over the case of Joe Slovo, a leading member of the African National Congress living in Britain, who Long claimed was “believed to have connections with terrorist activities and subversive organisations.”

He added: “Slovo resides in the UK on a Home Office travel document. The FCO has recommended against renewing this document, but the Home Office has concluded that there are insufficient grounds for recommending his exclusion, and withholding renewal of this document.”

In a handwritten annotation on the letter, Egerton said he had told James Adams, Britain’s ambassador to Tunis, “the powerful thought that Arafat may lose face if he comes in what must be a sub rosa manner. I believe he will be deeply offended by Mr Adams’ demarche, but will disguise his feelings and keep us in play, both at the Tunis end and via Mr Hart, up to the mid-November deadline".

He added: “At the last minute he will seek to lay the onus of delay, discourtesy etc, on HMG. We shall have to show that it lies on him. Our problem is premature and malicious press speculation, which cannot now be long delayed. This whole subject is a gift to the media.”

A letter marked "confidential", dated 19 September 1984, and sent by Peter Ricketts, FCO private secretary, to Charles Powell, No 10 private secretary, stated: “You invited us to consider whether there are further ways to discourage Arafat from seeking a visa. You might like to have a note of what action we have taken.”

He outlined how the British ambassador to Tunis “has been asked to point out to Arafat the difficulties such a visit would present for us, and the minimum terms on which we should have to insist. We hope that Arafat might conclude that a visit would not be worth his whole, the restrictive conditions being inconsistent with his view of his own stature: as you know, he has been received in many countries as the equivalent of a head of state.”

However, Ricketts warned: “But if he nevertheless decides to accept our conditions then, as the Prime Minister has said, we can hardly exclude him.”

"Not worthwhile"

Weeks passed and the issue remained unresolved, with the suggestion by Hart, the PLO leader’s biographer, that Arafat would make a private visit to Britain lasting just 24 hours, during which time he would fly to the UK and be taken by police helicopter to Mereworth castle near Maidstone in Kent, the home of the UAE ambassador Mahdi al-Tajir.

Meanwhile, Britain was under political pressure not to allow the PLO leader into the country.

One document dated November 1984 revealed how the former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, told the foreign secretary during a private dinner that the Israelis knew Arafat planned to visit Britain and “that it would be most unacceptable for him to proceed with it.”

A confidential note to Colin Budd, FCO assistant private secretary, from Powell, on 1 November 1984, reiterated that the Prime Minister “hopes that Mr Adams will indeed encourage Arafat to conclude that a visit is not worthwhile.”

FCO officials were also under pressure from the Home Office. A confidential letter from Home Office private secretary, Nigel Pantling, to his FCO counterpart said: “The home secretary very much hopes that, as the prime minister has suggested, Mr Adams will use his best endeavours to discourage Arafat from coming here.

If Arafat was prepared to comply with the restrictive conditions imposed, the home secretary “would be prepared to authorise a visa” but “there would of course be no question of making a police helicopter available for Arafat’s use".

Sir Geoffrey Howe, in a telegram to Adams sent on 15 November 1984, stated: “Ministers prefer Arafat to conclude for himself that a visit would not be worth his while. On the other hand we do not (not) want Arafat to be able to claim plausibly that we had rejected a visit by him even when he has declared his willingness to accept our terms.”

He added: “You are best placed to judge how to play this very difficult hand in the light of local circumstances.”

In the event, the planned visit never took place.

Read the most recent articles written by Jonathan Owen - FCDO appoints first ever blind ambassador

Share this page