Beleaguered Arafat’s moment of truth

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Days after his obituaries had been updated and the question of a successor raised in the centres of world power, Yasser Arafat, chief of the Palestinian Authority, is not only surviving but awaiting a visit from the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, in his bunker in Ramallah.

Among his people, Mr Arafat’s support has never been greater. This is a man who over the past eight years had to fight off protests about the alleged corruption of his regime, strong opposition from the Left and the Islamists, and charges of being Israel’s and America’s poodle in the failed negotiations to create a viable Palestinian state, but yet who is now riding a wave of adulation.

A British colleague just back from Ramallah told me this week: “You can’t believe it. People who were cursing Arafat a few months ago as a traitor and a crook would now kill you if you said a word against him.”

A senior Arafat aide and adviser, Mahmoud Abbas, told a Lebanese newspaper: “They [Israel and the US] are looking for any collaborators or agents to form an alternative leadership. However, they will definitely not find anyone among the Palestinian people who would be willing to carry out the mission.”

“He is the leader, the hero, the survivor,” says Mahdi Abdel Hadi, a Palestinian academic based in Jerusalem. “His three months trapped in Ramallah and especially his speech to the Arab summit in Beirut, saying that he’d rather be a martyr than a fugitive, this really moved people.”

Mr Arafat might, it is thought in Palestinian circles, have turned the tables on Ariel Sharon. An Arab cartoonist this week portrayed a rear view of Mr Arafat looking out of a barred window, but the kuffiyeh draped down his back imprisoning a miserable Ariel Sharon inside its chequered pattern.

Mr Sharon might be well on the road to repeating his missed chance of 20 years ago, during the invasion he led into Lebanon, when he set his dogs of war on Mr Arafat but missed the fox short of the kill.

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, Mr Arafat’s bravery and his stoicism in the face of shells, deprivation, incarceration and attempted humiliation, have shown he is still the beating heart and vital symbol of Palestinian nationalism – the very reason Mr Sharon is anxious to be rid of him in what he sees as an battle between the two peoples for confident nationhood.

But, more importantly, and taking strategic note of Mr Arafat’s Palestinian and pan-Arab support, the US, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations have stated without caveat that Mr Arafat is the Palestinian they insist on dealing with.

Their call this week for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank centres added “specifically including Chairman Arafat’s headquarters”.

For the US at least, and most significantly, this is a screeching U-turn in the few days since President George Bush appeared to give Israel a green light to “defend itself ” after the suicide bomb attack at Passover and to hold Mr Arafat solely and individually responsible for the crisis in Israel and the territories.

For all their repeated criticisms of Mr Arafat for allegedly inciting violence and failing to stop suicide bombers, the US and the West now, contrarily, seem to see him as the only man capable of holding the Palestinians to any ceasefire agreement. They are not convinced Israel’s onslaught will alone do the trick.

But the Palestinians now require an important quid pro quo, if a lasting end to the violence is to be achievable, and assuming the Israelis do not – as has been their pattern under Mr Sharon and Ehud Barak – shatter periods of calm by carrying out assassinations or outrages of their own.

When President Bush’s peace envoy, Anthony Zinni, visited Mr Arafat before the present Israeli campaign more than two weeks ago, he delivered ceasefire proposals that insisted Mr Arafat arrange the collection of illegal arms, arrest Hamas and other guerrilla leaders and turn over to Israel the alleged assassins of an Israeli cabinet minister.

That Mr Arafat rejected outright. Now he will tell the higher authority, Mr Powell, that a ceasefire must be inextricably tied to tangible political results: an end to the occupation and determined progress towards a viable Palestinian state.

If such a deal is brokered, through the US and with Mr Sharon, it could well be enough to hold back the fighters and the bombers. Mr Arafat will have been seen to have played a deft and potentially winning hand from a position of apparent desperation, a trick he has brought off many times before.

But for all Mr Arafat’s skills and present popularity, the US has to find the backbone to confront Mr Sharon, to coerce or even force him into revising his historically bleak vision of the Palestinians’ fate. That they might not be able to do.

Mr Arafat, for all his sudden popularity, is surviving, not yet prospering.

Tim Llewellyn is a former BBC Middle East correspondent.

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