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Elusive Arafat still key in Middle East


IN 1983, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was hiding out in Nahr al Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon waiting to die.

Israeli bombers, guided by ground spies, had just missed killing him in a Beirut apartment building; he left minutes before they flattened it. Then the Israelis kicked him and his guerrilla forces out of Beirut.

Several months later, the Syrians, eager to seize control of the Palestinian movement, had him surrounded and were waiting to deliver the "coup de grace."

I sat listening to a shrunken Mr. Arafat, in an abandoned building in Nahr al Bared, as he cursed each Arab leader, one by one. Who would have predicted that 11 years later he would arrive in Gaza and Jericho as the leader of Palestinian autonomy?

But like a phoenix, Mr. Arafat keeps rising from somebody's ashes, even when he helps set the fire. Criticized by his own people, despised or distrusted by most Israelis, despaired of by U.S. and European diplomats, he has managed to make himself indispensable to an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Though he is definitely part of the problem, the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still requires the presence and participation of the elusive Mr. Arafat. Only he was tough enough to sign the Oslo accords with Israel. And he is still the only Palestinian leader in position to lead his people through the next difficult phase of the peace process that will determine whether the Palestinians get a state.

Listening to the criticism of Arafat from Palestinians in and outside the West Bank and Gaza, an outsider might wonder why no one has replaced him.

West Bank professionals' tales of woe about dealing with him are legion. Most have to do with getting him to permit the establishment of West Bank-Gaza political and financial institutions sufficiently credible to get international donors to release already committed funds.

One prominent West Banker recently tried to persuade Mr. Arafat to set up a body of rules to run the new Palestine National Authority, or quasi-government, and to provide a mechanism for calling regular meetings if he is not there.

"Why do we need rules of procedure?" Mr. Arafat asked in bewilderment. "We have custom and tradition." The meeting ended without setting up procedures to run the government.

And West Bank economists assigned to monitor donor money funneled through the World Bank urge, in private conversations, that Mr. Arafat not be allowed to arm-twist the donors into releasing funds without adequate oversight.

And yet, even his critics admit that Mr. Arafat is necessary to get the autonomy process moving.

For one thing, there must be one Palestinian leader who can make critical decisions, and right now there is no one else.

The old structure of the Palestine Liberation Organization is crumbling, as most officials prepare to move to Gaza or Jericho from Tunis.

The two strongest PLO leaders who might have replaced Mr. Arafat were assassinated years ago, one by Israelis and the other by Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal.

And until the Palestinians hold elections on the West Bank and Gaza, probably by year's end, there are no alternatives.

Moreover, the nature of the man makes it hard to confront him. Palestinian intellectuals admit that. One academic told me, "He wears you down. He gets you in at 2 a.m. and he's wide awake but you are nodding. Then he just ignores what you say until you finally give in." Few Palestinians seem to have the stamina to say no to his face.

And the nature of Palestinian society blocks the emergence of new leaders with broad-based support. Many of the best and the brightest emigrated from the West Bank and Gaza, where there was little opportunity under Jordanian rule and less under Israeli occupation.

Other prominent leaders were deported by Israel. Palestinian civil servants, and most ordinary folks, got used to taking orders and not challenging authority under years of occupation.

A new generation of rebellious leaders emerged in prisons, from among tens of thousands of youths jailed by Israel for opposing occupation.

They exert authority in the refugee camps, but they lack skills, stature and education. No future Nelson Mandela has yet emerged from Israeli jails.

And Palestinian society is sharply divided by clan loyalties, geography (Gaza differs greatly from the West Bank) and political splits between those who support peace and those who don't.

Without a common enemy (Israel) or a common dream (the return of all Palestine), those divisions are likely to be magnified.

So, for the time being, a leader who can establish a pro-peace consensus is desperately needed. So is a leader who can establish the basis of a Palestinian government.

Unlikely as he seems, Mr. Arafat is the only candidate.

That does not necessarily spell disaster. If he can be persuaded to remain in Jericho or Gaza, the pressures of necessity -- and international donors -- may change him. Once in place, Mr. Arafat will be less able to fend off the urgings of competent advisers to establish institutions and hold West Bank-Gaza elections. Palestinians will be able to develop a new and more hopeful politics.

If Mr. Arafat can be anchored to Jericho and Gaza, he may finally help bring about the conditions in which he is no longer needed. Until then, he is essential to the peace process.

Trudy Rubin is a member of the editorial board at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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