Despite Israel, Arafat survives


JERUSALEM - After more than a generation of trying, Israel in recent months believed it had finally found a way to limit the influence of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

First, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon isolated him by parking a tank outside his headquarters in Ramallah. Most of the building had already been destroyed, confining Arafat to a single room. With the Bush administration leading the way, Israel then sought to make him irrelevant by pressing for the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister.

Those efforts have now failed.

Mahmoud Abbas, the prime minister who was supposed to reform the Palestinian Authority, resigned Saturday, pointing to his conflicts with Arafat as one of the reasons. Arafat, 74, re-emerged as the only acknowledged leader of the 3.1 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and on Sunday nominated Ahmed Qureia as Abbas' replacement.

Palestinian officials say Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, has accepted the post in principle. But Qureia said yesterday that he would accept only if he gets a guarantee of U.S. support and assurances that Israel will stop its military strikes against Palestinians.

Qureia, 65, vowed to work with Arafat as a partner, a pledge Israel immediately criticized. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that no Palestinian government would be acceptable if Arafat retains influence, and Shalom called for Arafat to be expelled from the West Bank.

"We will judge any Palestinian prime minister by his actions," Shalom said. "He will have to decide whether he stands with Arafat or whether he stands against terrorism. His first step must be to make the strategic decision to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism."

For Israel and the Bush administration, Arafat is cast as the villain and the obstacle to peace. Yet he is also the person who will determine whether a new prime minister can pursue the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map."

"Arafat has proved what he believed in the first place, that nobody can get rid of him," said Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. "He is the true force behind the Palestinian movement, the phoenix, the guy who always seems like he is destroyed, yet comes back."

Ziad Abu Zayyad, a former Palestinian legislator from East Jerusalem, said recent events should have taught the Bush administration a lesson.

"As this current episode shows, it is better for the United States to work with Arafat than boycott him and make him an enemy," Zayyad said. "Arafat has been in much more serious and difficult positions."

Arafat has long embodied Palestinian aspirations for an independent state. Arafat has talked of the "peace of the brave," but he also has led children in song in Ramallah promising to send "martyrs in the millions" into the streets of Jerusalem. He is an elected president who dresses in the olive uniform of a revolutionary with a sidearm on his hip.

Arafat is, above all, a survivor, though critics say he has maintained his standing at the price of sentencing his people to disappointment and despair.

Those who know Arafat say it has been difficult for a man who long traveled the world as the sole representative of the Palestinian people to watch Abbas meet world leaders while he could not venture farther than a Ramallah parking lot.

Even if Abbas' resignation marks another comeback for Arafat, he is an altogether less commanding figure than in the past. He was driven out of Jordan in the 1970s for trying to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy. In 1982, the Israeli army led by then-Defense Minister Sharon kept him under siege in Beirut, Lebanon, for 88 days, before forcing him into exile in Tunisia.

He returned triumphantly to the Gaza Strip a decade ago, thanks to the success of the Oslo accords, the 1993 peace agreement that established the Palestinian Authority with control over much of the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. But efforts to reach a permanent peace settlement collapsed in July 2000, when Arafat backed away from an agreement endorsed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton.

That failure helped spark the latest Palestinian uprising, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 Palestinians and 830 Israelis. To instill hope and stop the violence, the Bush administration backed the road map - a series of confidence-building measures that Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to undertake simultaneously, leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.

One requirement was that Arafat transfer his power over finances and the security forces to a prime minister. Abbas took that post four months ago but unsuccessfully battled Arafat for authority, including command of the security forces for possible use against militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Steve Plotzker, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot wrote this week that Arafat ousted Abbas because Abbas spoke the truth in calling for a "farewell to arms."

"Arafat led and has continued to lead his people from chaos to chaos, from suffering to suffering, because only under conditions of anarchy and pain can he be sure that the Palestinians will continue to gaze upon him as a loyal God, a savior," Plotzker wrote.

Plotzker criticized Israel for being "frugal with its gestures of good will to the point of making a mockery of Abbas." If Israel expels Arafat, "What has the government to offer his successor? The same occupation, with a slight change in dosage."

Arafat "has always been the man," said Zayyad, the Palestinian legislator. "The Americans and Israelis thought they could marginalize him, and now they realize that cannot work. Keep the line open. Exiling him will be seen by the Palestinian people as a humiliation to the nationalist movement."

The Israeli government has been split on whether to exile Arafat, with Israel's domestic intelligence agency warning that he could do more harm abroad than when isolated in Ramallah.

A majority of Sharon's Cabinet is said to favor expulsion, and the Israeli press reported last month that the military has practiced capturing him.

Dromi said Israeli and American leaders wrongly believe that Arafat can be replaced.

"He gets his legitimacy not from Israel, not from the U.S., but from the Palestinian people, and he says if we don't like it, we'll just see what happens."

The lesson, Dromi said, "is that there is a limit to what you can impose on other people."

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