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Arab Commentators Reflect on Arafat And the Future

By Nora Boustany
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page A20

Arab columnists have praised and criticized Yasser Arafat's tactics over the years, but in the wake of his death, they agreed on one thing: Palestinian leaders with new approaches may emerge, but the conditions under which they try to govern remain the same.

In an editorial headlined "Grand Hopes and a Very Narrow Opportunity," Rafiq Khoury of Lebanon's Al Anwar newspaper wrote: "It is difficult to imagine a new Palestinian leadership accepting what Arafat refused, at least at the present moment."


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Abdel Wahab Badrakhan, writing in the Saudi-owned Arabic-language Al Hayat newspaper, based in London, said: "The absence of Arafat will not remove the obstacles Americans and Israelis see in front of them, which actually exist in their minds, policies and plans."

The commentators remembered Arafat's larger-than-life role in the region but also noted his failures.

"The Palestinian cause has been linked to the name of Yasser Arafat as it has never been to any other Arab leader," commentator Ahmed Berri wrote in Egypt's Al Ahram.

"Arafat affected the lives of all 200 million Arabs more than any other Arab leader, for better or for worse," wrote Abdel Rahman Rashed in Al Sharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper. He defended Arafat against accusations of extremism, saying the Palestinian leader always tried to moderate more radical Arab currents around him.

Rashed pointed out, however, that perhaps Arafat's gravest failures "were in managing negotiations and administering liberated Palestinian areas after Oslo," the 1993 peace accords reached by the Palestinians and Israel.

"There is no doubt that Arafat's famous caution and stonewalling let slip several opportunities to end the conflict decisively for the Palestinian people," Rashed said, stressing that a constantly turbulent Arab environment contributed to that failure.

Badrakhan cautioned Israelis who might be under the impression that they could now "dictate their demands to the Palestinian people," saying, "They would be undoubtedly wrong." The Persian Gulf daily Al Khaleej concurred, saying the next challenge was to dispel Israeli illusions that the "roadblock to the settlement has been eliminated."

Berri said, "At any rate, Palestinian and Arab leaders are required to move the peace process forward and to come to terms with the United States over reviving the road map," the U.S.-backed peace plan. The major powers "don't have any excuses anymore, after the absence of Arafat, who they saw as an obstacle on the way to peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state," he added.

Badrakhan said Israel had managed to hijack the U.S. war on terrorism by portraying Arafat as the face of terror. "The Americans swallowed this mendacity, which equates Osama bin Laden with their cause. This game is over," he said, referring to the man behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Bin Laden claimed in his latest video appearance that the idea for bombing the World Trade Center came to him from the image of Israeli planes leveling high-rises in Beirut during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in an apparent pitch to Palestinian sentiment.

The Palestinian Authority's U.S. representative, Hassan Abdel Rahman, said Arafat's achievements for his people were irreversible, even though he failed to see the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"Yasser Arafat swam against the current all his life, and he survived. When he surfaced, he did not start a leftist movement but a nationalist one," Rahman said.

He noted that Arafat had to work "in the shadow of the greatest giant in the Arab world at the time, late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. When he addressed the student union in Cairo in the early '60s, Palestine had been removed from the political dictionary in the region."

"We were an abstraction," Rahman said. "He transformed disparate pockets of Palestinians from villages and refugee camps and communities scattered everywhere, even in America or Australia, into a nation of people rallied around a movement. He created the tool that changed the abstract into a reality," through the creation of his Fatah movement. "He put Palestinians on that map and they become a pivotal center."

Rahman was a doctoral student in New York in 1974 when Arafat went to the United Nations, proclaiming on the world stage that the organization should help him choose between a gun and an olive branch. "He was driven, focused and dedicated, like no other leader we have known over the last 40 years," Rahman said.

"His personal life, even after marriage, has always been subordinated to his political persona," Said K. Aburish, a Palestinian writer, said in his book "Arafat, From Defender to Dictator."

Rahman said the representative's office in Washington, at 1320 18th St. NW, would be open through Monday for people who wished to sign a book of condolences.

Arafat was larger than the institutions he helped create, Rahman said.

"Now the institutions we have are bigger than the men. It's a new era. There is no doubt: The Arafat era is over."


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