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Political Perils Test Arafat's Survival Skills

Yasser Arafat/Reuter photo
Abbas Moumani — Reuter
Yasser Arafat provoked sharp criticism from Israel and the West when he embraced militant leaders.

By William Drozdiak
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sun., Aug. 24, 1997; Page A01

JERUSALEM, Aug. 23—When Yasser Arafat kissed and embraced the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad at a meeting of Palestinian factions this week, the conciliatory gestures toward radical Muslim groups suspected of perpetrating terrorist acts outraged much of Israel and the Western world.

Was the leader of the Palestinian Authority condoning violence against Israel and preparing for the kind of armed confrontation that has spilled so much blood in the Middle East between two peoples fighting over the same land? Or was he engaged in a clever ploy to co-opt the enemies of peace and thus strengthen his hand for future negotiations with the right-wing government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu?

The self-styled father of the Palestinian revolution is renowned for his survival skills in times of political peril. But this time, his fate seems intertwined more than ever with an Israeli government that profoundly distrusts him yet loathes even more the extremist alternatives to his leadership.

An impassioned debate has gripped Israel in recent days over whether the country's interests are best served by weakening or strengthening Arafat. Nearly a month after the Israeli government imposed tough sanctions and security measures in the wake of a suicide bombing that killed 16 people in a Jerusalem market, Israelis are starting to question whether those measures may inflict more harm than good on their country.

Masked Palestinian youth with pistol/AP photo - Nati Harnik
Nati Harnik — AP
A masked Palestinian youth brandishes a pistol in front of posters of Yasser Arafat at an anti-Israel rally in Nablus on August 12.

In Gaza today, Arafat dismissed criticism of his unity talks with militant groups. "We know how to deal with our unity among all the groups and parties. And it is interior politics," he said, the Reuter news service reported.

As so often happens when he finds himself in a jam, Arafat has resorted to ambiguity to mask his intentions until the dust settles. On the first day of the Palestinian unity conclave in Gaza, he waved the sword and the olive branch with equal gusto.

"There was an uprising for seven years," he said. "Who did it? Our lion cubs, our children. This glorious uprising. Seven years. We can . . . do it again from the beginning. There is nothing far from us. All options are open to us."

But he also offered a vigorous defense of the peace process. "We must not forget that most of the Israeli people voted for peace," Arafat said. "I say to the supporters of peace in Israel: We are with you to make this peace of the brave, a just and comprehensive peace, not the peace of the weak or the cowards."

Just before the bombers struck, Arafat was confronting a barrage of criticism about alleged corruption in his ruling entourage. Many Palestinians, having seen their incomes plunge 40 percent since the Oslo accords were signed, also were voicing bitter complaints about the absence of a peace dividend.

Netanyahu's decision after the bombing to block access to jobs for 100,000 Palestinian workers and to suspend the transfer of at least $40 million in tax revenues to Arafat's Palestinian Authority has only escalated the frustrations of many Palestinians and further damaged their faith in the peace process.

In this political climate, Arafat's top aides say he had no choice but to reject Israeli and American demands that he round up more than 200 suspected Islamic activists and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. They argue that if he caves in to such conditions, his political legitimacy would be greatly eroded and the popularity of Hamas and other implacable foes of the peace process would continue to surge.

"Every time the peace process stumbles it translates into gains for Hamas," said Ziad Abu Amr, a leading member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "Arafat is not ready for power-sharing and wants to rally his people behind him, but he feels genuinely threatened by Netanyahu and his schemes. He needs a lot of support, and not more pressure."

Israeli cabinet hard-liners scoff at claims that Arafat's behavior helps peace prospects by blunting Hamas's influence. "Arafat is two-faced," said cabinet secretary Danny Naveh. "On the one hand he says he is against terrorism and afterward he runs to hug the killers of women and children. If Arafat is truly a peace partner the way he claims, he must fight these organizations and not embrace them."

But some cabinet members and much of the opposition Labor party argue that Israel needs to ponder what may lie in store if it persists in mortifying Arafat. With Hamas's support growing steadily -- Israeli and Palestinian analysts estimate the Islamic resistance movement is backed by 40 to 50 percent of Gaza and West Bank residents -- they suggest that Israel must consider the long-term consequences of rubbing Arafat's nose in the dirt.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai urges greater understanding of Arafat's predicament. "Given the difficulties facing him, Arafat is trying within the Palestinian camp to find as wide a common denominator as possible. But in the end he also knows that Hamas is the main threat to the Palestinian Authority," he said.

Uri Savir, chief of staff to former Labor prime minister Shimon Peres and a key architect of the Oslo accords, also warns that U.S. and Israeli pressure on Arafat could backfire. "What is the alternative? Do we want to deal with Hamas?," he asked. "Whatever you may think of Arafat, if we lose him as a partner, we may lose the peace process."

For his part, Netanyahu is standing firm in his demand that Arafat show his determination to salvage the peace process by arresting terror suspects, confiscating weapons and uprooting underground cells as he did last year after 57 Israelis died in a series of bomb attacks.

"We say to the Palestinians that they must make a very simple choice -- it is either to embrace Hamas or to embrace peace. But you can't do both," Netanyahu said Thursday, even though his own government released Abdel Aziz Rantissi, the Hamas political leader whom Arafat publicly kissed, from an Israeli jail earlier this year.

The Israeli prime minister emphasized that Arafat's actions on security cooperation remain the key to progress in reaching a comprehensive peace settlement. "No one should expect us to go with the peace process while turning a blind eye and saying that despite the Palestinian Authority's not fighting terrorism, the process must go forward," he said.

Some Israelis say Arafat may be cooperating in private more than his public rhetoric would suggest. He met last week with Ami Ayalon, the head of Israel's General Security Service, to discuss his dilemma about Hamas. Palestinian intelligence agents have turned over to their Israeli counterparts samples of explosives found in a Hamas bomb factory. And Arafat's police forces have quietly arrested a dozen key members of Islamic radical groups.

But a top security source close to Netanyahu says what has proved most infuriating is Arafat's reluctance to move against known terrorist ringleaders on the loose, such as Mohammed Deif and Muhi Adin Sharif, who are in charge of Hamas's military operations and are thought to have masterminded several bombings.

"Arafat knows where they are and may even be sheltering them," the source said. "What he must realize is that the more he plays along with Hamas, the weaker he becomes. And unless he moves soon, there are plots being hatched that will lead to more bombings and cause the collapse of the peace process."

Netanyahu says that if Arafat shows the will to fight terrorism, Israel will propose a rapid negotiating track to find solutions for all remaining problems in the peace process within six to nine months. These include the final status of Jerusalem, the question of Palestinian statehood and the fate of Palestinian refugees living outside Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Netanyahu contends the step-by-step process outlined in the Oslo accords remains too vulnerable to disruptions such as terror bombings and Jewish settlement expansion that cause an erosion of confidence and delays in negotiations. "We should go straight toward a final resolution," he said. "It will be easier to solve everything at once. We will probably end up in a Camp David-type setting, but this is the only Israeli government that can do it."

Arafat, however, has expressed reservations about the idea because he wants to make sure that Israel will withdraw its troops according to the timetable prescribed by the Oslo accords before addressing the most difficult issues.

But for Netanyahu to achieve that goal, he will need a politically viable partner on the Palestinian side. And for Arafat to recover the confidence of his people going into those talks, even Israeli officials acknowledge he will need some help, possibly in the form of concessions that he can trumpet as a victory for his cause.

"We are entering a phase when there will be very tough choices for both sides," a senior Israeli official said. "Netanyahu and Arafat will have to show they can take a beating from their opponents, but if they can't do that, then what is leadership all about?"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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