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"Come what may, Arafat sees himself as the gatekeeper"
Comment by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha in The Daily Star


Come what may, Arafat sees himself as the gatekeeper - Veteran Palestinian leader has seen it all, and physical isolation has in no way diminished his power.

He is holed up in a largely destroyed building, under perpetual Israeli surveillance, marginalized, shunned and liable at any moment to be expelled, or worse, but for Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, the landscape is familiar; at once both comforting and comfortable.

He has seen it all before, and it is this, not a red-carpet welcome at the White House, that defines his world. Many times in the past his enemies have confronted him, yet he is still there. Palestinians have complained about him. In the end, they have come back to the fold. He was never one for physical comfort, and that too has not changed. Ariel Sharon is confronting him. But when has he not?

They say this time it is different; rarely have so many tried so hard to dislodge him. How little they know, he thinks. You cannot take away his power because power will go where he does, because power is where he is. Go to the Muqataa, his headquarters, the place where he now spends every hour of his day. Run-down and decrepit as it is, who can deny that it retains the unmistakable aura of power? Nothing large or small, he knows, takes place without his ultimate approval. The prime minister was named as a result of international pressure, but all the pressure was directed at him, for who else mattered?

Security officials await his nod; the demands for a cease-fire with Hamas need his approval and negotiations with Israel his sign-off. A word from him defines who is a traitor in Palestinian eyes, and another leads to redemption.

Where he is, so too will be the center of gravity of Palestinian politics. As some groups move to the periphery, others move to the center in an endless balancing act in which he remains the pivot. Wander too far from his orbit, and see how power escapes you. Today, there are those who seek to push Arafat outside the governing circles of the Palestinian Authority (PA). So be it. He sees himself returning to the Palestinian political scene as the head of a more powerful, and larger, coalition including the majority of his own Fatah faction, secular radical groups, independent personalities, most of the diaspora, and, a novel acquisition, Islamist organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

All of them in one way or another feel alienated from the new PA government, fearful of its direction, and genuinely loyal to the old leader or opportunistically coalescing around him, confident he will protect them and not betray them, and convinced he is the authentic leader of Palestine. Whatever he may have lost by not formally heading the PA Cabinet, he is hoping to gain even more by being outside it.

Ask him, and he will say it is not because of money - though that always helps - or because of weapons - though they too can lend a crucial hand. If, in the end, all return to him, it will be due to the natural and inescapable dynamics of Palestinian politics. Ultimately, this will happen not so much because of who he is as because of what he has spent a lifetime becoming - the embodiment of Palestine.

He knows what some think: that he cannot lead, that he merely follows his people. How wrong that is in his mind. He can lead, but only by being at all times in tune with them. Intuitively aware of Palestine's political boundaries, he will never take a step that risks encouraging an effective majority against him, and so he will act only with the support of mobilized constituencies.

He will point to the Oslo Accords where he carried his people along despite their initial and overwhelming skepticism in neither a foolhardy way nor in a manner that from the start would have doomed a strategic choice that he was convinced would serve the Palestinian cause. But rather, once the accords had been signed, by slowly and meticulously building up a constituency capable of overcoming popular disbelief and of bringing to his side a critical mass of his people.

Of all his fears, none is greater than that of being out of touch with his people, of, in his own words, becoming either a Hamid Karzai, viewed as imposed on Afghanistan from the outside, or an Antoine Lahd, the former head of the South Lebanon Army, viewed as an Israeli stooge. If he sticks to who he is, he feels, the world will go around in circles until it ends precisely where it began, with Arafat on one side and Sharon on the other.

Around him much has been going on - from the introduction of the "road map" for peace to the naming of a prime minister and the conclusion of a Palestinian cease-fire, from the dismantling of a few settlement outposts to reform of Palestinian institutions. How little it all matters to him. Others consider these events politics. He considers them to be mere side-shows for which he has little patience, frivolities of at best uncertain interest, distractions from what ought to be the exclusive focus - how to maximize the strength of the Palestinian people, which he equates with the strength of the nationalist cause, which he equates with his own.

Others measure the usefulness of a cease-fire, of a limited security deal with Israel, of the road map according to whether the outcome will invigorate a new peace process. Not he. The present moment is not about the peace process, for he is convinced that nothing of use can be achieved by it. It is about the power relationships by which all that matters will be decided. And so he measures their usefulness by deciding who will emerge stronger and who weaker.

As he looks at the present situation, he is aware of the strains Palestinians are under, of the internal and external pressures to end the intifada and the emphasis on improving the Palestinians' living conditions. But the fight, for him, is about showing political determination to reach the ultimate political objective, not about seeking material well-being as such.

A flawed deal was dangled before him at Camp David, with hopes of enticing him with promises of large amounts of economic aid and the lure of his becoming an established head of state, with prestige, wealth and the company of the powerful. When he could not see the deal and said no to all that, choosing instead the life of the rebel, he felt at one with his people, and they reciprocated.

Besides, from his vantage point the view is not all bleak. Although he lives in virtual detention, his constituency and his legitimacy have been strengthened. Israel meanwhile still lacks security, its economy is in shambles and immigration to Israel is plummeting.

Then there are the achievements. The world, many Israelis included, increasingly accepts the need for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, to dismantle settlements, to divide Jerusalem into two capitals. Meanwhile, pressure keeps growing in favor of an international intervention. Palestinians are hurting but so are Israelis. Only when they fully measure the cost of confrontation will Israelis fully appreciate the benefits of a true two-state solution in which Palestinians recover their lost land.

The United States, Arab regimes and Europeans can clamor all they want for an end to the violence, but since when have they acted in the Palestinians' interest? When was the last time they took a risk on the Palestinians' behalf?

Theirs is a story of betrayal that has come in all shades at all times. All may not be as it ought to, but under these conditions, why speak of a Palestinian disaster? When he looks at Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, he sees his companion of many years who was there at the beginning and at every major turn, ultimately loyal but not always blindly by his side. He sees one of the very few who never plotted against him, and never dreamed of doing so, insufficiently seasoned as he is in the raw games of power, and too upright for the region's dirty deeds.

Abu Mazen (Abbas) has become both the instrument others are seeking to use to marginalize Arafat and a possible means to his political redemption. As with so many other matters, Arafat will seek to make do. He will help his prime minister one day to show that he can save him and undercut him the next, to remind him who is boss. And he will take solace in the fact that Abu Mazen in power means that Arafat's is no longer the sole address for recrimination, since he can point to someone else when things do not work as they should. A two-headed rule has its advantages. For Arafat, it can mean just as much power and far less responsibility.

There are darker moments, when the burden of the siege and the long isolation weigh heaviest. Clarity and confidence grow fainter. He suspects that Abu Mazen might be used as part of the conspiracy against him. He questions whether he will ever regain the trust of the United States, the country he courted for so long and on which he depended so much. He wonders whether this will be his last stand. At such times, anger takes hold.

People wonder how Arafat makes decisions, what his longer-range strategy is and how he plans to get where he wants to be, all of which must thoroughly mystify him. There is no decision-making as we know it, no grand strategy, not even a plan. For Arafat what counts is political intuition in the here and now. Political life is not about methodically determining how to get from one place to another, but rather about assessing the situation one faces at the moment and figuring out how to emerge from it, at worst intact, at best strengthened. He will adapt to situations rather than shape them, react to events rather than pre-empt them. The surface conditions of his behavior conceal his own peculiar consistency, and survival, as always, will come first.

He hears people blaming him for launching the intifada, encouraging the violence, failing to step in. What do they know? Violence as he sees it is not something he ignites, it is something that happens when conditions permit and that he may - or may not - try to stop.

Decisions are made through an informal, implicit process. He is simply their best interpreter and executor, acting on behalf of a broad consensus among the many political constituencies, weighing as they do the political cost of tolerating violence against the political cost of stopping it.

But there is nothing special about violence in this. In his eyes it is merely one instrument among many at the Palestinians' disposal, no more or less legitimate, and certainly no less legitimate than those deployed by Israel.

Hypocrites all, he thinks, who denounce the Palestinians' resort to violence when their accusers have done the same, and on a far larger scale - Americans and Israelis first and foremost. Hypocrites, who invoke democracy's name to unseat him when no one in the Arab world enjoys the popular mandate he has been given. They brand him an extremist when he has always been at the forefront of those arguing for better relations with the United States and for engagement with the Israelis. They excoriate him for equivocating over then-US President Bill Clinton's proposed peace deal in 2000 when Sharon has been excused for rejecting it outright. They seek to export Western institutions, and go on about reform, accountability and representative government, when none of this has anything to do with the rights of his people, with their struggle and legitimate cause. But this, too, he is confident, shall pass. Everything will revert to where it was. Everything will come back to him.

Robert Malley is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group was special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs. Hussein Agha is a political analyst and author in London and was an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team at the Madrid peace talks in 1991.

28 July 2003

Copyright © 1997-2003 The Daily Star



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