News Analysis: Government Declares Visit a Success As Arafat Begins Business of Governing

Success often comes in strange guises.

On Saturday night, a massive demonstration in Jerusalem turned ugly and violent as protesters vented their fury against the historic return of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat to the Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday, smoke could be seen rising from roads leading to the West Bank town of Jericho when Israeli demonstrators burned tires to prevent Palestinians from arriving in Jericho to hear Arafat speak.

And for days on end, Israelis saw television images of Arafat being given a hero’s welcome in the two districts that last month officially fell under Palestinian autonomy.

Despite the difficult images, by the time Arafat was preparing to leave, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his ministers were congratulating themselves — and by implication the PLO leader himself — on the success of Arafat’s homecoming.

Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, who has played an important role in the peace negotiations, was the first to give a stamp of government approval to Arafat’s all-important arrival speech in Gaza City’s main square last Friday.

“We can live with it,” Sarid pronounced.

His satisfaction apparently stemmed from the fact that Arafat had said nothing in Gaza that violated the declaration of principles signed in Washington last September or any other subsequent agreements with Israel.

Sarid’s judgment was echoed by other ministers, and eventually by the prime minister himself.

As long as Arafat wasn’t violating any agreements, Israeli officials saw his visit as important and tangible evidence that self-rule was beginning to take hold in Gaza and Jericho.

Their confidence was given a boost Tuesday, when after speaking in Jericho, Arafat swore in 12 members of the Palestinian governing council that will have responsibility for running day-today affairs in the Gaza Strip and Jericho until elections for officials are held later this year.

The sense of Arafat taking control was further reinforced by statements made by Arafat aides that his departure at midweek for a meeting in Paris with Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was only temporary and that the PLO leader would be coming back to stay.

Top aides differed on exactly when and where Arafat would return. Some said in a few days, others in a few weeks; some said he would settle in Gaza, others said he would move between Gaza and Jericho.

DEFUSING A POTENTIAL EXPLOSION

Arafat’s relative moderation, meanwhile, was credited with defusing a potential explosion of political and religious tension within Israeli society.

Had Arafat been less moderate in his remarks, say observers, Israeli opposition groups may have responded with a fury that could have threatned the existence of the government as well as the future of the peace process.

At Saturday night’s demonstration, tens of thousands of protestors jammed downtown Jerusalem to hear leaders of the right-wing parties and of the settler movement blast Arafat as a murdere and Rabin as a traitor.

Had the PLO chief insisted on praying this week at the A1 Aksa Mosque in eastern Jerusalem, there might well have been double or triple that number of demonstrators.

The Likud and its allies were clearly embarrassed by the behavior of extremists, who ended the huge Saturday night demonstration with a splurge of wanton violence against Arab property in eastern Jerusalem.

The police, too, apparently were embarrassed by the failure to prevent what many saw as a predictable turn of events.

By Sunday morning the police had gotten much tougher, and the first hints of renewed violence outside the Cabinet Office led to dozens of arrests.

“They do not represent us,” Likud Whip David Mena said of the extremist demonstrators in the Knesset on Monday. “We want no part of them.”

But the Likud’s censures of the ultra-hardliners rang hollow in the minds of many, given the fact that a huge painted sign calling in Hebrew and English for the death of Arafat draped the balcony from which Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the other opposition leaders had spoken during the rallies.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert also appeared to want to put some distance between himself and the rampaging demonstrators from Saturday night.

A week after announcing that he was setting up an office in Jerusalem to prevent Arafat from visiting the city, Olmert said this week that the office was closing, according to Israeli media reports.

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