JERUSALEM, Dec. 22 (JTA) — Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat will have to muster all his political skills for the coming months — because he is about to play a major role in Israel’s election campaign. It is no secret that the Palestinian leader would far prefer that an Israeli politician more moderate than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerge victorious from Israel’s round of early elections. Already keenly aware that what he says and does in the coming months could have an impact on the election’s outcome, Arafat will therefore have to play a careful game. Perhaps first and foremost, he will have to keep a watchful eye on the extremists operating within his own backyard. When Israel had its previous election campaign in 1996, then-Premier Shimon Peres held a comfortable margin in the polls over opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — until Hamas launched a series of terror attacks. Those attacks helped give meaning to Netanyahu’s campaign slogan, “Peace With Security,” and were widely credited with helping him win the election by a razor-thin margin. One of the questions now confronting Arafat is whether he will be able to keep a lid on terrorist operations. He will have to position himself as a champion of peace with Israel — but at the same time convince his own people that he is an equally staunch supporter of Palestinian rights. He will need to continue speaking of the “Peace of the Brave,” but at the same time promise that a Palestinian state is just around the corner. The problem is that his position on Palestinian statehood could have as much impact on Israel’s elections as a terror attack. While the date for new elections in Israel has not yet been determined, another date is very much on the minds of many Israelis — May 4, 1999. Arafat has stated repeatedly that he would declare statehood unilaterally at that time, the end of the interim period specified in the Oslo accords. If he repeats that statement in the coming months, he could play into the hands of the Israeli right. This week, Netanyahu got his Cabinet to suspend the Wye agreement until the Palestinian Authority lives up to five conditions. One of them was that Arafat recant his statements regarding next May. On Tuesday, one day after the Knesset voted to hold early elections, Netanyahu returned to the issue of Palestinian statehood when he kicked off his campaign for the premiership. Warning that Arafat will “decide unilaterally on our future,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio that the Israeli “people will give us the support to achieve peace with security.” The prime minister’s comments prompted Palestinian officials to criticize him for running against the Palestinian Authority instead of his own political opponents. “Thanks, Netanyahu,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said sarcastically in an interview, referring to the premier’s comments. “You strengthen extremist elements in Palestinian society. It is not a good idea to put us in the focus of the election campaign. It destroys whatever we had tried to build in recent years,” he said. Following Monday’s dramatic Knesset vote, the governing coalition and opposition were expected to begin discussions aimed at setting a date for new elections. Netanyahu is widely reported to be seeking a date shortly before May — presumably so that he can milk Israeli fears about a possible Palestinian declaration of statehood to their fullest. But Arafat can pull the political rug out from under Netanyahu by postponing any decision about statehood. The more political options he leaves open, the more the Israeli left will have to gain. Along with the other challenges facing him, Arafat will have to find the right posture regarding the peace process. The Palestinian leader was briefed by his Israeli Arab adviser, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, on Monday’s Knesset vote to hold early elections. After the vote, Arafat urged Israel to continue implementing the Wye accord. Erekat adopted a similar stance, dismissing the elections as an internal Israeli matter that should not affect the peace process. “We shall respect the choice of the Israelis and will continue to make peace with all Israelis,” he said. But he added, “Is the Israeli public that extreme that it will not tolerate making peace during the elections campaign?” Erekat warned that an interruption of the peace process would only serve extremists in the Palestinian camp. On Tuesday, Netanyahu said Israel would adhere to the accord even as the country enters what promises to be a heated election campaign. But, reiterating the stance adopted this week by his Cabinet, the premier added that Israeli implementation of the accord would depend on the Palestinian Authority’s fulfilling the five conditions. Palestinian officials said the offer means little because the conditions are unacceptable to them. Beyond finding a political formula that will work with the Israeli and Palestinian public, Arafat will also have to find the right words for his big new friend: the United States. A statement issued this week by the U.S. State Department urging Israel to continue with the implementation of the Wye accord and praising the Palestinian Authority for having fulfilled its part of the deal was music to Arafat’s ears. But the Palestinian leader was put in a difficult position by Operation Desert Fox, the four days of U.S. shelling of Baghdad. Arafat did not want to harm relations with President Clinton, who only days earlier had become the first American leader to visit the Gaza Strip. But he also had to deal with his own political backyard, where the Palestinian people made no secret of their sympathy for Iraq. In the end, Arafat’s security apparatus did little to quell the violent demonstrations in the Palestinian streets that accompanied Desert Fox. But he did impose a crackdown on foreign news organizations covering the embarrassing demonstrations. With his tacit acquiescence, protesters across the West Bank and Gaza called on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to bomb Tel Aviv — a message certainly not lost on those Israelis who already have misgivings about the peace process. The same American flags that Palestinian youths had waved proudly when Clinton visited Gaza were now burned during a series of angry protests against “American aggression.” The swift end of Desert Fox was just what Arafat needed — before the situation among Palestinian demonstrators got out of hand. Asked for his reaction to the end of the air strikes on Baghdad, the Palestinian leader sighed with relief, stressing that what is important in his eyes is that the violence is over. Arafat was not about to give up on a good friend like the United States very quickly. The end of the shelling spared him some difficult choices. But the pro-Iraqi demonstrations highlighted the Palestinian leader’s vulnerability among his own people. Their expectations and aspirations may ultimately determine how much political maneuverability Arafat will have in the coming months.
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