Arafat tries to rally Arab nations

JERUSALEM, Aug. 1 (JTA) — Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has spent the past several days conferring with Arab leaders about the stances he will adopt following the failed Camp David summit.

As he traveled to nations including Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Tunisia, Arafat needed to get his signals straight on what can and cannot be negotiated away in the search for a comprehensive peace with Israel.

After what he considered a two-week diplomatic siege at Camp David, Arafat needed a timeout to rally support.

According to all accounts, the summit failed over the issue of Jerusalem. And when it comes to the Holy City, Arafat knows full well that he is negotiating not only on behalf of the Palestinians, but that he also has to take into account the sensibilities of the broader Arab and Muslim world.

According to many observers, Arafat cannot move toward a compromise with Israel on Jerusalem — or on the issue of Palestinian refugees — without the blessing of Arab and Muslim leaders.

Some Israeli analysts believe that despite Arafat’s overtures, there is not much he can expect from the Arab world.

Barry Rubin, the deputy director of the Begin-Sadat Research Center at Bar-Ilan University, told JTA that Arafat is seeking two apparently conflicting things during his Arab tour.

He wants his Arab brethren to endorse his tough demands from the Israelis. At the same time, however, he does not want them to attack him if and when he does make concessions.

Arafat’s problem, according to Rubin, is that most of the Arab countries have thrown the problems back to Arafat to deal with on his own.

“Much to Arafat’s dismay, the Arab world to a large extent is standing aside and saying, ‘You cope with it alone,’ ” said Rubin.

Moreover, he added, Arafat has found himself in a damned-if-you-do and a damned-if-you-don’t situation.

On one hand, Arafat was criticized by a Saudi-owned paper for not reaching an agreement at Camp David. At the same time, some Islamist voices in Kuwait warned him against making any concessions.

“Especially in the Gulf they can criticize him from both directions, for a very simple fact — they hate Arafat’s guts,” said Rubin, referring to how the Gulf nations still remember how Arafat backed Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Rubin believes that there is little likelihood of an Arab summit convening to deal with the issues facing Arafat. The Arab states do not have a unified stance on these issues, he said, and a summit would only expose their differences.

If Arafat does make concessions, he may face difficulties with hard- line nations like Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria.

“But even so,” added Rubin, “what can they actually do?”

At the end of the day, he said, Arafat will have to make the difficult decisions by himself.

During his travels this week, Arafat also had a second item on his agenda — to portray himself as having emerged from the summit with his credentials intact as a staunch defender of Palestinian rights.

With this in mind, he told interviewers for Saudi newspapers Tuesday that he has every intention of declaring Palestinian statehood by Sept. 13, the self-imposed deadline that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed on for reaching a final peace accord.

Asked if he would defer the declaration, Arafat said, “Never, never. There is no retreat.”

Days before, when he began his tour in France, Arafat appeared to leave open the possibility that he would delay the declaration.

But by the time he reached Saudi territory, the answer had changed: “It will be declared at the fixed time, which is Sept. 13, God willing, regardless of those who agree or disagree.”

Arafat was signaling to his Arab hosts that he had emerged from Camp David a no less determined Palestinian leader than when he first joined President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Maryland presidential retreat.

Arafat could have come home from Camp David with a seemingly attractive package: an independent Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a measure of Palestinian sovereignty over portions of Jerusalem, a state recognized by Israel and enjoying worldwide support.

However, in the sometimes strange way of Arab politics, his stubbornness and his refusal to make any concessions to the Israelis boosted his image as a great Arab leader.

Arafat’s people received him like a hero.

“Had he come back with an agreement, we would have condemned him as a traitor,” said Ahmad Buri, who fixes flat tires near the vegetable market in Gaza City.

The residents of Gaza’s refugee camps were particularly concerned over whether Arafat would bargain away their right to return to the homes in Israel they abandoned during the 1948 War of Independence.

“If Arafat wants to sell to the Israelis his own family assets, he’s welcome,” said Ahmad Abdullah, a school principal at the Jabalya refugee camp.

“But no one has authorized him to make concessions over my home in Askelan,” the Arab name for what is presently the Israeli town of Ashkelon.

Reacting to reports that Palestinian refugees would get reparations, but forego their right of return to their homes, Abdullah added bitterly: “Yes, we are entitled to reparations — reparations for 50 years of suffering. But reparations for my home? Never. Nothing will replace my home.”

As lower-lever negotiations with Israel continue, Arafat has given instructions to prevent violent demonstrations in the self-rule areas.

Just the same, the mood in those areas has become decidedly militant — especially after Clinton granted Israel Television an interview last Friday.

During that 28-minute interview, the longest he had ever given an Israeli journalist, Clinton criticized Arafat’s inflexibility, warned that Washington would review its relationship with the Palestinians if Arafat makes a unilateral declaration of statehood and said he was considering moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

This was a major coup for the embattled Barak, who had three parties defect from his coalition on the eve of the Camp David summit.

But the Clinton interview did not make life any easier for Arab moderates.

Led by a group of armed masked men, some 300 Arafat loyalists marched Saturday through the streets of Nablus, where they burned a poster of Clinton labeled “Hypocrite Zionist.”

The Jordan Times ran an editorial that was headlined, “Not This Way, Mr. President.”

Also in Jordan, the second largest paper, a-Doustour published an editorial, “The Dishonest Referee Unveils His Bias” — a reference to how U.S. officials have repeatedly referred to themselves as “honest brokers” in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

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