News Analysis: Do the People Follow Arafat, or is It the Other Way Around?

When Israel and the United States repeatedly call on Yasser Arafat to quell the violence, they assume he has the power to reign in the rock-throwers.

But now, some are questioning whether the Palestinian Authority president has the power to quell the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

If you ask Israeli officials, there is no doubt about it. Arafat can control the ongoing violence “with a few telephone calls,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview Monday. “He can put an end to it in 12 hours, and that’s it.”

It’s a view shared by many U.S. lawmakers. Last week, members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a resolution condemning Arafat for the violence, which began after Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon and other Likud Party members visited Jerusalem’s Temple Mount on Sept. 28.

The resolution says the Palestinian leader did “too little for far too long” to control the clashes and actually encouraged the violence.

If it is correct to assume that Arafat has the power to quell the violence, then it inevitably leads to another question: Does he want to?

According to many Israeli officials, Arafat is more comfortable with the role with which he began his career — that of freedom fighter.

They also say he has difficulty making the necessary decisions for peace when crucial opportunities present themselves, citing his long series of negotiations with the late Premier Yitzhak Rabin, with whom he played hard to get time and again, acquiescing only at the last minute.

They note the Cairo Agreement of May 4, 1994, when Arafat walked out of a signing ceremony. He returned to the stage only after a group of world leaders managed to convince him that he should sign the agreement — which officially gave the newly created Palestinian Authority control over portions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The officials say Arafat displayed a similar bent at the Camp David summit in July: Just when Barak offered him a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with unprecedented Israeli concessions in Jerusalem, Arafat backed off — in effect throwing his lot in with the militant wings of the Palestinian political community.

Along with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, those militants also include the Tanzim, the military wing of Arafat’s ruling Fatah Party.

Arabic for “organization,” the Tanzim was established in 1983. It achieved its political power during the 1990s, when, with the frequent setbacks in the peace process, it pushed for a more militant line with Israel.

The group’s leader is Marwan Barghouti, 41, chairman of the Supreme Steering Committee of the Fatah in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and the man Israeli officials accuse of orchestrating the Palestinian riots.

Following his “success” in those riots, Barghouti is now considered a potential heir to Arafat.

Some Palestinians argued this week that this speculation is being deliberately spread by Israel, which wants to create a situation in which Arafat himself will get rid of Barghouti.

For the time being, though, there is no evidence of any conflict between the two.

Throughout the present crisis, Arafat maintained direct contacts with Barghouti and the Tanzim commanders in the various fronts, according to Israeli officials.

It is not clear, though, whether Arafat gave specific orders to shoot.

Analysts maintain that Arafat has been pleased to resume the role of freedom fighter. Just why he is attracted to the role remains something of a riddle, though, considering that it led him to several resounding defeats in the past.

In 1970, Arafat launched assaults against Israel from Jordan, ultimately prompting King Hussein to stage an all-out war against Arafat, who had to be smuggled out of Amman.

In his next host country, Lebanon, Arafat meddled in internal politics, rallying his Fatah faction along with the Druse militia against the Christian forces.

In 1976, Arafat’s activities eventually turned his Syrian allies against him. Syrian troops entered Lebanon and had their new Christian partners stage massacres in Palestinian refugee camps.

In 1982, the Palestinian buildup in Lebanon, particularly in Beirut, ended with the Israeli siege of Beirut. Arafat was forced to quit the city for yet another exile, this time in Tunisia.

Arafat’s decision to embark with Israel on the Oslo peace process in 1993 represented a dramatic turning point in his career.

Despite strong Hamas opposition, despite the ups and downs in the peace process, Arafat seemed to be in full control.

Last week, however, when Arafat instructed his people to calm down, the Palestinian riots continued. Israeli officers who contacted their Palestinian counterparts received only vague responses when they asked what happened.

But the significance was clear: Arafat’s wishes are not always followed. Just the same, official Palestinian spokesmen argue that Arafat is in full control. They also say he had to respond to Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount late last month.

Israeli analysts, on the other hand, believe that Arafat initially lit a small fire — and got caught up against his will in the conflagration that ensued.

Rather than telling the Palestinian populace of the need to make painful concessions, they say, Arafat is now allowing the populace to dictate to him.

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