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Arafat’s Games Mask the Intensity of Palestinian Debate on Geneva Plan

December 2, 2003
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It was like the bride threatening to pull out of the wedding at the last minute.

Twenty-four hours before the official launching of the “Geneva accord” peace proposal with a gala ceremony in Switzerland on Monday, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat advised the Palestinian delegation to stay home.

That set off a mad scramble among the out-of-office Israeli opposition figures who negotiated the proposal and Egyptian officials eager to get the peace process moving again, as they sought to convince the Palestinians to follow through on their end of things.

In the end, Arafat gave his backing to the delegation, and the Palestinian delegates departed — even carrying a letter from Arafat that was read at the signing ceremony. The letter praised the possibility for peace and blasted Israel.

The episode was one of Arafat’s time-tested tricks of brinkmanship: He created a crisis and then resolved it, just in time to reap the benefits.

Yet analysts note that Arafat’s obsession with showing off his political power dovetailed with another factor: a genuine internal debate over potential Palestinian concessions.

After allowing figures close to him to meet with Israeli opposition figures for negotiations under Swiss auspices, Arafat last month suggested that the time was not right for such an agreement given the strong criticism for it in the Palestinian political community.

At the same time, Arafat would not openly oppose the proposal.

After all, Arafat insists he’s a man of peace, and Palestinian participants boasted throughout the negotiations that Arafat had endorsed the initiative. In fact, the main point the Palestinian side was trying to make was that if Israel would offer even deeper concessions than before, it would find a credible and influential Palestinian partner.

Just as delegates to the Geneva signing ceremony were packing their suitcases, however, Arafat unleashed the opponents.

First, he mustered hundreds of demonstrators to take to the streets to protest the proposal because it doesn’t explicitly include a “right of return” for millions of Palestinian refugees, and because of what were described as Palestinian concessions regarding Jerusalem.

The organizers of the protests were old-guard Fatah activists, members of the central committee of Arafat’s movement.

Speaking of the Geneva negotiators, Hussein a-Sheikh, a senior Fatah leader in the West Bank, said, “Those people represent only themselves. None of them represents Fatah, which does not endorse the Geneva document.”

The comments reflected genuine concern within the Palestinian community that the model proposed in the Geneva accord might some day become reality, forcing the Palestinians to settle for something less than their maximalist demands.

“I suspect that at present you would not find a Palestinian majority supporting the initiative,” said Ali Waqed, Arab affairs correspondent of Ynet, Yediot Achronot’s Internet edition. “However, if the initiative would materialize into a political reality, open support for the initiative will surely increase.”

According to a survey published Tuesday by Ha’aretz, 31 percent of Israelis support the initiative and 37 percent oppose it.

Though the Geneva accord contains unprecedented Israeli concessions, Palestinian opposition to the proposal is significant. Gunmen fired shots over the weekend toward the Ramallah residence of Yasser Abed Rabo, one of the proposal’s initiators. No one was hurt.

Gaza demonstrators beat up two people who were to travel to Geneva for the launch ceremony. Armed men marched against the proposal in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Until early this week, only Hamas and Islamic Jihad had spoken out clearly against the proposal. Before the debate within Fatah, Hamas on Saturday denounced parallel talks between Palestinian and Israeli representatives in London and Madrid to discuss implementation of the “road map,” the official peace plan backed by the international community, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.

A senior Hamas activist, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, described the Geneva accord as “the most dangerous document to the Palestinian people.”

Though the agreement is ambiguous on the “right of return” for Arab refugees — the text does not bear out the Israeli negotiators’ claim, with which they tried to sell the accord to the Israeli public, that the Palestinians had renounced the “right of return” — the demand is so deeply rooted in the Palestinian credo anything that less than an explicit acceptance of the right of return is considered a loss.

Most Israelis view a right of return as tantamount to the destruction of the Jewish state.

Palestinians also were upset by what they considered concessions in Jerusalem, where Palestinians would formally recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods built since the 1967 Six-Day War.

In return, Arab neighborhoods in the city would become the capital of a new State of Palestine and the Palestinians would be given three-fourths of the historic Old City. They also would gain control over the Temple Mount, which is holy to Muslims and is the holiest site in the world to Jews.

“These meetings are a stab in the back of the Palestinian resistance,” Rantissi said.

Rantissi spoke on the eve of talks scheduled in Cairo among various Palestinian terrorist groups and the Palestinian Authority about renewing a cease-fire against Israelis.

Indeed, early Monday it seemed that two years of negotiations on the plan were on the verge of collapse as key members of the Palestinian delegation announced they would not go to Geneva.

“We enjoyed the full support and encouragement of the president until this morning,” said Palestinian negotiator Fares Kadoura, “but our attention has been drawn to reservations inside the Fatah movement.”

Kadoura explained that, in the wake of criticism in the Palestinian community, “we wanted to make sure that whatever we were doing would not be outside the framework of our organization and our policy.”

Hatem Abdul Kader, another influential Palestinian, said, “At the end of the day, what is more important is our unity inside the Fatah movement. It is more important than everything else, more important than all the initiatives.”

Indeed, Palestinians alarmed by the internal dissent the plan had created told the Jerusalem Post that the accord had been intended more to split the Israeli public and overthrow the Sharon government than to constitute a serious plan that might force the Palestinians to compromise.

At the last minute, Arafat lifted the veto on the Geneva ceremony. Some 170 Palestinians attended, including Jibril Rajoub, Arafat’s national security adviser.

For the time being, however, there is no change in the basic Palestinian position that the only game in town is the road map, which was presented last spring with international backing and which calls for a Palestinian state within three years.

P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who has said unofficially that he supports the Geneva accord, said he won’t meet Sharon until Israel dismantles the security fence it is building to keep out Palestinian terrorists.

The fence and the demand to freeze Israeli settlement building dominate the current Palestinian agenda to such an extent that discussion of a permanent peace agreement seems like a distant dream.

Still, the Geneva organizers said they were immensely satisfied with the public response to their initiative and they hope that it will set the stage for real progress.

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