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Behind the Headlines: Arafat-assad Meeting May Put Mideast Peace Process in Peril

April 28, 1988
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The apparent rapprochement between Yasir Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Syrian President Hafez Assad may end any chances Secretary of State George Shultz has for success of his peace initiative, according to experts on the Middle East.

Arafat and Assad met in Damascus Monday, five years after the Syrian president threw Arafat out of Syria in an attempt to gain control of the PLO.

Since then, the PLO has been split between Arafat and a more extreme pro-Syrian segment, which includes such terrorist groups as one led by Abu Nidal and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Habash.

“It’s bad news for the Shultz initiative, which was already flagging,” said Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The peace process is less likely,” agreed Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The State Department has not made any public comment on the Arafat-Assad meeting.

Indyk and Pipes agreed that the Assad-Arafat rapprochement is more harmful to Jordan than to Israel. Pipes noted that it is a victory for the more hard-line PLO factions, and “Israel finds it easier to deal with rejectionists.”

“Israel wasn’t about to deal with Arafat” and thus the rapprochement was “irrelevant” for Israel, Indyk said.


As for Jordan, Indyk said King Hussein’s ability to agree to negotiations with Israel, “which was limited, is now impossible,” since Hussein needs backing from the PLO or Syria.

He noted that for five weeks Arafat has refused an invitation from Hussein for talks.

Arafat’s return to Damascus was facilitated by the assassination of his second-in-command, Abu Jihad, in Tunis April 16, an attack believed to have been carried out by the Israelis.

Although Abu Jihad’s family had wanted him to be buried in Jordan, the PLO leadership decided on Syria, at Assad’s invitation, in what was considered a slap at Hussein.

Pipes said that Arafat’s decision to go to Damascus was a sign of weakness, following the Palestinian uprising on the West Bank and Gaza Strip which was launched independently of the PLO. He noted that Arafat has used this approach before, when he needed to strengthen his position.

For example, Pipes said, Arafat went to Cairo for a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak after the PLO was forced out of Beirut in 1982, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It was Arafat’s first visit to Cairo since the 1978 Camp David accords, Pipes noted.


Indyk said that the “spontaneous” uprising in the territories reversed the roles of the local Palestinians and the PLO, since the Palestinian inhabitants were now the “actors” and the PLO “spectators.”

He said that both the PLO and Syria want to control the uprising. “Arafat had no choice but to take a more extreme position,” Indyk said.

The PLO has to show it is still effective and is thus doing the only thing it can, which is to attempt to infiltrate terrorists into Israel, Indyk said.

He noted that in the last several weeks, there have been at least nine attempts by terrorists to infiltrate into Israel.

Indyk called the rapprochement a “matter of convenience,” since neither Syria nor the PLO can accept that the Palestinians in the territories act independently.

But he said it will not be “smooth sailing” since Assad wants “Arafat under his thumb” so that he can control the Palestinian movement.

This was the reason Arafat was expelled from Syria in 1983. Pipes noted that there have been numerous clashes between Assad and Arafat as far back as 1966, when Assad, then defense minister, jailed Arafat.

But as for now, Indyk stressed, it is the “common interest” of Assad and Arafat, as well as the Soviet Union, to “appear united for a new administration” in Washington and to “show that Shultz cannot succeed” without their participation.

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