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Threats Give Arafat a Few Moments in the Limelight, but His Power Wanes

April 27, 2004
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Yasser Arafat regained a bit of political life last week — thanks to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s threats to his physical life.

Thousands of cheering Palestinians gathered last weekend at the Mukata, Arafat’s besieged headquarters in Ramallah, to pledge their support for the Palestinian Authority president. They cheered despite the fact that more and more Palestinians believe their leader cannot deliver.

A public opinion survey conducted by Beit Sahour’s Institute for Research and Dialogue published last week shows that Hamas has more support than any other Palestinian political movement — not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank. It’s the first time that the political hegemony of Arafat’s Fatah movement has been so threatened.

In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, the former P.A. prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, blasted the way Palestinian society is run. Abbas resigned last September after just several months in office, and he accused Arafat of systematically undermining his power. His interview essentially was a condemnation of the Palestinian Authority’s workings and its leader.

Personal interests have taken precedence over national interests, Abbas said, reflecting the common perception that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and inefficient.

Palestinians frequently refer to Arafat as a national symbol. In the past two years, since Israel confined Arafat to his Ramallah headquarters, his symbolic stock has far outgrown his real political stock.

That’s why on Saturday, when Arafat came out of the Mukata to greet his supporters, he was all smiles: It was a brief political renaissance for a man once accustomed to the limelight, who unceremoniously has been shoved to the political margins.

In a television interview last Friday, Sharon said he no longer felt bound by a pledge to President Bush not to target Arafat in Israel’s crackdown on Palestinian terrorism. As with previous perceived threats, Palestinians rallied around their leader — but Arafat “revivals” quickly petered out.

Arafat sounded defiant in front of supporters, pledging to sacrifice their “blood and souls” for him.

“I tell Sharon and his gang, ‘Oh mountain, the wind will never move you,’ ” Arafat said. “All of us are martyrs-in-waiting.”

At the same time, Arafat rushed to call world leaders to seek shelter from Sharon’s threats. He also evicted some 20 terrorists who had found a safe haven in his headquarters, fearing their presence there could give Israel an excuse to invade.

Despite his brief return to the limelight, Arafat is aware of the obstacles he faces.

Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N.’s Middle East envoy, warned over the weekend that the Palestinian Authority’s credibility was dwindling and that its state of “near paralysis” threatened an already tottering peace process.

“Terrorist attacks continue, claiming more innocent Israeli lives and drawing more Israeli skepticism about the presence of a Palestinian partner for peace,” Larsen told the U.N. Security Council in his monthly briefing.

The anti-Hamas camp within the Palestinian Authority also has been weakened, with some of its symbols, such as Arafat’s economic adviser, Mohammad Rashid, hardly seen in the Palestinian-populated territories. A-Tayyib Abdul Rahim, secretary-general of the president’s office and another critic of Hamas, has been silent almost since the intifada began.

In the past two years, Arafat has done virtually everything to paralyze the Palestinian Authority. Two months ago, unprecedentedly heated discussions on internal reforms in Fatah ended with promises but little action. Arafat told youthful Fatah activists who clamored for more influence that he would push again for peace with Israel and hold internal elections to promote reform.

Arafat repeated his promises last week: The Palestinian press reported that Arafat had ordered Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei to prepare for municipal elections “as soon as possible.” But no date was given, and Palestinians saw the move as yet another attempt to pay lip service to democratization while avoiding any practical steps.

Indeed, recent developments show that Arafat has chosen the opposite direction.

In reaction to President Bush’s support for Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, Arafat warned that he might dismiss Qurei from the premiership and reassume his powers. Qurei himself told journalists that his government is “seriously thinking to resign” in protest over Bush’s guarantees that Israel will not have to return to its pre-1967 borders or absorb Palestinian refugees.

Last September, following several terrorist attacks, Israel’s Cabinet decided to remove Arafat “in a manner and time to be determined.” However, the threat remained just that, and Sharon refrained from repeating it until the recent interviews.

Those interviews come as Sharon is fighting for his political life on both the personal front — where he faces a police investigation into bribery allegations — and the political front, where his disengagement plan faces a crucial Likud Party referendum on May 2.

The paradox is that despite dramatic statements on both sides, it’s likely that all parties will think twice before making any dramatic steps, at least before the U.S. presidential elections in November.

Sharon’s threats are likely to be forgotten after next week’s Likud vote, and Arafat will return to his forced hibernation at the Mukata — unless someone changes his mind.

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