The 'New' Arafat Now Finds Lots of Options
Popular again, the Palestinian leader is even talking with Jewish settlers
Few world leaders have mustered the ability to reinvent themselves as repeatedly as Yasser Arafat. Even as the Middle East peace process flounders, the political chameleon who transformed his image from Palestinian terrorist to peacemaker is finding new ways to capitalize on troubled Arab-Israeli relations and fortify his power.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Most recently, Mr. Arafat is doing that through meetings with some unlikely partners: Jews who have settled in the territories that Palestinians want to have as their future state. The 150,000 Israelis dispersed in the West Bank and Gaza are seen by Arabs as the chief obstacle to peace.
The improbable meetings, supposedly set up to explore business contacts and dialogues toward peaceful coexistence, would have been unthinkable last summer. Then, Arafat's biggest problem seemed to be the threat of rebellion against his Palestinian Authority (PA) after a death under torture in one of his jails combined with shortcomings of the peace process to evoke rage over an oppressive and less-than-democratic Palestinian state in the making.
But the nosedive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking took after new right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to formulate his policies has actually lifted Arafat's standing with Palestinians - and with some of his patrons abroad. Two months after late September's deadly gun battles between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers forced "emergency" negotiations on the overdue Israeli redeployment from the West Bank town of Hebron, Arafat's tactics have shifted. While steadfastly refusing to compromise on Israeli demands to alter security arrangements in Hebron, he portrays an image of flexibility by meeting with the settlers most Palestinians hope to uproot.
The settlers, who recently held secret meetings with Arafat and other PA officials, said they had thought that last week's nighttime gathering was supposed to be off the record until they found that Arafat-controlled Palestinian TV and WAFA, the Palestinian news agency, had been invited.
In the face of his growing popularity with Palestinians by appearing tough with Mr. Netanyahu, Arafat can afford to spend such political capital. "At this time, where Arafat's taking a hard-line position, it's difficult for Palestinians to accuse him of anything," says Khalil Shikaki, a political scientist at Al-Najah University in Nablus, one of the West Bank cities under PA control. "Right now he can do whatever he wants. Since the confrontations, he has felt a new confidence, and the outcome was positive as far as he's concerned. He has international support, he feels that this has weakened Netanyahu's position, and he's still riding on that success."
Arafat has estimated, with an accuracy that Israeli officials ruefully acknowledge, that in the current climate any failings of the peace process will be largely blamed on Israel. While Netanyahu says he must fulfill his campaign promise to negotiate a more "secure peace," much of the world reads his stance as a refusal to implement agreements already signed by his Labor Party predecessors.