The Arab world is angry and frustrated over yet another rejection by the United States and Israel of yet another peace feeler by Yasser Arafat. ``It's as if we were being forced into anti-Americanism,'' says Asad Abdul-Rahman, an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), of which Mr. Arafat is chairman.
``Anyone who really wanted moderation would encourage moderation, but, instead, moderates are being penalized,'' Dr. Abdul-Rahman adds.
Arafat will bear that lesson in mind in formulating his next moves, Arab sources say. Rather than make fresh concessions to an unresponsive US, these sources say, Arafat is likely to pursue a lower-profile, longer-term strategy to chip away at remaining doubts about his willingness and capacity to hold the PLO on a moderate course.
``If the PLO keeps to its strategy and shows it is serious about giving peace a chance, that's the only hope to build up pressure on the US and Israel,'' a Palestinian journalist says.
Arafat delivered the latest in a series of conciliatory statements on Tuesday. In an address to the United Nations General Assembly, specially convened in Geneva, he invited Israel to come to Geneva to negotiate a solution to the Middle East conflict. Israel quickly rejected the offer, calling it a ``monumental act of deception.''
And the US State Department said that Arafat ``continued to be ambiguous,'' since he failed to meet three US demands. The US insists that the PLO recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and accept without qualification UN Resolutions 242 and 338 (which call for Israel's withdrawal from occupied lands and the right of all states in the region to exist in peace), as the basis of future peace talks.
Arab and even many Western officials voice exasperation over the unwillingness of the US to meet Arafat halfway.
``The American position is not defensible in political terms,'' says a Western diplomatic source in Amman.
``The Americans are telling the PLO to recognize Israel, while Israel is saying that no concessions will make a difference,'' the diplomat says. ``The lesson for Arafat is that it is futile to go further. What's missing in the American position is a promise that if Arafat delivers, the US will respond.''
Over the past six months the PLO, buttressed by the year-long Palestinian uprising, has taken steps to meet the US conditions by agreeing conditionally to 242, backing negotiations, and extending de facto recognition to Israel. Asking the PLO to go further, while placing few such demands on Israel, is to hold the PLO to a double standard, Arab sources say.
``They want us to make a total political strip tease and stand naked even without asking Israel to take off its overcoat,'' Abdul-Rahman complains.
By refusing to meet Arafat halfway, the US has also weakened his position vis-`a-vis PLO extremists, who will remind the PLO chairman that his moderation did not pay off, other Arab sources say. Even moderate Arab governments are unlikely to advise further concessions.
Arab sources say that Arafat has already gone too far toward recognizing Israel for many in the PLO, though not far enough to satisfy the US. Arafat is now paralyzed, unable to spearhead changes in the PLO's position, these sources say. That places the ball squarely in the court of incoming US President George Bush, who will now have to find some way to move the peace process off dead center, these sources, including senior Jordanian officials, say.
At the same time, Arab officials and analysts point to several gains scored by Arafat as a result of a PLO ``peace offensive'' launched last summer.
First, a senior Jordanian official notes, ``Arafat is providing ammunition for those in the middle, for those who are looking for an excuse to give the PLO the benefit of the doubt.''
Second, Arafat has successfully conveyed the impression that it is the PLO that is now taking the initiative for peace.
``Each time Arafat goes a yard it looks like a mile, because of the intransigence of the US and Israel,'' another Jordanian official comments.
Finally, the guerrilla leader has made small but potentially significant inroads with two parties whose views bear on the Middle East peace process.
One is the Jewish community in the US. A tiny crack in the wall of resistance to dealing with the PLO appeared last week when five prominent US Jews met with Arafat in Stockholm. The five expressed optimism after the guerrilla leader, through a Swedish official, proclaimed his acceptance of Israel by name in a four-point statement.
The other is Europe, where Arafat's recent peace gestures have been warmly received.
``There's a certain tide in favor of the PLO in Europe,'' comments a Western diplomat in Amman. ``It's not strong, but the outlook is changing. It means that European governments will have more flexibility in being stringent with Israel.''
One example of the kind of pressure Europe could bring to bear on Israel was seen earlier this year. The European Community used the threat of withholding trade privileges to force Israel to allow Palestinian farmers to market their products in Europe directly, rather than through Israel.
Despite such gains, observers here say, two considerations will likely make the PLO withhold further concessions until there is some promise of reciprocity.
One is the PLO's own bargaining leverage. ``It's not like Arafat has no cards to play,'' the Palestinian journalist says. ``With the intifadah going on, Israel is paying a price.''
More important are pervasive concerns within the PLO that even if further concessions are made, the US, under the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, would find other ways to avoid a dialogue.
PLO sources ask why Arafat should take the biggest gamble of his career and risk deep splits within the organization, if further concessions will also be dismissed.
The leader of a pro-Syrian PLO faction recently criticized Arafat's Stockholm statement recognizing Israel as ``capitulatory.'' That echoes the internal opposition that three years ago fractured the guerrilla movement over Arafat's acceptance of a joint PLO-Jordan peace plan.