From World Pariah to Statesman: Arafat's Four Decades of Struggle

BEHIND the khaki fatigues, the black-and-white checkered headdress, and the stubbly beard - the trademarks of Yasser Arafat - lies a restless soul determined to go down in history as the savior of the Palestinian people.

But after four decades of struggle, Mr. Arafat has undertaken a series of transformations. Suddenly a respected leader who appears on talk shows with United States senators, he seems untarred by the ``terrorist'' label that the Israelis used for decades.

He has abandoned his attempt to reclaim all of Palestine from the Israelis and has instead accepted a tiny foothold of autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho. He calls it a precursor to statehood, but the Israelis say a Palestinian state will never come to pass.

The transformation from fiery revolutionary to pragmatic politician has not altered the dreamer: Deep down Mr. Arafat apparently still believes that every step he takes could pave the way for future Palestinians to reconstruct their national identity in a state of their own.

His unpredictable political style has made him the most controversial Palestinian leader. More than once he has been denounced by Palestinian opposition groups as a pariah and traitor, but these critics have always returned to the umbrella of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), recognizing him as the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. A lifelong struggle

Arafat began his political career while still an engineering student in Egypt. As the head of the General Union of Palestinian Students, he gained the eye of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who eventually introduced him to Soviet leaders.

In the 1950s Arafat started engaging in military activities against Israel, and at one stage collaborated with the Muslim Brothers, the only political party involved in guerrilla activities at the time. But his focus was on founding a Palestinian resistance movement independent from Arab governments and ideological political parties. Working in Kuwait in the construction business, he made enough money to finance his nascent movement.

Fatah, the Arabic acronym for the Palestinian Liberation Movement, was formally initiated on New Year's Eve 1965 when it launched a military operation against a power station inside Israel.

The aim of the organization was to recruit Palestinians everywhere and launch guerrilla attacks against Israel that would drag the Arab states into a war with the Jewish state to liberate Palestine. Fatah gained momentum after Israel's 1967 defeat of its Arab neighbors.

This defeat proved vital to Arafat's rise. The mass support that Fatah gained after the 1967 war enabled him to take over the PLO, which was created by Arab governments in 1964, giving him increased prominence in the Palestinian cause.

Following the 1967 Israeli-occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Arafat slipped into the territories, where he spent 10 months living in disguise and recruiting troops for Fatah. Known as Abu Ammar, his nom de guerre, Arafat has always identified himself with Palestinian militancy.

Arafat's original aim was to wage guerrilla warfare from within Israel, but he was forced to flee, he says, when one of his recruits betrayed him. He has continued his battle from bases in Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, Kuwait, and Tunisia.

Over the years Arafat has tried to maintain the PLO's independence from the Arab countries. He has insisted that his aim has been to ensure that Palestinians are able to speak for themselves.

Arafat turned to diplomacy after 1982, when he was driven out of Lebanon by Israel.

But as early as 1974 he flirted with the idea of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. In 1988, when King Hussein of Jordan relinquished his claim of responsibility for the West Bank, Arafat declared his desire to see an independent Palestinian state established alongside Israel. Ruthless but liberal

Even though there are few who question his dedication, his refusal to concede to demands for collective leadership have alienated many comrades, old and new. Many Palestinian intellectuals charge that he surrounds himself with cronies instead of independent thinkers.

Arafat's leadership style and unilateral decisionmaking are viewed by many PLO officials and analysts as a main factor in the gradual erosion of Palestinian institutions over the years.

No one within the PLO has any illusions about his ruthlessness in marginalizing opposition. He does not hesitate to cut down his critics until they toe the line, and often resorts to dramatics. His tears seem ready to flow at any moment.

But Arafat's outbursts are more often an expression of genuine emotion than a tactic to coerce support. This reporter has seen him on many occasions, privately and publicly, crying over the loss of a comrade or the siege of his people.

Arafat has an uncanny ability to pay attention to those around him. People who have known him for years say they are stunned at how - in the middle of a busy day or night of work - he observes and records the tiniest details. He remembers his guests' personal preferences and detects slight changes in the appearance or mood of those around him.

Not a handsome man in the conventional sense, he can be extremely charming to women. Many Palestinian women in the movement confide in him and take his advice on personal matters.

His claim to be a feminist has some grounds to it. Arafat, or Al-Khityar (the old man), as many Palestinians dub him, is a social liberal who does not share the double standards in judging women's behavior that many politicians in the Arab world maintain.

But his liberal approach to women's rights has not led to a greater role for women in the PLO.

Two years ago, Arafat shocked even his friends by marrying a Christian. That angered some Muslims, but to those who know him, religious tolerance has always been one of his strongest points. He has always reserved a seat in the PLO executive committee for a Christian.

As Muslim radicals gain prominence, especially in the Gaza Strip, Arafat has been careful to preserve the secular identity of the PLO - a trait that had enabled the organization to maintain its role as the umbrella for Palestinian Marxists as well as right-wing Islamists. The leap

The challenge posed by rising Islamist groups such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) is considered one of the reasons that prompted Arafat to accept the ``Gaza-Jericho first'' option for Palestinian autonomy, even though he concedes that it falls far short of minimum Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

Arafat also had lost key financial support, both from the Gulf states protesting his support for Iraq during the Gulf war, and from the fall of the Soviet Union.

His recognition of Israel, on terms that other Palestinian leaders found loathsome, has provoked unprecedented opposition. But Arafat is undeterred. Over the last decade, he became convinced that the Palestinians stood no chance if they did not adapt to the changing world and abandon some of their revolutionary idealism in the absence of real Arab support.

His giant leap landed him a visit to the White House, an event that was unthinkable less than a month ago.

But there he stood, in his military dress and his kaffiyeh (headdress) folded in the shape of Palestine, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Clinton. So long dismissed as an international outcast, Arafat seemed surreal to Palestinian observers.

His supporters and critics alike wonder about the price Arafat has paid for his dramatic moment in Washington. The major opposition groups, whose leaders were glued to their television sets, seem perplexed. They have not joined in the calls of his assassination, advocated by two small extremist groups, nor have they labeled him as a traitor.

Arafat has again proved true to his own description of himself and his people: ``We are like the legendary phoenix which always rises from the ashes.''

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