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.
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.
That bolsters Arafat's international standing, which had hit an all-time low five years ago when he picked the wrong side in the Gulf war, angering the anti-Iraq Arab states who used to fund his Palestine Liberation Organization's coffers. Since the Oslo peace accords in 1993, he has gained legitimacy not just among Arab nations, but in the West as well. The European Union supports sending its ministers to visit Orient House, the Palestinian diplomatic headquarters in East Jerusalem that Israel views as a violation of its sovereignty. France and Russia have been jostling for greater roles in the peace process, making veiled overtures to serve as brokers to counterbalance the American sponsorship that Arabs see as biased in Israel's favor. During a cantankerous visit in October, French President Jacques Chirac wrangled with Israelis as he tried to skip town without making a visit to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but eagerly made a speech before the Palestinian legislative council to declare his support for the creation of a state of their own.
Now Arafat can become any of several personae: the maybe not-so-changed commander who unleashes another intifadah, or violent uprising; the beleaguered peacemaker who calls for international arbitration in the face of stalled talks; or the pragmatist who meets with Jewish settlers if only to show, as Professor Shikaki puts it, that he's not a hard-liner "looking for an ethnic cleansing of the West Bank."
David Bedein, one of the settlers who met with Arafat, says he and the others were interested in seeing if Arafat would stop calling for jihad, or holy war, against the Jews. Doubtful of any such turnaround, he said the Jews and Arabs in the territories might nonetheless find common ground in business ventures, especially tourism. "There's a recognition of an awful reality called the Oslo process," says Mr. Bedein, who lives in Efrat, known more for settler suburbia than militancy. "The people are contiguous to each other and can't go about without an intermingling of the two populations."
Some Arafat watchers say that he may be trying to work with more liberal settlers like Bedein, a divide-and-conquer strategy that would separate moderates from extremists. But Bedein says that the meetings have also involved far-right Israelis from settlements such as Kiryat Arba outside Hebron.
Tariq Zeid confirms that story. A self-professed Arafat crony, Mr. Zeid is waiting in a village outside Hebron to start his job as the chief of police in the four-fifths of the city that will come under PA control. "Yes, I have met with them. Not all of the settlers are bad," Zeid says. "I have met with settlers from Hebron who are ready to live under the PA" rather than be evacuated from the city, which is considered holy by both Jews and Muslims. "We will talk with everyone who is serious about peace," he says.
In Hebron, where Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hamas have majority support, Arafat is winning back confidence. "There's big support for Arafat here, especially after the turmoil," says Tarek Abdeen, a schoolboy, "since he's not giving in to change the agreement."