Arafat's waiting game

Palestinian leader goes alone to Egypt after Thursday summit is canceled.

Once again, the world waits for Yasser Arafat.

After progress last week, the Middle East peace talks now seem to depend on the Palestinian leader's accepting peace proposals put forward by President Clinton.

Israelis describe the US package as the best offer Palestinians have ever had. Even so, there are many reasons why Palestinians may still turn it down.

Disappointment with the offer, resentment about the decision-making deadlines, strategy, and Mr. Arafat's unpredictable style of leadership all play a part.

When Arafat's decision finally comes, it will likely decide the political fate of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and shape Israeli-Palestinian relations for years to come.

Palestinian negotiators quickly signaled Arafat's desire for more details from the US package, which the Israelis had essentially approved. In turn, Israelis cancelled an Egyptian-brokered meeting between Arafat and Mr. Barak, citing their frustration.

"If Arafat wants to be the stubborn one, then let him," Cabinet minister Yuli Tamir told Israeli army radio. "The Palestinian people will pay a heavy price."

Yet Palestinian critics say the cost of accepting the offer could outstrip the price of rejecting it. Mr. Clinton's outline calls for difficult sacrifices on both sides. Palestinians would establish a state in 95 percent of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip, get sovereignty over Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, and control over the disputed Al Aqsa mosque compound. Islam's third-holiest site, the mosque is built on what Jews say are the ruins of their biblical temples.

In exchange, Palestinians would give up the "right of return" of refugees who fled their homes in 1948, when Israel was founded, and during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians have framed their experience in the fiery language of righteous struggle, which can make the mundane work of compromise unpalatable and a tough sell to the public. But many commentators feel that the US proposals simply aren't good enough or clear enough.

Palestinian negotiators have asked for further explanation of the US proposal, but it is clear that some of their strongest reservations are about refugees. Palestinians cling to the idea of return as tenaciously as some of the world's roughly 4 million Palestinian refugees cling to their old household keys and land deeds.

"I don't believe Arafat or anyone else can give up the right of any individual to return to his home," says Abdel Jawad Saleh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "It's a matter of international law."

Mr. Saleh recognizes that Israelis will never willingly allow millions of refugees to return. But he says Israelis need to acknowledge the importance of this issue for Palestinians. "If they would admit their wrongdoings, I think that's a very important step" in signaling their commitment to peace and toward Palestinian acceptance of a deal, he says.

Palestinians also voice frustration that they are being pushed to make crucial decisions under deadlines imposed by Israeli and American political factors. Clinton will leave office on Jan. 20, and Israelis will hold an election on Feb. 6 to choose their next prime minister.

"This is a time of major decision," says Palestinian commentator Hanan Ashrawi. "Other people's time frames should not dictate the substance [of negotiations]."

There may be political gain for Palestinians in resisting the time pressure - for the time being. Barak's hopes of reelection hinge on delivering a peace plan. The longer Arafat delays approval of the US proposal, the more Barak may be inclined to sweeten the deal. And Clinton is reportedly very eager to leave office with the laurel of Middle East peace on his brow.

Holding out for a better deal is a tactic Arafat has used before, most recently at the Camp David talks in July. But it doesn't always yield dividends, says independent Israeli analyst Joseph Alpher. "My sense is that the Palestinians aren't getting anything that Barak and Clinton weren't hinting at during Camp David," he says.

If Palestinians delay a decision until after Clinton leaves office, some believe President-elect Bush would be more sympathetic to their cause. But there is no guarantee that he would involve himself as much as Clinton has. And while there may be advantages to waiting for a Bush administration, Israeli politics are a disincentive to holding out. If Palestinians reject the deal now on offer, polls show that hard-line politician Ariel Sharon will likely become the next prime minister.

This would hurt Palestinian aspirations, says Said Aburish, a London-based Palestinian writer and commentator. "[Arafat] knows what would follow would be a disaster. [Sharon] doesn't acknowledge the idea of a Palestinian state. His idea of peace calls for canceling it."

But Arafat has a history of pushing his advantage too far, often to the point where he loses any gains he has made. In the 1970s in Jordan and again in the 1980s in Lebanon, he competed for power with his initially sympathetic hosts - until they threw him out.

"He has never recognized that any ascending power in a world of others must reach a culminating point where there is only loss and eventual defeat," writes Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr. Aburish notes that Arafat thrives on these high-wire situations of give and take, which also distract critics from the corruption and human rights problems that have characterized his rule.

And Arafat's history as a freedom fighter leaves him ill-suited for negotiating matters of state. "He's not a man actually accustomed to actually managing anything," says Aburish. "He's not a statesman, he's a trapeze artist. He doesn't know how to commit himself and stay the course."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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