For Arafat, back to drawing board

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Sept. 12 trip to Syria may signal a shift in approach to Mideast peace.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Sept. 12 trip to Syria may signal a profound change in how the Palestinians will approach future peace negotiations.

Virtually all the efforts to stop the recent violence in the Middle East have relied on the back-to-square-one premise that the Israelis and the Palestinians can be induced to resume peace talks, with the US as mediator.

But the Palestinian leader may be pursuing a new structure for peace negotiations - one that won't likely suit the Israelis and the US as well as the old one has.

The visit to Syria represents "a conscious decision to get back to comprehensiveness in Arab-Israeli talks," says Murhaf Jouejati, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington. The Israelis have long insisted on one-on-one negotiations with their Arab neighbors.

Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian minister for international cooperation said in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Sunday that the summit will address "joint Arab action to resist the Israeli aggression."

In recent years, the Palestinian leader has routinely sought counsel and support from Arab brethren who either have made peace with Israel or maintain close ties with the US: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia.

Arafat in Damascus is a different ballgame. The Syrians oppose a negotiated solution along the lines the Palestinians and Israelis have pursued for the past decade. The Syrians host several militant Palestinian groups who share that opposition. And the Syrians have good or improving ties with Iran and Iraq, two former enemies who are united in their fierce opposition to Israel.

Arafat's mistake

Arafat and the late president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, feuded for decades. More than any other Arab leader, Assad stood for the idea that the Arabs should address Israel as one, either on the battlefield or in negotiations.

Arafat has always struck a balance between appealing for Arab support and insisting that the Palestinians lead their own struggle. When he opted to negotiate directly with the Israelis in 1993, Assad was aghast. As recently as 1999, Assad's longtime defense minister, Mustapha Tlas, called the Palestinian leader "the son of 60,000 whores."

The Palestinian leader has since made up with Mr. Tlas - Arafat gave him the traditional Arab greeting of a kiss on the cheek at Assad's funeral last year - but the Syrians see additional vindication in the upcoming visit. "He made a mistake, and he paid for it," says Mohammed Aziz Shukri, an international law professor at Damascus University.

The mistake to which Mr. Shukri refers is the decision to deal directly with Israelis. The payment is the breakdown of the peace talks and the last 11 months of strife. Mr. Jouejati states his view of the Palestinian position more bluntly: "They have their tails between their legs, and they are coming back to Damascus," the Syrian capital.

The potential for Syrian-Palestinian rapprochement - much less a coordinated approach to Israel along Syrian lines - can be overstated. "The problem," observes Jordanian political analyst Ghazi Sa'di, "is that Arafat cannot abandon negotiations with the Israelis - and Syria, on the other hand, is encouraging this."

Since the late 1980s, the rare meetings between Arafat and Assad were preceded by hype and speculation about the two warriors burying the hatchet and opening a new era in Arab-Israeli relations. It never happened - at least not the way Syrians imagined it should.

But the past year of open conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians creates a new set of circumstances. Arafat continues to be frustrated by the lack of Arab support for his cause. Since the outbreak of violence last year, the leaders of Arab countries have limited their response to fulminating against the Israelis, writing checks to the Palestinians, and demanding that the US rein in its ally.

Led by Egypt and Jordan, both at peace with Israel, the Arabs have opted not to risk their ties with the US - Israel's main backer - or the dream of a peaceful Middle East by taking stern action. Even efforts to organize an Arab boycott of Israeli goods have proved fitful and ineffective.

The populations of many Arab countries seem to be growing frustrated with the inaction of their leaders, but the situation persists. "There's no [new Arab] summit announced, no concrete action, no cooperative efforts," says Nadim Shehadi, head of Oxford University's Center for Lebanese Studies.

Unsuccessful US and European attempts to arrange a cease-fire and a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, may also frustrate Arafat, along with the American refusal to agree to the creation of an international observer force for the Palestinian territories.

Despite clear signs of frustration from Egypt and Saudi Arabia - America's two most important Arab partners - the US has limited its intervention to phone calls and infrequent diplomatic forays. This summer Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah canceled a trip to the US, reportedly to register his displeasure with the Bush administration's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. This month, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent his top foreign policy adviser to Washington to appeal for more resolute US action - without apparent result.

Common cause

Syria has been among the most strident supporters of the Palestinian position. President Bashar al-Assad harshly attacked Israel in speeches at two Arab League summit meetings held since the violence began. His government has also decided to recognize passports issued by the Palestinian Authority, allow Palestinians to study at Syrian universities, and permit Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to visit Syria.

A young leader who needs political legitimacy, Mr. Assad may be extending a hand to Arafat in an effort to shore up his position at home. He has also pledged to improve Syria's regional relationships; having done so with Iraq and other countries, he seems to feel it is time to work on ties with the Palestinians. As Damascus University's Shukri puts it: "We feel we have been a bit harsh on" Arafat.

Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a political analyst in Damascus, says the Syrian government sees stronger support for the Palestinians "as the way to change the balance of forces in the region."

"For the Syrians and the Palestinians, it is truly a marriage of convenience, says Jouejati, of the Middle East Institute. "They truly need each other."

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