Arafat's historic support wanes

Palestinian mainstream is shifting backing to militant groups as peace process repeatedly stumbles.

Beginning with a much-anticipated speech today by Secretary of State Colin Powell, the US is expected to engage in Middle East peacemaking with new vigor. US and European officials have already made explicit what Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat will have to do to keep the Americans interested: stop Palestinian violence against Israelis.

Mr. Arafat already faces resolute opposition from Palestinian militants and their supporters. Roughly a quarter of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip back the Islamic Resistance Movement and the Islamic Jihad group, their terrorist tactics notwithstanding. These groups scorn peace negotiations.

What is potentially more significant is the trouble Arafat is having with the Palestinian mainstream, particularly the political faction known as Fatah, which the Palestinian leader himself helped found four decades ago.

During the 1990s, Fatah was a pillar of the peace process, providing Arafat with the popular backing he needed to risk negotiating a peace with Israel. Today, it staunchly supports the Palestinian campaign of often-violent resistance to Israeli occupation. Its leaders see no reason to desist.

"This is the time to negotiate and to fight," says Marwan Barghouti, the leader of Fatah in the West Bank. "There will be no benefit in engaging in negotiations without pressure on the ground."

His words highlight the slow-motion train wreck that US mediation will somehow have to finesse: how to reconcile the Israeli demand that violence cease with the view of most Palestinians that "resistance" is their most effective tactic.

Relations between Arafat and Fatah have been testy before - at various times Fatah leaders have sought to replace or even kill their leader - but the current difficulties are significant. "This is the first time Fatah has been so estranged" from the Palestinian leadership, says Manuel Hassassian, the executive vice president of Bethlehem University.

Officials close to Arafat acknowledge the distance that has emerged between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its main source of support. "We have to convince Fatah that the Israelis are serious" about negotiating and implementing peace agreements, says Col. Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian Authority's chief of preventive security in the West Bank. "Then we can do everything."

By "everything," Colonel Rajoub means the arrest of Palestinian extremists who would use violence to destabilize a resumption of negotiations. As things stand, this task is delicate. When Rajoub's officers arrested an Islamic Jihad militant in the northern West Bank town of Jenin last week, a man the Israelis accuse of involvement in suicide bombings, angry Palestinians took to the streets on three consecutive days.

The opposition is hardly limited to extremists. "I am against any arrests of people for political reasons," says Fatah's Barghouti.

Ever since hostilities broke out between Israelis and Palestinians more than a year ago, Fatah has been more of an opposition party than a bastion of support for the PA. Fatah leaders have struck this stance in order not to pay a political price for the perceived failings of the PA's policy of negotiation.

Even so, voters at a student election at An-Najah University in Nablus last week overwhelmingly favored candidates from the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. Fatah's support on campus dropped from 44 percent to 35 percent.

In order for even a cease-fire to succeed, Barghouti says, a "new atmosphere" is needed. Arafat "can't just say to people, after 14 months of intifada [uprising], of sacrifices ... 'here's a cease-fire.' He has to offer something to the Palestinian people." By "something" Barghouti means a "political plan" that would make real the promise of Palestinian independence.

Rajoub's "something" is more immediate. The preventative security chief says three things are necessary for a successful cease-fire: an Israeli withdrawal from areas of Palestinian autonomy, a halt to Israel's tactic of assassinating Palestinians it accuses of plotting attacks, and an easing of the "closure" that sharply restricts Palestinians' freedom of movement.

The contrast between the visions of these two men says something about the choice Arafat faces.

Barghouti, a diminutive man with a broad face and raspy voice, is first and foremost a politician. His vocal support for the intifada has boosted his popularity, and he may not want to see it curtailed in favor of negotiations.

Rajoub, a burly linebacker-type who favors well-tailored suits, is an enforcer, a commander of men-at-arms. If the Israelis withdrew from Palestinian areas, stopped "targeted killings," and eased their blockades, Rajoub's job would be easier, both politically and practically.

Arafat may want to bring along the Palestinian mainstream the Barghouti way - by wresting some sort of prize from the Israelis ahead of negotiations - but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seems unwilling to consider such a step. Another option is the Rajoub way - using stern measures to contain Palestinian frustration until talks bear fruit.

The depth of Fatah's estrangement from the leadership is unclear, and it may be that Arafat has a deep enough reservoir of support to bring the organization with him despite internal disgruntlements. Bethlehem University's Hassassian argues at first that Arafat "can buckle [Barghouti's] mouth," but later asserts that a rebellious or divided Fatah will force the Palestinian leader to do something to restore his legitimacy.

Like many liberal-minded Palestinians, Hassassian says that elections are in order. "We need a united front that is strong enough to put our aspirations in concrete terms.... We are not ready for negotiations today," he says. Arafat's mandate as president of the PA expired last year, as did the terms of members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Hussam Shaheen, a Fatah youth leader, says elections are not appropriate because they would exclude Palestinians in the diaspora. But he does want to see a revival of the more inclusive Palestine Liberation Organization. "We should meet as Palestinians and agree on a national agenda," he says.

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