Arafat fights for relevance

Stuck in Ramallah, his inability to stop attacks on Israel could further sideline him.

Yasser Arafat is still in touch with kings and presidents, still battling for peace. Or so he and his aides maintain.

Nearing midnight on Wednesday, sitting behind a desk laden with documents bulkily gathered into clear plastic folders, the Palestinian Authority president insisted that he remains committed to a cease-fire with the Israelis. "Definitely. I am repeating it day by night," he says, using his effective but sometimes broken English.

Then come the names. "Today, I had mentioned this with [US Secretary of State] Colin Powell and yesterday with Prime Minister [José Maria] Aznar [of Spain] and with all those who are in contact with me from all over the world."

In Mr. Arafat's deep, rich, occasionally melodious voice, the last phrase sings. Near the end of an interview with the Monitor and two European newspapers, he repeats that he is "in permanent contact with the whole world."

"From Powell to Putin," adds Nabil Abu Radeineh, one of Arafat's closest aides, referring to the Russian president.

They stress the point because Israel is attempting to isolate and sideline the Palestinian leader, confining him to this West Bank city and insisting he is irrelevant. With Arafat unable or unwilling to stop Palestinian attacks on Israel, his credibility is suffering.

He has been forced to accept an end to his travels but rejects any notion that his role is diminished.

It is important, as Arafat says at least eight times in the course of an hour, "not to forget." Not to forget that the Palestinian leader is a general who signed internationally lauded peace agreements and who by his own description now abjures violence. Not to forget Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. And although he doesn't say it in so many words, not to forget that Yasser Arafat is, in Palestinian terms, still the man.

The problem for Arafat is that while the world does not exactly forget these things, it sometimes ignores them or, worse, sees them the way Israel does. Worst of all, for the Palestinian leader, is that the Israelis are gaining ground in their attempts to keep him from his mission to remind the world not to forget.

During the Palestinian leader's long career, one achievement stands above all. Through a combination of relentless diplomacy and calculated violence, he has made sure that the Palestinian cause remains thoroughly unforgotten.

In the view of many Israelis, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon first among them, Arafat is a man of terror who seeks to destroy the Jewish state, not make peace with it. The Israeli military intelligence chief said in parliamentary testimony this week that he expected an escalation in armed conflict with the Palestinians.

In a stroke of propaganda that may prove prophetic, Israel's inner cabinet declared Arafat "irrelevant" in early December. At the time, US and European officials piped up on Arafat's behalf, saying they would continue to deal with him.

The situation remains thus, except that recent events have estranged the Americans from Arafat and strengthened the case of US officials who are inclined to wait for the next generation of Palestinian leaders to take power, according to a European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Since early December, the Israelis have confined Arafat to Ramallah, forbidding him even from traveling the 12 miles to Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations. Israeli tanks are stationed within 100 yards of his Ramallah compound, where guards point out Israeli sniper positions in nearby buildings.

Arafat - once the world's most famous frequent flyer and a man who spent years rarely sleeping in the same bed two nights in a row, mainly to avoid Israeli assassination - is now a homebody of sorts.

Perhaps officebody might be a better way to put it. Arafat's wife and daughter have been in Europe for months, ever since Israeli munitions struck Arafat's compound in the Gaza Strip. Arafat's home is his office.

He keeps his aides and advisers close at hand and relishes visitors from the capitals he used to frequent. A recent highlight: a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. On deck for yesterday: a Russian envoy.

There is always the phone. On Wednesday, says Mr. Abu Radeineh, "two Arab presidents ... were on the line. They call the president."

Reporters, at least, are eager to see him. Obtaining an interview now poses many fewer scheduling challenges.

His message remains constant. The Arafat logic goes like this. A decade ago, Arafat renounced armed struggle and made peace. The international community applauded. Amid the current violence, Arafat has been declaring cease-fires and attempting to enforce them. The Israelis respond with "military escalations." So it is up to the international community to step in, to pressure the Israelis, to send in neutral observers. "They have to arrive very soon," he says with urgency.

To Arafat's open-faced, hands-spread-wide incomprehension, the world does not put two and two together and come up with four in the same way he does. "There is a problem," he says. "No doubt."

In early January in the Red Sea, the Israelis seized a ship laden with mainly Iranian arms and other supplies that was captained and partially crewed by Palestinians. Israel asserts that Arafat ordered the weapons.

In the interview, Arafat argues that the ship would never have made it through the Suez Canal without Egypt discovering its cargo; that the Palestinians have no suitable harbor in the Gaza Strip, the ship's alleged destination; that the Israeli Navy blankets the roughly 12 miles of Gaza coastline that is not occupied by Israeli settlements.

"I don't need to ask the Iranians to give me weapons," he says finally. "When we returned back here, we returned with our arms, officially."

Diplomats say that US officials remain unconvinced by Arafat's denials. If the Americans were to decide to back away from him, Arafat would be one step closer to irrelevant. The one country thought capable of pressuring Israel might be unwilling to listen to him, leaving the Israelis freer to try to destabilize his regime. As it is, the Palestinian rumor circuit is full of mutterings about those who are positioning themselves to replace him.

Arafat has long said that he cannot control the actions of every Palestinian, but recent attacks on Israeli civilians by members of his own Fatah organization have proved embarrassing. The incidents followed the Jan. 14 Israeli assassination of Fatah militant Raed Karmi.

Throughout the interview, Abu Radeineh helps Arafat to find the right word, understand questions, and fill in details. On the subject of the attacks, which killed eight Israelis during the past week, he says the Fatah militants acted "on a personal level without orders from the leadership."

"Definitely," Arafat adds.

Karmi's killing was the beginning of the end of the longest lull in the violence since it began 15 months ago, and serves Arafat's argument that Israel responds to his cease-fire efforts with actions that provoke more violence. The lull began Dec. 16, following Arafat's televised call for an end to "all armed actions."

Even so, the attacks have damaged Arafat. "He's in a very, very grave situation and I think he may underestimate [its] severity," says a Western diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. If Palestinians conduct a truly devasting attack against Israelis, the diplomat continues, "I think he would find himself heading off to Tunis or Baghdad or somewhere."

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