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A Critical Juncture for Arafat

Conflict: A generation after he launched his struggle, his dream remains elusive. Today he risks losing power if he is seen as appeasing Israel.


JERUSALEM — On New Year's Day 37 years ago, a little pear-shaped man with a stubble beard and a kaffiyeh covering his balding pate went door to door through Beirut's newspaper offices, handing out a press release that he called "Military Communique No. 1." It said guerrillas had launched an attack on Israel's water system.

Mohammed Abdel Raouf Arafat Qudwa al Husseini, 35 and barely 5 foot 4, looked almost comical in his baggy fatigues and unpolished boots. He was unknown to the editors he met, as was the organization, Fatah, he had set up with a dozen friends in Kuwait six years earlier. No one printed his communique, a decision that turned out to be good journalistic judgment. The attack had never happened.

The author of the fabricated release was pictured on the front page of the Jerusalem Post on Monday, shaking hands with a somber Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. He had added some pounds and gray hair but otherwise looked and dressed--perhaps even thought--almost as he had a generation ago.

What had changed was that the man now known as Yasser Arafat has one of the world's most recognizable faces.

A Dire Predicament

Today Arafat, 72, stands at a crossroads, perhaps the most desperate of his long, unpredictable political career as the leader of the Palestinian people. An Israeli offensive in the West Bank, launched March 29 after an epidemic of deadly Palestinian suicide bomber attacks in Israel, has demolished his Palestinian Authority and left Arafat isolated in his Ramallah compound. He is surrounded by Israeli tanks and soldiers, to whom he is beholden for electricity to run his refrigerator and water to flush his toilet.

Arafat's wife, Suha, and daughter, Zahwa, are in Paris. Only a handful of aides and bodyguards is left at his side in the two-room office where he works, sometimes by candlelight. He is not free to step into his yard. Food runs low unless the Israelis allow in new supplies. Sometimes the batteries in his cell phone go dead.

For the first time in years, political analysts use the words "after Arafat"--who will be the next to lead the Palestinians' campaign for statehood?

The Israelis had hoped that Powell would ignore Arafat on his Mideast peace trip, thus adding to his isolation. But Powell met with him twice in the besieged compound, including a final meeting Wednesday in an attempt to win agreement on a plan to tie a cease-fire to political progress toward statehood. There were no indications that Arafat made significant concessions.

Israeli columnists are calling this Arafat's "last final chance."

If he doesn't seize it, if the suicide attacks resume in Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could order him killed or exiled. Arafat, however, has turned his back on opportunity before, particularly in July 2000 at Camp David.

There, during two weeks of negotiation under the auspices of President Clinton, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave Arafat almost everything he wanted except Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees from Israel's 1948 War of Independence to return to homes that are now in Israel. Arafat made no counterproposal. He said no and went home to Ramallah, where, with rhetoric if not actual orders, he eventually fanned the flames of a second intifada against Israeli rule.

"You find a lot of criticism among Palestinians that Arafat fumbled at Camp David," said Khalil Shikaki, a political science professor in Ramallah. "And you'll hear criticism that he lacks the capacity or will to lead, that he simply projects himself as another actor trying to balance the interests of different factions within the Palestinian movement."

But Arafat has always been more effective as a symbol than as a leader. He is disliked by many Arab heads of state but embraced because he represents the Palestinians' aspirations. The administration he runs in Ramallah is corrupt and inept. His miscalculations have cost the Palestinians dearly. His intransigence has slowed the pace of pending statehood.

But without Arafat, it is possible that the so-called Palestinian problem would never have been an issue that galvanized the world or became the pivot point of Middle East peace.

Raised in Cairo, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip as the son of a wealthy merchant, Arafat has always been an enigma. He deflects questions about his personal life by giving political answers. He is at once manipulative and concessionary, a master of double talk who says one thing in English and quite another in Arabic. His Arabic is so bad that grammarians cringe.

Many political analysts say the man who once promised "a generation of revenge" has been playing his role so long that he simply has run out of ideas. He speaks of the physical reality of a Palestinian state but never of his vision for what that state would be like. He has never groomed a successor. A secular Muslim, he increasingly seems to view himself as a guardian of Islam, trying to deliver a Palestinian state as well as the holy sites of Jerusalem.

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