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What Political Future for Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat?


In early autumn of 2002, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was facing internal and external challenges to his leadership. U.S. President George Bush was calling for his removal, and Palestinian legislators were demanding an end to corruption and mismanagement in the Palestinian Authority that he heads. But in the months since then, Mr. Arafat has managed to defuse much of the pressure.

In a political career that spans more than four decades, Yasser Arafat has faced many challenges, but perhaps none greater than those he is confronting now.

In December of last year, the Israeli cabinet declared it was cutting off all contact with Mr. Arafat but would continue to meet with other Palestinian leaders. Seven months later he was effectively placed on a political blacklist by President Bush. In a speech in June, the president called on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders not compromised by terror.

Yet, Mr. Arafat remains in power. For more than a year, he has been based at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, most of which has been demolished by the Israeli army during a series of sieges.

And there have been many predictions from Israeli security officials that Mr. Arafat will not remain in power much longer. One of the most recent has been from the former head of Israel's spy agency Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, who predicted in the first week of December that Mr. Arafat will be toppled within a year.

The Israeli army general in charge of government activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Amos Gilad, also believes that in the coming months Mr. Arafat will be removed from the center of Middle East politics.

General Gilad said the most likely catalyst is a U.S. military strike against Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein.

"He [Saddam Hussein] is a symbol for tyrants like Arafat and others," he said. "If he will collapse, it will create an earthquake in the Middle East from a positive point of view. I think this will be the opportunity [to] change things in this area."

But Palestinian analysts do not believe that Mr. Arafat is about to disappear. Among them is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Khalil Shikaki. He acknowledges that Palestinians are demanding reforms of the Palestinian Authority, including an end to corruption and mismanagement. But Mr. Shikaki said that doesn't mean the Palestinians want to oust the leader of the authority. He means too much to them. He is, Mr. Shikaki said, a living legacy of the struggle for Palestinian independence and no one is about to challenge him.

"I don't think that legacies go away. Arafat is a legacy," said Mr. Shikaki. "Nobody from within the Palestinian Authority, whether from the young guard or from the old guard, will come to him and say: 'Time is up, you are out.' This is not going to happen."

Palestinian Labor Affairs Minister Ghassan Khatib, who has been a critic Mr. Arafat in the past, said the Palestinian leader is in fact in an even stronger position, despite the pressure he has faced from Israel and the United States.

'I don't think that his power is challenged among his people. Of course, his powers are challenged by the Israeli actions and occupation," said Mr. Khatib. "But his public stand within his people is still unchallenged and as strong as it used to be. And I think that will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, simply because the kind of politics he stands for are still accepted by the majority of the Palestinian people."

It is not only Palestinian analysts who share this view. Ehud Ya'ari, a commentator for Israel's Channel Two television - and the author of several books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Arab affairs - believes too that, unless there is some active intervention on Israel's part, that is, Israel literally removes him from the Palestinian territories, Mr. Arafat will remain where he is now.

"I think that Arafat is not a dead man walking," said Mr. Ya'ari. "Basically it is going to be up to us [Israelis] how long he is going to survive here. And Arafat will be the first to tell you that on his mother's side, they have a track record of longevity into their nineties. So Arafat can stay for a very long time. He does not have a view of himself as an old man."

Mr. Arafat's determination to cling to power was perhaps best illustrated by the first public appearance he made after the Israeli army had reduced most of his Ramallah compound to rubble.

Mr. Arafat flashed a wide grin and held up his hand in a defiant sign of V for victory.

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