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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 00:25 GMT 01:25 UK
Arafat: The great survivor
ramallah
Israeli troops patrol near the Ramallah compound

Yasser Arafat has emerged from the siege of Ramallah.

The symbol of the Palestinian people who was dismissed by his old adversary the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "irrelevant" is back on the world stage.


Yasser Arafat's difficulty is in making the transition from fighter to statesman

It is something he has done before. In 1982, the same Ariel Sharon, then Israel's defence minister, bottled Mr Arafat up in Beirut after invading Lebanon with the aim of removing Palestinian fighters.

Mr Sharon's hope then was that Mr Arafat would be destroyed, not physically but politically. The ploy failed. Mr Arafat left Beirut, but relocated to Tunisia.

Arafat
Yasser Arafat: Lost credibility with Western governments
His worldwide travels resumed. They probably will again.

Mr Arafat is at his strongest when he is under siege. He is most influential when he is the underdog, the guerrilla fighter. Those are his instincts.

His difficulty is in making the transition from fighter to statesman.

He nearly did so, and even won the Nobel Peace prize, for the Oslo accords which were supposed to lead to a permanent peace.

They did not. And Mr Arafat reverted to the fighter, holed up in his bunker in flickering light and with gunfire outside.

Plan backfired

But if the Israelis thought they had him this time, they were wrong.

By seeking to make Mr Arafat irrelevant, the Israelis have made him important again.

Even the head of Israel's military intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze'evi has acknowledged this.

palestinians
Palestinians show their support for Mr Arafat on May Day
General Ze'evi told a committee of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, that Mr Arafat had come out of the siege "in a stronger personal position".

This is not something Israeli political leaders will say.

But generals tend to deal in reality. And the general added that Mr Arafat is seen as the "only Palestinian address", except, he added, in Egypt, Jordan and the United States.

And those exceptions could be a problem for the Palestinian leader.

For his task now will be first to rally his people, still reeling under a crushing blow from the Israeli armed forces.

That will be the easy bit. He cannot be challenged, for the moment. He is again the symbol of the battered Palestinians.


It might be written in their hearts, but it is not written in stone, that the Palestinian people will get a state

But beyond that, he has to re-establish himself as a credible international political leader.

By failing to prevent the suicide bombing of Israeli civilian targets, he lost credibility with many Western governments, as well as with vital neighbours like Egypt and Jordan, which have made their peace with Israel.

He will have to make to clear what his policy now is.

He has publicly committed himself to the "two state" solution - in which Israel and Palestine would live side by side in peace - but he will now have to mobilise international opinion to keep the plight of his people on the world agenda.

Harsh measures

It might be written in their hearts, but it is not written in stone, that the Palestinian people will get a state.

The Armenian people did not - they got only a pale imitation of the state they really wanted, and were forgotten by the world.

If the conflict degenerates further into an armed stalemate with periodic eruptions of violence, then the world might lose interest.

And Mr Arafat also needs to encourage what he needs above all for a settlement - a majority in Israel which will take the risk of withdrawing from enough of the territory Israel occupied in the war of 1967 to make it viable as a Palestinian state.

If he chooses war, he is facing an old enemy in Ariel Sharon who is quite capable of taking harsh measures.

Mr Sharon flagged up his attacks on Palestinian towns and cities when he said that the Palestinians would have to be dealt "a harsh blow" before any talks could resume.

Mr Sharon is prepared to deal further harsh blows.

The irony is that the support in the Arab world for a settlement with Israel has never been stronger - but the tragedy is that, on the ground, a settlement is as far away as ever.


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