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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Arafat's ambition to be at the helm
By Gerald Butt
Middle East analyst

Make no mistake about it. Yasser Arafat is a man with a lifelong obsession - to become the first president of an independent Palestine.

As far as he is concerned, nothing will be allowed to get in the way of this.

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat: "Still the only leader the Palestinians have"
And despite the string of seemingly fatal setbacks over the years, and the current isolation of the veteran Palestinian leader in Ramallah, the obsession is as strong as ever.

One of the main strategies of Mr Arafat's leadership has been to keep personal control of all aspects of the governing structure of the Palestinians.

This was as true in the long years of exile in Lebanon and Tunisia as it has been since his return to the Palestinian territories. Delegation is not a word that Mr Arafat understands.

Therein lies one of his strengths and one of his key weaknesses.

On the positive side, Mr Arafat has been able to stand above internal struggles and debates, cajoling the various parties into accepting solutions. In this way he has kept the Palestinian movement united and has remained the sole international figurehead for the cause.

On the other hand, his insistence on taking all decisions relating to peace talks with Israel - or being consulted on them - has severely handicapped negotiators over the years, to the detriment of the Palestinian cause.

Also, with his autocratic style, he has removed from positions of authority anyone who might become a challenge to his leadership, and has done nothing to encourage the development of transparent democratic institutions.

Threat from roadmap

Given all this, the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister, with all the powers inherent in the post, was bound to be an issue of contention for Mr Arafat.

1957: Left Egypt for Kuwait, after graduating
1968: To Jordan, directed raids into Israel
1970: Forced from Jordan and moved to Lebanon
1982: Left Lebanon following Israeli invasion
1982-94: Mainly based in Tunis with PLO leaders
1993: Signed Oslo Accords in Washington
1994: To Gaza, to set up Palestinian Authority
2001-03: Confined to his Ramallah HQ

Here, for the first time, was a figure with both authority and autonomy - representing a serious challenge to the Palestinian president.

If the roadmap plan for peace had proceeded without a hitch, then Mr Arafat would have found himself increasingly sidelined - not just by Israel but also by the Palestinian movement as a whole.

Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas would have emerged as the man leading the Palestinians to statehood, accepted by the world at large, including Israel, as the man of the moment.

Perhaps Mr Arafat bet all along on the roadmap being sabotaged by the return of the cycle of violence. Perhaps, as Israel alleges, he had a vested interest in seeing the peace process collapse.

Either way, the result is that far from disappearing from the world stage, Mr Arafat is enjoying more international attention today than he has in years.

In this respect, Israel is responsible for prolonging the political life of the man they would like to see removed from the stage.

The threats first to expel him from the Palestinian territories and then to assassinate him have forced the international community - including the Bush administration - to come to his defence.

'Impossible challenge'

So Mr Arafat lives to fight another day. In Palestinian eyes, he is something of a mixed blessing.

Many would like to see him and the old guard surrounding him replaced by younger leaders who are not tainted by suspicion of corruption and cronyism.

Yet they recognise that anyone taking on the role either as president or prime minister faces a challenge that seems impossible to overcome - to negotiate a peace deal with Israel that will be acceptable to the whole Palestinian community, or risk civil war by disarming the Islamic militants.

Mr Arafat, secluded in Ramallah, seems as uncertain as anyone else about how the Palestinians should proceed from here.

His aim appears to be to sit tight so that if a day comes when a solution is found, he will inevitably be part of it - thus finally fulfilling his lifelong ambition.

This might seem to be a passive strategy of desperation.

Nevertheless, despite being in a seemingly impossible position, Mr Arafat will be taking heart from the fact that he is still the only leader the Palestinians have.

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