Survival Specialist

April 09, 1992

Like a character in a movie fantasy, Yasser Arafat was dead to the world for 15 hours, then came back to see what his friends, enemies and the world thought of him.

The PLO showed that it thinks the U.S. is the most competent country. It asked Jimmy Carter to use his influence to get U.S. satellites to find the plane that crash-landed in the southern Libyan desert. Yet it was not the U.S. that found Mr. Arafat, but the despised Libyan air force.

The Israeli and American governments both hold Mr. Arafat to be an enemy of peace, and for good reason. He has waged a violent campaign to destroy Israel since 1959 and sided with Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the gulf war.

Among Palestinians, those who favor peace with Israel were dismayed at his reported death and overjoyed at his reappearance. The delegates to the peace conferences believe Mr. Arafat's approval keeps them at it. The Palestinians who took to the streets in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to show joy at his continued life are those who want autonomy while Israel lives, not those who would sacrifice all to see Israel vanquished.

Hardliners, particularly Palestinians in Jordan, Beirut and Syria who accept Syrian guidance and oppose the peace process, were glum when Mr. Arafat resurfaced. They do not share the estimate of Israel's defense minister, Moshe Arens, that "it is not possible that there will be a more extreme leader of the PLO." They want one.

In fact, Mr. Arafat was never good at making war with Israel. Or making peace. What he has done well is hold Palestinian groups together. But he has never accomplished anything with such an array. He may be comfortable with a peace process, but not with a peace result.

During Mr. Arafat's disappearance it was clear the PLO upper echelon contains no suitable successor. His two chief lieutenants were assassinated by Arab rivals and no one has been permitted to succeed them. No one of a younger generation is being groomed to take over. That way, none has.

That Mr. Arafat emerged intact from the sands of southern Libya is not surprising. That's what he has been doing since becoming chairman of the PLO in 1969. Israeli bombers of Tunis couldn't kill him, nor could this airliner crash. Mr. Arafat did not need U.S. intelligence help to make it to safety. Surviving is what he does best.

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