From terrorist to diplomat, Arafat carves PLO's path New peace plan means new power

September 04, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau Staff writer Dan Fesperman contributed to this article.

JERUSALEM -- Assassins poisoned his food. Jet fighters pummeled his hide-outs. Israeli sharpshooters hunted him in Beirut, his own men revolted, and his airplane crashed in the desert.

Yasser Arafat has survived all that and more. And now the success or failure of the proposed agreement with Israel for Palestinian autonomy will determine the political fate of the old guerrilla leader.

If it works, he could return to Palestine for the first time in 26 years as a hero, the man who nurtured Palestinian dreams and was midwife to some semblance of self-governance.

If it fails, he stands likely to be relegated to the dusty honor of one whose time and authority have passed.

"This is a real crucial test of his legitimacy," said Ibrahim Abu Lughod, a Palestinian professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank town of Ramallah. "If he fails, he will be discredited."

For three decades, Yasser Arafat, 64, has been the symbol of the Palestinian resistance, a grizzle-bearded freedom fighter in khaki uniform with his own jet to whisk him about the world.

He has been a sinister symbol. Guerrillas in various factions of the PLO accrued a bloody record of terrorist acts: They attacked civilians, hijacked planes and blew them up, kidnapped Israeli Olympic athletes and once hijacked a whole cruise ship and killed a handicapped American Jew.

It was a record that revolted the world, a black history that weighs against acceptance of Mr. Arafat in his more recent role as a moderate and pragmatist.

In him, Palestinians presented their face to the world -- for better or worse. The short, scrappy chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization strutted through diplomatic hallways with a revolver strapped to his waist, his bulging eyes and unshaven grin a public relations disaster in the dawning television age.

But it was a face, and in its very memorability he salvaged the Palestinian people from being swept away and forgotten. With cruel terrorism, tenacity and his theatrics, he compelled the world to pay attention to the cause of Palestinian statehood, putting the problem of this tiny area on the top of the superpowers' list of diplomatic chores.

To the Israelis, he was the embodiment of terrorism: evil, dangerous and resilient -- never to be negotiated with. Many Palestinians loved him as a representative of the power they did not have and believed only he could speak for them.

Renewing his power

But the symbol's potency has dimmed. Mr. Arafat's bankroll from the oil states has been pinched, his appeal to the masses siphoned by the lure of Muslim zealotry, his strategies challenged by younger leaders and his record scorned by those disillusioned by his failures.

His decision to back the controversial plan of autonomy for Jericho and the Gaza Strip is a gamble to return to the center of authority.

"I think Arafat wanted any solution he could get, because the PLO is very weak now," said a 23-year-old tailor in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed Abu Abed. "He wants to get something out of this deal."

"It's a move to regain power," said Matti Steinberg, a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Hebrew University. "He's making the move to be the leader of the internal arena."

As a sign of the size of the stakes, Mr. Arafat stepped up his usual frenetic pace. This week, he jetted from one Arab capital to the next like a nervous fly.

He is trying to assuage Arab leaders who are angry that their support for his cause and their pledges of solidarity were undermined by the secret deal he worked out with the Israelis.

Although he had pleaded with the other Arab leaders not to make a separate deal with the Israelis, Mr. Arafat's own representatives were doing just that in Oslo. For four months, he kept up the charade of publicly wrangling over the negotiations in Washington while dealing secretly with the Israelis in Norway. Apparently, he told neither his allies nor other Palestinian leaders.

He also sent emissaries this week to the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- where he cannot go -- to enlist support among the Palestinians for the plan. Their political support is not guaranteed.

"He has to convince them this is the best deal that they can get," said Mr. Abu Lughod. "He cannot contravene public opinion. He's not a dictator."

But Mr. Arafat is a calculating tactician, likely to call in all of his past chits to try to ensure support -- and his survival.

"He is a very shrewd political creature," said Mr. Abu Lughod. "He will use every means available."

Legend and reality

Political and personal survival have been the hallmark of Mr. Arafat's life. The reverence in which some Palestinians hold him is in part due to the legends that surround his durability.

He cultivates those legends, and obscures those parts of his past that make him seem merely mortal. Successive interviewers have never pinned down if he was born near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as he often claims, or in Cairo, as his birth certificate says.

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