JERUSALEM - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, it has been said, responds only to pressure, constantly pushing his luck until he and the Palestinian movement are at the brink of calamity.
He has been written off countless times - driven out of Jordan in the 1970s and Lebanon in the 1980s, and exiled to Tunisia.
Now, given another opportunity to lead his Palestinians to statehood, Arafat finds himself at the head of a movement again at the verge of disintegration. Israel has branded his Palestinian Authority "an entity that supports terror" and declared its 73-year-old leader irrelevant.
The Israeli army has launched a sweeping campaign to apprehend suspected terrorists whom it says Arafat has refused to go after and to dismantle militant groups responsible for killing 44 Israelis in a wave of suicide bombings and shootings in recent weeks.
It has also begun to destroy Arafat's vestiges of power. The army bombed his airport, destroyed his helicopters, fired missiles into his presidential compounds, turned the home of a top lieutenant into a fort and destroyed his radio tower - silencing his voice throughout much of the Middle East.
Arafat, who seeks relevance by traveling from capital to capital, is trapped in Ramallah, cut off from his seaside home in Gaza, his advisers and his people. An Israeli tank is parked virtually at his front door.
Many analysts believe Arafat has misread the world's newfound distaste for terrorism since Sept. 11 and has pushed his luck too far.
"We are as close as we've ever been to a full military confrontation," United Nations Middle East envoy Terje Roed Larson told CNN on Thursday. European Union Representative Javier Solana called this "the end of the Palestinian Authority."
Palestinian officials reject such talk, as they do repeated reports in the Israeli press saying Arafat's top deputies privately complain they are being led into a disaster and are crying for new leadership.
"He is the elected leader of the Palestinian people," said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in an interview yesterday. "I regard [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon as a war criminal whose hands are covered with Palestinian blood, but who else am I going to deal with? The Israelis chose him as their representative."
Movement's only leader
Arafat still embodies the Palestinian movement that he founded more than 30 years ago and built, despite having no territory and a population dispersed in the West Bank, Gaza and refugee camps scattered throughout the region.
There has been no other Palestinian leader, and many say there will be no other until he dies. He has been on the verge of collapse and death several times, only to bounce back. But it is clear that his transition from guerrilla leader - exiled to Lebanon and then to Tunis - to political leader has been difficult.
In 1996, shortly after his return to the Palestinian territories, Arafat jailed militants. The promise of statehood loomed. But those dreams withered as further negotiations stalled and internal dissatisfaction grew, erupting 14 months ago with the second Palestinian uprising.
The jailed militants were released and have grown in stature and power. Imprisoning them again could prompt an internal revolt. But not clamping down has eroded Arafat's status, particularly in the West, now engaged in a war against terrorism in Afghanistan that might widen.
Sharon sees this new world view as a historic opportunity. He insists he is not trying to harm or topple Arafat, but Israel is clearly pushing for a change, if not by its own hands, then by creating such hardship on the Palestinian people that they trigger a revolution.
Crisis galvanizes Sharon
Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest-circulation daily newspaper, published a lengthy article yesterday arguing that the showdown with Arafat is the culmination of Sharon's "master plan" to rid the region of Arafat, an old foe whom he once forced out of Lebanon.
After the recent suicide bombings, Sharon quickly took advantage of a shift in U.S. policy away from urging restraint from both sides to saying that "Israel has the right to defend herself."
But the United States still views Arafat as a legitimate leader and the only person with whom to negotiate.
"Sharon knows that the time-out granted to Israel to take away everything that Arafat has is limited," wrote Yedioth columnist Alex Fishman.
An American official familiar with the recent U.S.-backed cease-fire initiative said senior Israeli army commanders do not believe a military escalation will resolve the conflict. "But they think it is their only option for keeping their citizens secure," the official said.
Israeli army consultants, hired to write a psychological profile of Arafat, concluded that a widespread military offensive would be counterproductive because of Arafat's personality.