U.S. not ready to reject Arafat

Latest crisis has done lasting damage to ties with Palestinian chief

But almost no option left

February 01, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - American officials have lost almost all trust in Yasser Arafat, yet they are prepared to give him another chance - once again.

A week after word leaked that the Bush administration was considering breaking off ties with the Palestinian leader, and four days after Vice President Dick Cheney bluntly stated, "We don't believe him," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he was still working with Arafat and would not give up hope of halting Middle East violence.

"We are in discussion with Mr. Arafat and applying some additional pressure to Mr. Arafat," Powell said, adding, "We'll continue to work with both sides in as balanced a way as we can" to resume the peace process.

Powell met yesterday with Jordan's King Abdullah, a key intermediary, and prepared for next week's visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has grudgingly also given Arafat a chance.

In an interview with the Israeli tabloid Ma'ariv, Sharon said he regrets that he did not have Arafat "liquidated" 20 years ago during an Israeli siege of Beirut. Yet Sharon went on to say, "If Arafat takes all the steps we are demanding that he take, as far as I am concerned, he will again be a partner to negotiations." A top Arafat aide, Ahmed Qurei, will meet with State Department officials in Washington next week.

Arafat's latest diplomatic survival feat followed a well-known pattern: Pushed into a corner by Israel, the United States and Europe, and with little support in the Arab world, he began to take serious steps toward alleviating the collective anger directed at him. The United States and Israel have little choice: No serious alternative to Arafat's leadership has emerged among the Palestinians.

In response to the crisis, associates say, he has approved a "security work plan" that includes sharing information with the United States on suspected terrorists sought by Israel and pledged to keep those arrested in secure jails. He has also named a panel to look into an intercepted shipment of sophisticated weapons from Iran that was intended for use against Israel and that the United States has accused Arafat's Palestinian Authority of orchestrating. Arafat also ordered the arrest of a senior Palestinian official on suspicion of involvement in the arms shipment.

Nevertheless, the latest crisis appears to have done Arafat lasting and perhaps irreversible damage in his relations with the United States.

Because officials here suspect that Arafat was involved in the arms shipment, his investigation could be seen as an empty exercise.

Not only would the weapons have drastically escalated the number of Israeli casualties, but the weapons were obtained from Iran, a state that President Bush says belongs to an "axis of evil." And Hezbollah, a guerrilla organization with a record of terrorism against Americans and Israelis, provided help in arranging the arms shipment.

Some officials say they doubt that Arafat is capable of making a whole-hearted commitment to the peace process and that he is keeping open the option of violence.

Arafat's record of reliability was weak when the Bush administration assumed office, four months into a resurgence of Israeli-Palestinian violence that had defied high-level American efforts to arrange a cease-fire.

In 1989, Bush's father broke off a weeks-old dialogue with Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization after Israel foiled a Palestinian terrorist attack on an Israeli beach. The dialogue had begun at the end of the Reagan administration after Arafat had publicly renounced all forms for terrorism. Two years later, when President George H.W. Bush launched a Middle East peace initiative, his aides avoided direct dealings with Arafat.

The Clinton administration soured on Arafat only after years of personal contact between him and President Bill Clinton. During the Clinton administration, it was former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not Arafat, who drew the most ire, with U.S. officials complaining about his failure to abide by his commitments. Arafat was a more frequent visitor to the White House than was the Israeli prime minister.

But hopes of a final peace settlement between Arafat and Netanyahu's successor, Ehud Barak, died at the failed Camp David summit in August 2000, leading to American disillusionment with the Palestinian leader.

After the Palestinian uprising began in late September of that year, one senior U.S. official wondered aloud whether Arafat was bent on achieving Palestinian statehood "with blood and fire" and not with negotiations.

During Powell's first visit to the region, in June, Arafat committed himself publicly to seeking an end to the violence that by then was raging, but his actions failed to match his words. "Every time Arafat says he has done something, it turns out he has done less," a senior U.S. official said. "If he says he's giving a speech, it's half a speech, or if he gives a speech, he doesn't follow through."

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