by Peter Hirschberg
(IPS) JERUSALEM --
apparent resolution of the Palestinian leadership crisis comes as a firm reminder to the United States and Israel that Yasser Arafat remains the most potent symbol of Palestinian aspirations.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas have differed recently over negotiations with Israel, but they patched things up, however tenuously, in Ramallah this week.
Israel and the U.S. have worked strenuously over the last two years to marginalize Arafat. Israel clamped a travel ban on him, besieged his Ramallah compound, and demolished most of it. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed him as "irrelevant."
President George Bush echoed that theme when he presented his vision of the Middle East in a speech in June last year: "Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership... I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," he said in a clear reference to Arafat.
Earlier this year, in a move aimed at clipping Arafat's powers, the international community forced him to accept the creation of the post of prime minister. Israeli intelligence officials predicted that Arafat would soon be sidelined to the point of becoming inconsequential.
But the Palestinian leader, albeit embattled, partially isolated and grounded, still pulls many if not all of the strings he once did. "Israel cannot deport or kill Arafat because they know the consequences would be chaos for many years to come," Ali Jarbawi, professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank told IPS. "Israel says he is irrelevant but they still blame him for everything. If he's irrelevant, how can he be blamed?"
Arafat never liked the idea of a prime minister, which he correctly understood as a U.S.-Israeli attempt to dilute his powers. He has tried to curb Abbas's clout on several occasions. The issue of the release of Palestinian prisoners -- a highly sensitive one which Abbas is currently negotiating with the Israelis -- gave Arafat his latest opportunity for a power play.
Along with members of his ruling Fatah party Arafat began flaying Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, for being too soft in negotiations with Sharon. Abbas offered his resignation from the party's Central Committee and said he would step down as prime minister if the party insisted on negotiating tactics unacceptable to him.
But the two men agreed to a truce -- most likely a temporary one -- under which Abbas will retain his powers. The two also agreed to coordinate all negotiations with Israel.
Few seasoned observers ever believed Abbas would resign as prime minister over a skirmish with Arafat. "Abu Mazen has been insulted by Arafat many times in the past," says Yoni Fighel, senior researcher in Palestinian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. "They have been together for many years. It may be that they have tactical differences, but this isn't what will cause Abu Mazen to resign. What could, is an issue like the release or non- release of Palestinian prisoners with 'blood on their hands,'" that is, accused of terrorism.
If anything, the showdown between the two again emphasizes the central role Arafat plays. "Arafat still commands overwhelming support among Palestinians," says Jarbawi. "I don't think he sees the struggle as being between him and Abu Mazen, but between him and the Americans and Israelis. He sees the creation of the post of prime minister as an attempt to strip him of his power, so the conflict would have been with whoever filled the new position."
Opinion polls still indicate that Arafat is the most popular leader among Palestinians. With negotiations limping along since the Aqaba summit last month, Abbas's popularity has slipped further while Arafat, viewed by the public as standing firm in the face of unrelenting U.S. and Israeli pressure, has enjoyed a resurgence.
The policies of Israel, the United States and Europe will have an impact on the balance of power between the two men. Sharon has said he wants to help Abbas. Many observers believe that the best way for him to do that would be to release many more than the 350 Palestinian prisoners his government has agreed to free -- there are more than 6,000 in Israeli jails. Sharon could also remove more army roadblocks in the West Bank that make travel a nightmare for Palestinians, and dismantle the dozens of illegal settlement outposts that have come up since he took office in March 2001.
The U.S, which also wants to boost the Palestinian premier and weaken Arafat, could promote its goal by pressuring Israel to make these concessions.
Unlike the U.S, most European leaders say they will continue to deal with Arafat. The Palestinian leader will have been heartened by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's reiteration of this position at his meeting with Sharon in London.
During the Arafat-Abbas crisis, Israeli leaders accused the Palestinian leader of trying to undermine his prime minister. An aide to Sharon even revisited the option of deporting Arafat from the West Bank. That would almost certainly lead to Abbas's immediate resignation. He has said as much.
"Abu Mazen draws his legitimacy from the fact he is close to Arafat," says Fighel. "He gets his authority from Arafat. If Arafat was no longer around, the whole house of cards could come tumbling down."
The two men clearly have different styles and tactics. Abbas, who lacks Arafat's charisma, is on a single track -- the negotiating one -- and his repeated criticism of "the militarisation of the Intifadah" must be seen in this light. Arafat, by contrast, has always combined negotiation with armed conflict, and his repeated praise for the Palestinian "shahids," or martyrs, must be understood in this context.
When it comes to the Palestinians' key demands in negotiations, it is still Arafat who counts. But the two men seem to see eye-to-eye on the cardinal ideological issues.
Both demand the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and both want a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital. "The two might adopt different means but they have exactly the same goals," says Fighel. "Abu Mazen is more pragmatic. He understands the limits of Palestinian power. But don't be mistaken, it's not that he has suddenly become a great Zionist."
But Arafat is not about to disappear. Fighel says Israeli leaders should come to terms with the fact that he will probably be around for some time rather than engage in wishful thinking about his imminent leavetaking.
"The Palestinian public continues to view him as a symbol, as the father of the nation," he says. "They know Arafat hasn't delivered the goods but he still enjoys support. There haven't been demonstrations against him. You don't just go and discard your ultimate symbol."
July 16, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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