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Analysis: Arafat Plea Must Not Be Ignored

Sunday, 27 January 2002 12:00 AM

This is not the first time that Arafat appealed to Uncle Sam for assistance and arbitration when the chips are down and he finds himself with his back to the sea and nowhere to go.

It was Philip Habib, an American envoy dispatched by President Ronald Reagan, who negotiated his withdrawal from Lebanon in the summer of 1982, following Israel's invasion and siege of the Lebanese capital. And it was U.S. Marines, along with French and Italian troops, that insured his safety when the Palestine Liberation Organization was ousted from Beirut by Ariel Sharon, who was then minister of defense.

Ironically, today, Arafat finds himself facing the same foe, Sharon, who this time is in a far more powerful position as prime minister. It would appear as though the two men are picking up their campaign of mutual hatred where they left off some 20 years ago. As the saying goes, "plus ça change ...."

Since the second Intifada, or uprising, erupted in September 2000, the Palestinian territories have spiraled into an ever-increasing cycle of violence, each time setting a new perilous mark. In the 14 months of clashes since the Palestinians and Israelis returned to the warpath, the weapons of choice have rapidly escalated from stones to rocket-launchers, and from M16 rifles to F16 fighter jets, which Israel deployed against Palestinian positions this past weekend.

Since Israel sidelined Arafat and declared him "irrelevant," the Palestinian leader has been in virtual seclusion, stranded in his Ramallah residence. What little there was of his PA infrastructure has been slowly destroyed by Israel, as Sharon went after his airport, his helicopters, a number of PA offices in various cities, and his radio and television station, the pride of the Autonomous areas.

Meanwhile, the peace promised by Sharon to his constituents almost a year ago, has never been further out of reach.

The tragedy, besides the obvious, is that neither side appears to be willing to move towards peace. Many Palestinians mistrust Sharon and believe he has no intention of signing a peace treaty with them. Abdel Rahim Lalouh, the secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine told Paris' Le Monde newspaper that "Sharon had a very precise political program. To cut the road leading to a Palestinian state and to reaffirm the occupation of the territories occupied in 1967."

While Sharon may well have a plan in mind, Arafat, on the other hand does not appear to have one. As the violence escalated, the economy in the PA has gone from bad to worse, and what little hope there was in the waning days of Clinton's presidency and the failed Camp David (two) peace summit, now appears permanently dead.

Arafat's lack of initiative has always been his shortcoming, which even close aides to the Palestinian leader admit is one of his major faults. "Arafat must have his back against the wall and a gun pointing at his head before he can make a call," confided a one-time associate.

The real danger now might come not from within the Palestinian territories as much as they could emanate from the outside, with Baghdad and Teheran becoming more involved in the conflict.

Earlier this month Israel intercepted a shipload of arms it claims was destined for the PA and originated in Iran. Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein on the other hand, has been supporting the Intifada with arms and finances, and could be tempted to escalate the conflict especially since he has come under renewed scrutiny in the recent campaign against terror. Furthermore, some Mideast analysts believe Saudi Arabia has also been funneling money to support the Palestinian uprising.

For the moment, Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite paramilitary group that fought a successful guerilla war against Israel in south Lebanon has remained mostly quiet, but that may not last, especially if their Iranian and Syrian masters decide to open another front.

With all of the above in mind, Arafat's call for U.S. help should not be taken lightly by the Bush Administration. Severing ties with the PA, as some in the Administration, especially those close to the vice president, are wishing for, will only help push Arafat and the region into greater turmoil. The consequences could plunge the entire area into a full-fledged war.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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This is not the first time that Arafat appealed to Uncle Sam for assistance and arbitration when the chips are down and he finds himself with his back to the sea and nowhere to go. It was Philip Habib, an American envoy dispatched by President Ronald Reagan, who...
Sunday, 27 January 2002 12:00 AM
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