- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

At first glance, it would appear President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon got their way and were successful in marginalizing Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, and a long-time icon of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

Mr. Arafat, they argued, was tainted by terrorism and could not be trusted, nor engaged, as a viable business partner in the delicate Middle East peace-making process. He was accused — often with just cause — of playing a double game when it came to talking peace and dealing with terrorism.

Both the U.S. and Israel believe he maintained a “revolving door” policy when it came to implementing security agreements established between the Palestinians and Israel. For example, no sooner were suspected perpetrators of terrorist operations jailed by one of his numerous security organizations, than they would be back on the streets, planning further attacks against Israel and threatening to scuttle the peace process.

Last spring, Israel claimed to have uncovered documents from Mr. Arafat’s compound — which were made public — that allegedly showed his authority funding some terrorist cells while simultaneously pledging to find and arrest others.

Insisting that the Palestinians name someone other than himself before the peace process could resume, reluctantly, and under great pressure, Mr. Arafat appointed Mahmoud Abbas — a k a Abu Mazen — as the first-ever prime minister.

This week’s U.S.-Arab summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh was meant to place the proverbial stake in Mr. Arafat’s heart.

By bringing together Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Jordanian King Abdullah, and Bahrain King Hamad Bin Issa al-Khalifa to meet with Abu Mazen, Mr. Bush sought to emphasize and legitimize in the eyes of the world — and particularly the Arab world — that Abu Mazen, and not Mr. Arafat, is the rightful leader — and interlocutor — of the Palestinians.

This is Mr. Bush’s way of stressing the point and of making certain Mr. Arafat does not come back to haunt the process in which the American president is now firmly engaged. And Wednesday’s Aqaba summit in the Jordanian Red Sea resort town involving Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon and Abu Mazen closes the coffin — at least politically speaking — on Mr. Arafat. Or does it, now?

While Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon have successfully managed to distance Mr. Arafat and exclude him from negotiations, prestigious international summits and visits to the White House, the bigger question now is: Realistically, how much can Abu Mazen marginalize Mr. Arafat?

“Abbas is a figurehead with future potential,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East affairs in a report to National Public Radio. Indeed, the new Palestinian prime minister is a ruler, who for the moment at least, remains without much over which to rule.

Mr. Arafat, on the other hand, is far from dead. Although sidelined, he still commands far more power that Abu Mazen, both with the myriad of security forces he has established in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as among the “street.”

If Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon favor Abu Mazen as an interlocutor with whom they have engaged in negotiating, it might be worth noting he commands no popular support among the majority of Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Eighteen of the 25 members of Mr. Abbas’ Cabinet ministers serving in his government — 72 percent — are members of Fatah, Mr. Arafat’s mainline organization within the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Unfortunately, whatever decisions Abu Mazen reaches in these meetings, he wields no real authority to implement any major policy changes unless approved by Mr. Arafat first. And herein lies the conundrum. Mr. Arafat, sidelined as he may be, continues to exercise the power to torpedo any peace deal that may not be entirely to his liking.

Mr. Arafat may not be sitting at the peace table, but he still has his piece to say.

Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide