- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

BEIRUT — The death of Yasser Arafat and the emergence of Egypt as a peace broker between Israel and the Palestinians has prompted Syria to drop its longtime antagonism toward Mr. Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.

The shift was on display last week when Syria welcomed PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the first official Palestinian delegation to visit Syria since 1996.

They met President Bashar Assad, Prime Minister Naji Otri and leaders of Palestinian militant groups based in Damascus.

“Syria fears that they will be alone while the Egyptians lead the Palestinians to peace and a homeland,” said Palestinian columnist and activist Gaby el-Jammal.

“This is why they are desperate to embrace the new PLO leadership and to enter into talks with the Israelis as well,” he said.

Last month, Israel rejected a Syrian offer to reopen peace talks, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated support for an Egyptian-led initiative to broker a deal to allow Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

The presence of 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, more than half of whom live in desperately poor but well-armed refugee camps, has long given Syria an excuse to continue occupying Lebanon.

“[Mr. Arafat] controlled the camps with money and his [loyalists],” said one PLO activist who asked not to be named.

“Syria has always claimed that they are needed to stay to keep the Palestinians from leaving the camps and attacking Israel’s northern border. But now with everyone in the [PLO] talking about peace, or a settlement, they have lost this excuse,” the activist said.

In recent weeks, Syria and supporters in Lebanon have been pushing to show support for the continued Syrian occupation, despite opposition in the U.N. Security Council and widespread opposition to their presence among the Lebanese people.

“[Mr. Abbas] came and told Syria and Lebanon to ‘get ready for peace,’ that [after the Palestinian elections] he will be negotiating with the Israelis through Egypt and plans on making a deal,” said a Lebanese journalist who also preferred to remain anonymous.

Said Mr. el-Jammal: “Syria has to embrace [the Palestinians] now because it’s the only one not talking peace with Israel.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide