RAMALLAH, West Bank - In a 40-year odyssey that has taken him from Jordan to Lebanon to Tunisia to the land his people call Palestine, Yasser Arafat has clung to an Arabic adage that springs from Levantine markets but speaks to the politics that have ensured his survival.
”I won’t buy fish that are still in the sea,” it goes.
Now, with Israeli tanks besieging his headquarters and an Israeli public demanding revenge after devastating suicide attacks, the constraints imposed by that adage - don’t do anything with an uncertain result - have come to haunt him. In a showdown with the vastly more powerful Israeli military, Arafat confronts the greatest threat to his power since he returned to Palestinian lands in 1994.
This time, analysts say, Arafat is being forced to choose whether to abandon the principles cherished by his people or the uprising opposed with overwhelming force by Israel.
As in past crises, he is waiting for his adversaries to overreach while trying to protect his flank from Islamic opponents and his own younger guard, who oppose any agreement that does not end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian-controlled territories.
As long as the United States and others worry more about who will follow Arafat than they do about Arafat himself, most say, he is likely to survive again.
Even so, many suggest that the tumultuous landscape that Arafat once navigated so adeptly has changed radically. Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has carried a grudge against Arafat that dates back to 1982, when Sharon, then a general, led an invasion of Lebanon, where Arafat had created a state within a state. A world repulsed by suicide bombings may do less to restrain the Israeli leader. Meanwhile, the militants who have commandeered the 18-month Palestinian uprising leave Arafat little room to maneuver.
”President Arafat is in very, very, very difficult circumstances,” said Kamal Hemeid, a top leader of Arafat’s Fatah movement in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. “On one side are the Palestinians, in bad conditions who want revenge, and on the other side are the Americans and the Israelis.”
Events over the past week have raised the century-long Israeli-Palestinian strife to a dangerous new level. Israel has effectively declared an end to the 10-year peace process spelled out in the Oslo accords. For the first time in the 40-year history of the Palestinian movement, Arafat has appointed successors for both the Palestine Liberation Organization that he built and the governing Palestinian Authority that Israel has vowed to dismantle.
On Friday, after Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers, and bulldozers stormed into Ramallah, Arafat declared that the Israeli army planned to kill him and, in religiously resonant language, declared that he was ready to become a shahid, or Islamic martyr.
”We will not retreat, we will not surrender,” he said.
With those words, he was preparing his epitaph - one of principle over compromise.
Through wars that forced him twice into exile and negotiations that came tantalizingly close to peace, Arafat always has resisted the grand gesture. A compromise with Israel might have brought an uneasy peace, but probably would not have delivered what Palestinians see as justice - the right of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war to return to their ancestral homes inside Israel and the establishment of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.
As the personal feud between Sharon and Arafat reached a crescendo this week, analysts say it was clear which epitaph Arafat prefers.
”I see him becoming a historical figure,” said Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, a Palestinian analyst who met with Arafat on Wednesday. “He can say, `I did my mission, I never signed, I never made a concession. I’m preparing my destiny and I’m preparing my house for my absence.’ “
Arafat, 72, survived a war with Jordan in 1970, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and exile in Tunisia for a decade, still to emerge as the undisputed Palestinian leader. Survival in the Middle East has historically come to those who eschew the dramatic for the tedious. The larger-than-life figures who risked their lives for their vision often ended up dead, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin among them.
Arafat, as sophisticated as any politician in the Middle East, has understood that well, and analysts say his maneuvering during the Palestinian uprising, Sharon’s piecemeal dismantling of his authority, and even US envoy Anthony Zinni’s two-week mission to broker a cease-fire reflect that caution.
”I don’t think Arafat has ever indicated that he was going to do anything unless he was absolutely sure in advance that he could. He’s not that kind of risk-taker,” said Mark Heller, a researcher at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Those risks - agreeing to a deal with an Israeli leader he distrusts and a US government he believes favors Israel - have grown precipitously during the intifadah, which has fundamentally redrawn the Palestinian landscape. In the mid-1990s Arafat clearly had the upper hand over his domestic opposition, and he could justify crackdowns as necessary to further negotiations under the Oslo accord that were intended to end the occupation.
He now faces a restive Palestinian population that dismisses the prospect of a political process as long as Sharon is in power and overwhelmingly supports the uprising. Some Palestinian polling puts support for the uprising at 90 percent, the number rising as the suffocating Israeli blockade on cities, villages, and refugee camps has devastated Palestinian lives.
Palestinian popular support has strengthened the most militant version of the intifadah - Hamas and Islamic Jihad among Islamists and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, largely secular fighters from Arafat’s own Fatah movement who look to him more as a symbol than a leader.
After Israel, analysts say, these groups pose the preeminent threats to Arafat’s authority, particularly the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which claimed responsibility for another suicide bombing yesterday in a Tel Aviv cafe by a 23-year-old man that injured 29 people. Arafat is increasingly compelled to reflect the younger guard’s growing militancy and refusal to negotiate at gunpoint.
”We understand very well when the president asks us for a cease-fire and when he asks us for a cease-fire under pressure,” said Mohammed Milhem, a 28-year-old fighter with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Bethlehem.
Unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are hierarchical, well-structured organizations, Arafat’s Fatah is a movement, embracing trends that are divergent and sometimes even contradictory. His leadership, analysts say, is more one of influence than control, weakened by Israel’s destruction of his police stations, security posts, and jails.
That complex dynamic of influence over control has made it even more essential for Arafat’s viability that he deliver what Palestinians call a “political horizon,” concrete steps toward Palestinian statehood that would follow a cease-fire. Without that, a cease-fire returns Palestinians to the conditions that existed before the uprising began in September 2000, Palestinians argue, a status quo ante that few see as viable given the more than 1,200 Palestinians killed in the conflict.
”Arafat will not enter into a major confrontation with Israelis and nationalists in the young guard unless he has a political process or unless there is clear help from the Israelis,” said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
Most Israelis, reeling from suicide bombings, blame Arafat for his predicament. Having suffered more than 300 deaths in the uprising, Israelis have hardened in their determination to isolate him.
”Arafat has certainly been strengthened in his own people’s minds but it has some of the elements of a pyrrhic victory. He has been strengthened but he is also much more vulnerable. He is on the brink of being defined as an international criminal,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Now, as some of the region’s most dramatic events unfold, Israelis and some Palestinians wonder whether time for maneuvers has run out. US officials seem unable to provide a political breakthrough and privately worry where Sharon will stop. Arafat’s own fatalism has made uneasy a Palestinian population that still, almost without question, views Arafat as the preeminent symbol of their pursuit of statehood.
Arafat likely has one last lever to use. By virtue of his longevity, Israelis and Palestinians alike fear the vacuum that would be left if Arafat dies or went into exile again. Palestinians darkly hint at “Lebanonization” in the West Bank and Gaza - the onset of warring Palestinian militias that would rule cantons by force of arms and Israeli support.
”He feels he has an insurance policy,” said Mouin Rabbani, director of the Palestinian American Research Center. “The world can’t afford to manage or mismanage the Arab-Israeli conflict without him.”