JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2001 / 29 Tishrei, 5762

LONDON DIARIST



Arafat to the rescue


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- YASSER ARAFAT has been ridiculed as a politician who never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But it is always a mistake to under- estimate the resilience of the Palestinian leader, who has survived more than 40 years in the most poisonous of all political snakepits.

While he has indeed missed opportunities, Arafat has also demonstrated a rare genius for survival: He has walked away from assassination attempts, a hideous car crash on the Amman-Damascus road, the civil war in Lebanon (despite Israeli and Syrian attempts to kill him), and a decade later, in 1992, he walked away from a plane crash in the Libyan desert.

Then, in December 1990, he appeared to write his own political death warrant when he embraced Saddam Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, angering not only in Washington but also his oil-rich backers in the Gulf. Less than three years later, he was being feted at the White House after signing the Oslo Accord with the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

And in September this year, in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, his star appeared to wane once again when, after suffering months of Washington's "benign neglect," the terrorist stereotype from Central Casting seemed to be on the ropes as America and Britain launched their war against terrorism.

Once again, however, Arafat managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when he emerged triumphant from a two-hour lunch with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London this week to declare his satisfaction with "a comprehensive and very constructive meeting."

Arafat's deft diplomatic dance not only conspired to deflect the ire and fire of the anti-terrorist international community from himself, but simultaneously to turn up the heat on Israel.

Standing alongside a grave-looking Blair, the khaki-clad Arafat appeared to precisely calibrate his remarks in order to meet the needs of both Washington and London. In the process, he came perilously close to actually sanctioning their combined military action against Taleban and terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

He unequivocally condemned "all forms of terrorism, including state-sponsored terrorism," confirmed the mantra that "fighting terror is not a war against Arabs or Islam," and rejected links between "our just cause and methods that are unjust, like the terrorist acts and killing of civilians, as occurred recently in the United States."

He had, he said, told Blair that despite the plight of the 3.2 million Palestinians who suffer from "closure and siege, bombardment and assassinations, the continuation of Israeli settlement activities, the demolition and destruction of homes, farms and factories... I reiterate my full commitment to the ceasefire [with Israel] that I declared."

And then, after a year-long intifada, he called on Israel to "immediately join us in resuming the permanent status negotiations so that we can reach a just, comprehensive and lasting solution to all issues on an agreed agenda -- Jerusalem, settlements, borders, refugees, security, water -- consistent with UN Security Council resolutions, 242, 338, 425, General Assembly resolution 194 and all other relevant resolutions."

Added Arafat: "It is high time to end the Israeli occupation, to end the conflict between the two sides and to establish an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital -- a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel so that our people and their people, and all the people of the Middle East, can live in peace, security and stability."

Bruised by criticism from Arab leaders that they favor Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, Blair and Bush clearly place a high priority on the need to balance their military campaign in Afghanistan with demonstrative new efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which they perceive as the key to placating nervous Arab leaders and tranquillizing their increasingly restive "streets."

They have been put on notice that they must prove they do not simply target renegade Islamic and Arab states but also take seriously Israel's "flouting of UN resolutions." And in the quest to demonstrate their commitment to "even- handedness" in Middle East affairs, Arafat's words must have been music to their ears.

The precise form of words he used indicated that the Palestinian leader was reading from a script which could have been crafted by officials at the Foreign Office in London or at the State Department in Washington. Perhaps both. It is likely that they provided a clue to the contours of peace talks that the United States -- and, perhaps, the European Union too -- will now be pursuing.

If London was a consolation prize -- Washington is still not, apparently, ready to receive the Palestinian leader -- Arafat could console himself that he was at least being welcomed by Washington's closest ally.

In the current circumstances, he knows that when he speaks to Blair he is also speaking to Bush. And when he hears Blair's voice, he is probably hearing the voice of George W. Bush with a middle-class British accent. And if Arafat used the language that London and Washington were yearning to hear, the British leader returned the compliment in spades.

There was an urgent need, said Blair, to seize the moment, reinvigorate the peace process and create a viable Palestinian state, with peace and security for Israel.

"It is now time," he said determinedly, "for all UN Security Council resolutions to be fully implemented."

While he told journalists it was up to Washington to express its own position on the subject, he added: "I know this is something they are thinking about very carefully."

Blair said he and Arafat were "in complete agreement that now is the right time to reinvigorate this process... This is the time to act with new resolve."

"We have a chance now to put right the injustices that have for too long blighted our world and the Middle East in particular." And, he said, he and Arafat had "agreed that negotiations, not violence, is the means."

"It is vital for both sides, especially when faced with provocation from extremists, to hold fast and maintain a 100 percent effort to eradicate the violence that kills not only innocent people but also the hopes and aspirations of the majority of ordinary people."

Blair stressed that "the end we desire is a just peace, in which Palestinians and Israelis live side by side, each in their own state, secure and able to prosper and develop.

"That is the only sensible outcome and we must seize this moment to make progress toward that end, otherwise more bloodshed and violence will drive out the overwhelming desire for peace in the region and the wider world."

Blair added that "everyone understands that now is the moment, with renewed purpose and urgency, to move things forward on the basis of justice and peace... This is the time for taking the decisions necessary to achieve what any sensible, sane person acting with reason and justice wants to see."

Calling on the Israeli government to immediately resume final-status negotiations, Arafat turned to Blair: "You have a very special role to play."

A few minutes later, Arafat left Downing Street, flashing the waiting photographers a million-dollar smile and a Churchillian "V" for victory sign.

And as of yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon found himself holding a very hot political potato.

  —   Helen Davis

Helen Davis is a veteran London journalist. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Helen Davis