Arafat the Gatekeeper

(New York Review of Books/Beirut Daily Star) Robert Malley and Hussein Agha - You cannot take away Yasser Arafat's power because power will go where he goes, because power is where he is. Nothing large or small takes place without his ultimate approval. Security officials await his nod; the demands for a cease-fire with Hamas need his approval and negotiations with Israel his sign-off. A word from him defines who is a traitor in Palestinian eyes, and another leads to redemption. Where he is, so too will be the center of gravity of Palestinian politics. Wander too far from his orbit, and see how power escapes you. He sees himself returning to the Palestinian political scene as the head of a more powerful, and larger, coalition including the majority of his own Fatah faction, secular radical groups, independent personalities, most of the diaspora, and, a novel acquisition, Islamist organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. All of them in one way or another feel alienated from the new PA government and genuinely loyal to the old leader or opportunistically coalescing around him, convinced he is the authentic leader of Palestine. When he looks at Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas, he sees his companion of many years who was there at the beginning and at every major turn, ultimately loyal. He sees one of the very few who never plotted against him, and never dreamed of doing so. Arafat will help his prime minister one day to show that he can save him and undercut him the next, to remind him who is boss. And he will take solace in the fact that Abu Mazen in power means that Arafat is no longer the sole address for recrimination, since he can point to someone else when things do not work as they should. A two-headed rule has its advantages. For Arafat, it can mean just as much power and far less responsibility.

2003-07-28 00:00:00

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