Waiting For History To Happen

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Yasser Arafat is sitting in his office, at the head of a boardroom table that has been set with a fraying yellow tablecloth and dime-store English china. Around him are a dozen officials and cronies, in suits and ties or military fatigues, who are joining his nightly communal meal. Various peace awards are scattered on shelves in Arafat's inner sanctum, looking more like dust collectors than trophies. On the wall are framed pictures of Palestinians who have died fighting and a satellite map of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The hour is 11 p.m., and outside Arafat's window, the tide of the Mediterranean Sea lashes the shoreline in the blackness of the night. But the soft splashes of the waves do nothing to cut the foreboding that fills the room. On a TV in the corner is a live broadcast of the Israeli elections. Tonight Arafat's dinner seems more like a wake. His archenemy, Ariel Sharon, hasn't claimed victory yet, but with the earliest projections, Arafat has seen enough. He begins spooning up his daily bowl of vegetable soup, listening blankly as his companions talk approvingly of how Israeli Arab voters have deserted incumbent Ehud Barak.

"Try these," Arafat says, changing the subject, as if he can't cope with the results just yet. He uses his delicate, pasty fingers to pick up some hard-boiled eggs with the yolks removed, specially prepared for him, and put them on the plate of the guest beside him. Then he swirls a piece of toasted flat bread into a bowl of black paste called kazha, a blend of molasses and black cumin seeds. "Try this," he insists, his lips trembling with age.

Doing his best to hide his concern--secrecy is his middle name--Arafat is terrified to the point of paranoia, some of his confidants say, about Sharon's coming to power. Here is the former general who tried to kill him with air strikes on his Beirut bunker, who was found by an official Israeli report 18 years ago to bear "indirect responsibility" for the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Maybe the coming of the old warrior is what recently led a clearly unnerved Arafat to grab a machine gun from a bodyguard and leap out of his car when Jewish settlers in Gaza blocked the road.

Only yesterday a Palestinian dream seemed within reach. Trying to finalize the Oslo peace accords signed by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, Barak had agreed to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He threw in some sovereignty over Jerusalem. But Arafat bargained for more and didn't get it, then gambled on the new intifadeh, demolishing Barak's re-election hopes. So Arafat must now face Sharon, who calls him a liar and refuses to shake his hand. The dread is, it could be Beirut all over again.

Arafat is a civil engineer by training, and he sees himself as more of a plodder than a brinksman. He will tell you about his long march, starting in '48 salvaging World War II rifles in the Egyptian desert. Yet the allure of a knockout punch has always proved his undoing. He envies the F.L.N. triumph over the French in Algeria, Khomeini's thundering revolution in Iran. His Palestine Liberation Organization gambits to become the de facto leader in Jordan and later in Lebanon dragged both countries into civil war. In the Gulf War, he bet on Saddam. This was all well before Arafat was ever on speaking terms with the Israelis, prior to winning the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Shimon Peres for Oslo. That was supposed to be the old Arafat. So why has he gone to the brink again?

Months of unparalleled access to Arafat, interviews with dozens of his officials and a look at confidential Palestinian papers help untangle some of the complexity of Arafat's motivations. What emerges is the journal of an aging autocrat, anxious about his place in history, alarmed by rising discontent over his leadership, feeling outmaneuvered by Israel and mishandled by the U.S., veering between peace and war. Ultimately it's the tale of a leader who found himself unwilling to risk the highest prices--his own life, the death of his dream for a prosperous, free Palestine--for a peace he couldn't believe in.

Days of Rage
Sept. 28, 2000. Two months earlier, cheering crowds greeted Arafat's return home following the Camp David summit. Now the mobs are back, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails and firing guns and mortars at Israeli troops and settlers.

It's hard to understand the fury of the intifadeh until you spend a few hours on the Palestinian side of the lines. Mornings tend to be calm. But as schools let out or after the tumultuous funeral cortege of yesterday's dead protester, the gangs of young men and little boys stream toward the front, psyched for a new attack on "the Jews." Filled with anger and bravado, they fight their war into the night, choking from tear gas and burning tires, some felled by the bullets of the enemy.

The street is the source of all Arafat's strength. From Day One, he ensured that the intifadeh was run by the Tanzim, his Fatah organization's street militia. Controlling the street is no easy proposition. Prior to his hero's return from Camp David, impatience with the peace process was mounting. So were gripes about corruption, cronyism, press curbs and human-rights abuses in Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The discontent with his rule is still there, as thick as the tear gas and the smoke. During the second week of the intifadeh in Gaza, a mob broke away from an anti-Israel protest and marched near Arafat's office. They besieged a nearby hotel known as a watering hole for Arafat's cronies and burned the place down.

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