Person of the Week: Yasser Arafat

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

First, a disclaimer:'s Person of the Week is not a beauty competition or an achievement award; it's an acknowledgment of the nominee's influence over the events that have dominated the week's headlines. And as U.S. mediators work feverishly to broker an ever-elusive Middle East truce even as suicide bombers continue to terrorize Israel's towns and cities, Yasser Arafat is that man. Because once again he appears to hold the immediate fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his hands.

Not only has the Palestinian leader managed to weather Ariel Sharon's three-month siege without fundamentally altering his own political conduct; he's also forced the Bush administration to substantially alter its own posture. While Vice President Cheney maintained the policy of keeping Arafat at arm's length during his visit to Jerusalem, Washington has offered a meeting with Cheney in Cairo next week as a carrot to induce the Palestinian leader to halt attacks on Israelis. That's a far cry from the White House's recent inclination to leave Arafat twisting in the wind. Indeed, by week's end Arafat had yet another U.S. administration expressing frustration and exasperation, and yet continuing to prod and cajole him into decisive action.

Earlier this week, Arafat was not taking the bait. The erstwhile prisoner of Ramallah had demanded (and, in substantial part, received) an Israeli withdrawal from recently reoccupied Palestinian towns as a precondition for talks, but even then was in no hurry to commit himself to General Anthony Zinni's cease-fire plan.

Then, a suicide bomber from a group linked with Arafat's own Fatah organization killed two Israelis and wounded 40 more in downtown Jerusalem. That prompted angry words from the Israelis and President Bush, and Arafat, under pressure, vowed to find culprits and stop new attacks. He had, after all, urged an end to Palestinian attacks inside Israel's 1967 borders — his aides noted that these play badly in international eyes and therefore undermine the Palestinian cause. That's not exactly the principled renunciation of terrorism the Israelis and the Bush administration have demanded, and so far even that statement appears to have failed to convince even some Fatah militants.

The distinction between attacks inside and outside Israel may be a telling indicator of Arafat's intentions — attacks on Israeli cities are impolitic, according to Arafat's top aides, but the militants of Fatah believe that attacks on soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza will eventually force Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders. Arafat may be inclined to believe that their efforts of the Fatah militants have had a major role in restoring restore his political standing, bringing Washington knocking on his door and forcing Sharon to back off. And if so, he may believe he needs a cease-fire a lot less than the Israelis and Americans do.

The Palestinian attacks of the past two months, the bulk of which have been focused in the West Bank and Gaza and carried out by Fatah militants, have done much to restore Arafat's standing on the Palestinian street, and have created a major domestic political crisis for Sharon. The Israeli leader is under mounting pressure from his right flank to take more decisive military action against the Palestinian Authority. Whether through escalation or a truce, Sharon needs desperately to calm the situation. So does the Bush administration, which has belatedly discovered the extent to which Israeli-Palestinian violence prevents Arab allies from supporting a war to unseat Saddam Hussein. Arafat will have seen, over the past two weeks, how the wider U.S. agenda created pressure on Israel to curb its own military operations, leaving Sharon exposed politically — and bringing down Sharon's government is as much part of Arafat's agenda as destroying Arafat is an obsession of Sharon.

For the Americans and Israelis, the unpalatable reality is that there's no prospect of a cease-fire right now without Arafat. But the Palestinian leader may not be strongly inclined to ease the confrontation now, having ridden back to center stage on the recent wave of violence. Turning on the grassroots militants of his own movement in order to enforce a cease-fire may not be his first instinct. The rewards currently on offer — a meeting with Cheney, a starring role at the Arab League summit — may not be enough to persuade him to tempt the wrath of the Palestinian street. Moreover, the Tenet-Mitchell cease-fire formula would require him to disarm the very militias whose actions have helped restore his political fortunes.

So what does Arafat want? The answer to that question may be what determines the immediate future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. That's why Yasser Arafat is our Person of the Week.