Arafat Is Riding a Tiger He May Not Be Able to Tame

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Monday 11.25 a.m., EST

Has Yasser Arafat lost control? Does he still have the ability to restore calm?

Yes and no. As long as the clashes serve his goals, Arafat is running the show. The moment the clashes develop in way that damages his interests, he'll be trying to calm the situation. For the time being, of course, the clashes are serving his interests, and he's in control.

Don't forget, also, that in this situation it's not only a question of whether Arafat is in control. We're talking about two sides exchanging fire. When you ask Palestinians to calm down, they say they were shot by Israelis. And the same with the Israelis. You have two sides trading fire.

How do the clashes serve Arafat's interests?

Well, two weeks ago the international community was asking Arafat to make a compromise on Jerusalem. Now the whole world is asking Arafat to calm down. So he has been successful in avoiding having to respond to proposals put to him about Jerusalem and other aspects of a final peace agreement.

The violence also appears to have rallied Arab governments more strongly behind the Palestinians...

Yes, that has been another success for Arafat. But it could also create a problem for him. By mobilizing the Islamic world on the issue of Jerusalem or Al Quds [the Arab word for Jerusalem], he is giving the struggle a religious color, which will make it more difficult for Arafat and all parties involved to make concessions. Presenting the issue in religious terms makes it more difficult for anyone to compromise. When people say their judge is Allah and the Koran, there's no argument and we're back to square one.

What are the long-term consequences for the peace process?

The peace process has been seriously injured in these clashes. Palestinians are saying why should we go on negotiating when we're not getting anything. The peace process is becoming like a woman with bad reputation — nobody wants to be seen near it.

These events are likely to put back the peace process by at least a year. Even before the clashes, Barak's internal situation left him unable to make a deal with the Palestinians. And Arafat was in no position to make a compromise after the whole Islamic world got involved. Clinton can't take an initiative with the [American] elections so soon. So they'll keep talking, but both sides are incapable of concluding a deal. And a new American team will probably wait out its first year, to make its own assessment.

Is there a danger that the Palestinian leadership will pass to more radical factions, such as Hamas?

The crucial question will be how Arafat sells the coming hiatus in negotiations to the Palestinians. Hamas yesterday for the first time ever actually called for Arafat's resignation, charging that he'd mishandled the Palestinian cause. And the Iranians and Hezbollah have started to appeal to Palestinians to fight the Israelis. So the violence is also contributing toward "Islamizing" the struggle, and that represents a great danger to Arafat.