Why Arafat's in a State

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After a lifetime of struggle, what Yasser Arafat, 70 and ailing, wants most in the world is to preside over an independent Palestinian state before his days run out. Logic would suggest, then, that he would be eager to sit down with his Israeli counterpart to hash out the details of an agreement enabling that longed-for entity to arise. But when President Clinton issued invitations for just such a summit to convene this week at Camp David, the response from Arafat's Gaza Strip office was a groan. He would go, his aides said, but only because he had to.

In his waning days, Arafat is more concerned about his place in history as a Palestinian hero than as father of a Palestinian state. To reach agreement with Israel on statehood would require profound compromises on what have long been almost sacred Palestinian demands. Arafat's great fear his "obsession," says one aide is that if he makes these concessions, he will go down as a traitor to the cause. "Arafat is terrified he'll be remembered as the one who gave away Palestinian rights," says a senior Palestinian official. This panic, perhaps more than anything, stands in the way of resolving the conflict.

Palestinian negotiators in recent months have held hard to maximalist positions that the Israelis reject out of hand. To end the conflict once and for all the Palestinians insist that Israel relinquish every centimeter of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including all of East Jerusalem which would become the capital of Palestine as well as areas colonized by 175,000 Jewish settlers, who would have to leave. Arafat's negotiators are also demanding the right of all Palestinian refugees from areas that are now within Israel to return to their homes, which Israel fears would eliminate its Jewish majority.

In back-channel talks Palestinian delegates have displayed some openness on these issues. They at least listened to counter proposals; for instance that Israel keep those parts of the West Bank, perhaps 5% to 10% of the area, where most settlers live. One negotiator, Mohamed Dahlan, Chief of Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip, said the Palestinians would consider letting Israel keep some of the settlements if they were compensated with an equal portion of land from within Israel proper, a proposition Israel publicly rejects.

Still, aides to Arafat say he is disinclined to swallow the concessions Israel would require for a final deal, including minimal Palestinian authority in East Jerusalem and the refugees' right of return. Arafat has disavowed an informal compromise drawn up in 1996 between his lieutenant Abu Mazen and Yossi Beilin, now Israel's Justice Minister. Privately, Arafat calls it the "Beilin-Abu Beilin" plan, insinuating that Abu Mazen, who no longer has a role in the peace process, was effectively an Israeli lackey.

In the absence of a good alternative, though, "Arafat is stuck," says one of his cabinet ministers. Adds another official, "His preference is to leave the outstanding issues for another generation to solve." Arafat is said to be haunted by the specter of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination by Muslim zealots opposed to his peacemaking with Israel. And Egypt, at least, got back 100% of its territory Israel conquered in the 1967 War an outcome the Israelis preclude for the Palestinians.

Arafat's fear of looking like a fool, or worse, in any final deal with Israel was accentuated by Israel's offer to Damascus, in since-aborted talks, to return 100% of the territory it seized from Syria in 1967. Then, in May, Israel withdrew from all of south Lebanon, ending an 18-year occupation. Accordingly, Arafat doesn't see why he should settle for less than total relinquishment of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israelis, however, won't accede to the creation of an independent Palestine unless he does. In which case, Arafat has threatened to declare a state unilaterally before year's end. Last week, the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization endorsed that plan. Most countries would probably recognize Palestine, though the U.S. almost surely would not, and the E.U.'s position is unclear. Israel has promised a harsh reaction. Yossi Beilin, usually a dove, implied last week that Israel would sever connections between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and cut off Palestinian access to the outside world. Still, a unilateral declaration offers Arafat a bridge between his competing goals of statehood and steadfastness, or at least the appearance of being steadfast.

At Camp David, Clinton, desperate for a foreign policy triumph in the remaining days of his term, will urge Arafat away from that option. The Palestinian leader, however, won't be thinking of Clinton's legacy but of his own.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Ramallah