Why Arafat is Looking to Bush

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Yasser Arafat's qualified "yes" to President Clintonís proposals also looks a lot like a "no." What's his game?

"Arafat is under more pressure than heís ever been. First he's pressured by the Americans to sign a deal. But then he's pressured by his own people, and by some of the most important Arab countries, not to sign. Arafat knows that saying no to Clinton is something very dangerous, but that accepting the American proposals is also very dangerous. So he has to find a formula in which he can appear to be both accepting them and rejecting them.

"Sources close to Arafat tell me that his logic is the following: In 1948 when the refugee problem was created, the Palestinians were not responsible. The Arab heads of state had invaded and promised that they would destroy the state of Israel. 'I did not create the refugee problem,' is what Arafat is saying. Then, in 1967, Jerusalem was lost to the Israelis not by the Palestinians, but by the Jordanians. So Arafat says, 'Why should I make concessions on issues which were created by the Arabs? Jerusalem should return to the Arabs because itís occupied territory, and refugees should return home according to the relevant U.N. resolution.' If Americans want Arafat's signature, he tells them, he needs Arab partners — he needs the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Jordanians and the Saudis to support him."

So will the pro-Western Arab regimes encourage Arafat to make a deal?

"Over their dead bodies. The Arab leaders are mortally afraid of stirring up internal opposition. If they push Arafat to make this deal, they'll face huge demonstrations in every major Arab city, and they're not prepared to risk that. So Arafat is squeezed in the middle. The Saudis, according to good sources, are telling Arafat not to sign, promising that they'd get him a better deal from the Bush administration — theyíre telling Arafat they have good relations with the Republicans, and that he should wait for Bush to take office. The Egyptians are speaking double speak, the Jordanians fear the spread of the intifada across the Jordan river, and the Syrians donít want to see Arafat sign a peace deal with Israel which would leave them facing Israel alone.

"Let's wait and see what happens on Thursday, when the Arab League meets in Cairo. The Syrians are going to lead the opposition to any deal. And even in a secret session, Egypt and the Saudis will be afraid to support the Clinton plan, because they know the Syrians will leak their positions and leave them facing the wrath of their own people."

So Arafat is simply playing out the clock waiting for a new U.S. administration?

"Exactly. By saying he accepts President Clinton's plan with reservations, he's simply giving himself breathing space. His acceptance has no practical meaning. Sources close to him tell me Arafat is impatient for Clinton to leave the White House. The best the present administration can hope for is a face-saving gesture. Perhaps they'll invite Barak and Arafat to the White House, and Clinton will read a statement saying both sides are still committed to peace, and have agreed to go back to negotiations. That's the most they can do."