Houdini of the Middle East, poised to move again

In 1982 while Yasser Arafat was making his painful exodus from Beirut someone walked up to him and asked, “Abu Ammar, where are you going?” Confidently, the PLO Chairman replied, “To Palestine! I am going to Palestine.”

Today, in 2002, Arafat has been asked by visitors at his Ramallah place of detention, “Abu Ammar, where are you going?” Once again, without thinking, the PLO Chairman replied, “To Beirut, I am going to Beirut!”

The long and eventful journey “Beirut-Palestine-Beirut” has not been an easy one. If anything, however, it shows that Arafat is a man of character who insists on survival no matter how high the odds may be. His ability to tread the tightrope “Beirut-Palestine-Beirut” has endeared him to many, skyrocketing his popularity in Arab and Palestinian circles and turning him into a living legend – almost as big as that of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser.

In Palestine, according to a recent study conducted by the Birzeit University, Arafat’s popularity has increased by 14 per cent since the beginning of 2002. However, popular as he is among the Arab masses, Arafat remains an imposed leader on the Arab leaders – someone who is too strategic to be ignored, to powerful to be broken, and too popular to be destroyed.

Of all the leaders assembling in Beirut, most are not sincerely happy that Arafat has survived and, although apparently jubilant at his presence, are secretly annoyed by the fact that Arafat will be the guest of honour.

Syrian stand

The Syrians have long been opposed to Yasser Arafat, criticizing his recent decision to label Hamas and Islamic Jihad – two traditional guests of Syria – as “terrorist organisations.”

In some cases more so than the Israelis, the Syrians are baffled at how long Arafat has managed to survive – outliving the administration of Amin Al Hafez (1963-1965), Noor Al Dinn Al Atassi(1966-1970), Hafez Al Assad (1970-2000) and already occupying the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Although the young Assad has indicated on several occasions his readiness to turn a new page with Arafat, Syria remains host to his main rivals and is categorically opposed to Arafat’s peace terms.

Damascus considers his efforts to curb the violence as an attempt at killing the Intifada which its leadership wholeheartedly believes in. The Assad regime has best put its reaction to Arafat by authorizing city-wide demonstrations on March 24 calling out for the continuation of the Intifada and shunning Arafat’s orders to its leaders to lay down their arms.

In the Damascus demonstration, estimated at one million protestors, slogans were raised calling for more resistance and praising President Bashar Al Assad and his father, the late President Hafez Al Assad while making no mention of Arafat or the Palestinian National Authority.

The Syrians fear that if Arafat shows up at the Beirut Summit he would take away all the glory from other Arab leaders present. He would outflank them all and surely, get his way. He would rally the support of most Arab leaders into endorsing the Saudi Arabian peace initiative, criticizing the armed resistance and calling for a cease-fire.

Lebanon’s leanings

Perhaps, if eloquent enough, Abu Ammar might get the Arab League to issue a statement dubbing the armed resistance groups “terrorist” as the Americans had done earlier last week. He might go as far as to ask for their dispersement and secure Arab support for the purpose. This would ultimately serve Arafat – who almost always gets his way, but it will contradict with everything Syria has been working for.

If Arafat attends, the Syrian team is going to have to stand up to its history and oppose Arafat’s measures and proposals. President Assad will have to live up to his father’s reputation as the vanguard of Arab nationalism and rally a group of Arab hardliners (Iraq, Libya, Lebanon) to his orbit.

The late Assad quarreled with Arafat over leadership of the Palestinian people and championship of the Palestinian cause. Although Assad is dead, the struggle has apparently dragged on into post-Assad Syria. Therefore, the Syrians believe that it would be “nice” to have Arafat in Beirut – symbolically at least, but it would be great if he remained in Ramallah.

The policy of Lebanon is not any different from that of Syria. The Lebanese remember only too well the role that Arafat played in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and many have not forgiven him for the bloodshed. I happened to be discussing Arafat’s case with former Lebanese President Elias Hrawi shortly before the Arab Summit.

He snapped, “I refused to shake his hand (in Cairo) – I even refused to meet him!” He angrily added, “Arafat is directly responsible for all the pain this country went through. It was a Lebanese-Palestinian war – it was never really a Lebanese Civil War.”

This policy, endorsed by Hrawi during his tenure as president from 1990-1998, is still followed by many in Lebanon. The Muslims accuse him of having wrecked Beirut in their name and of having abused their hospitality and transformed his PLO, once perceived as guests, into an army of his own and a part in the inter-Lebanese struggle.

They believe that Arafat had cared more so for his well being during the war years than for that of the Lebanese who had sacrificed so much for him. It was due to Arafat’s policies that Israel attacked and occupied Beirut in 1982, killing off hundreds of Lebanese and destroying what was left of the disintegrating Lebanese state.

Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, current leader of the Lebanese Muslims, was clearly not-so-enthusiastic about Arafat’s visit in an interview with the Doha-based al-Jazeera TV on March 24.

Hariri said Arafat was “welcome” but his presence depended on “prevailing circumstances.” The Christians remember only too well that Arafat was the man who triggered the war in 1975. He wanted to fight a war from their land, they claim, and marginalize their role in Lebanon to make way for his war-oriented Lebanese Muslim allies.

The Christians still speak about Dammour, a village south of Beirut that was ransacked by PLO militias in 1976 and turned into a Palestinian refugee camp and the desecration of the old Christian graveyard.

As for the rest of the Arabs, they too have their reasons for despising Arafat’s showing up in Beirut. Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi expressed his resentment of Arafat’s policies earlier in March, claiming that he will not endorse a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank and will not fall in line with Arafat’s policies towards the armed Islamic resistance.

The Kuwaiti leaders are still upset with Arafat for his support of the Iraqi regime during its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and have been unable to forgive or forget. For their part, the Iraqis, although traditional allies of Arafat, are opposed to his pro-U.S. attitude and his clampdown on the Intifada. Saddam Hussein has fallen in line with President Bashar in calling for continued resistance and shunning any U.S.-imposed peace efforts.

In conclusion, the only two people to benefit from Arafat’s arrival at Beirut International Airport are Arafat himself and Ariel Sharon.

Gulf News, 27 March 2002