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April 16, 2003

Arafat moves to fill the void in the Arab world

ThisNational Post piece suggests that arabs, feeling humiliated at defeat, have choices. The new Prime Minister --Mazen--can with his people in place bring moderation to the table. Or, ignored, Arafat will once again assume a major leadership role in the anti-West and ant-Israel cause. A cause seen for some time now as a costly course of action for all concerned
[...]In truth, Mr. Arafat is also looking to the wider Arab world. With Saddam Hussein either dead or in hiding; President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan both in trouble with their own population for having given the Americans an amber light to precede in Iraq; and the former ideological leader of the Arab world, President Assad of Syria in his grave; Arafat has moved to fill an important void in the Arab world. Put succinctly, Arafat sees himself as the elder statesman of the Arab world, and crucially its new ideological leader. Ideology here is defined as opposition (real or apparent) to foreign imperial rule (Israel or the United States).

His timing could not have been more significant for it would not be an over-dramatization to suggest that the coming weeks are the most important in the Palestinian national movement's history since 1948. With the stakes so high it is little wonder the power struggle between what we can loosely term "the modernists" or "reformers" in the Palestinian Authority and the old school "unreformed revolutionaries" is so bitter. The Prime Minister was a protegé of Arafat and serves as his deputy, but in recent months the two have come to represent what one Palestinian commentator termed the future and the past.

Mazen should be congratulated on appointing a Cabinet that keeps control of Palestinian security and finances away from Mr. Arafat and his unreformed revolutionaries. His major problem, however, remains that he is not particularly popular among Palestinians. And it is here that Arafat is using the Iraq war to further undermine Mazen's position within Palestinian society with his appeal to popular sentiment. Sadly, once more it appears Arafat is putting his own personal and political survival above and beyond the needs of the population.

From all this it is clear the United States needs to handle Arafat delicately, or risk allowing him to assume the mantle of Arab hero with his self-serving attempts at restoring Arab honour. Among all this politicking should be remembered that Mazen offers the best way forward for both the Palestinian population and for the region. These are tense times, but if he holds his nerve and the United States and Israel offer just enough to help him without making him appear a stooge there may be a real opportunity to advance the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians that are already under way in secret.

The alternative is allowing Arafat to turn the current anti-American sentiment into a justification for continuing an armed struggle against Israel.[more]