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April 28, 2003

Arafat Says He Won't Be Sidelined<

Shunted aside by all respectable parties, still Arafat rages on, assuming he and he alone will bring about a state for the Palestinians.
Yasser Arafat insisted Monday he would not be shunted aside by a Palestinian political shake-up and said his old nemesis, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was not ready to pay the price for peace.

On the eve of a landmark session of the Palestinian parliament to confirm incoming Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his cabinet, the Palestinian president told the Israeli newspaper Maariv he had no intention of fading away.

"I am the elected president of the Palestinian people ... the whole world knows this," Arafat was quoted as saying in his battered West Bank compound. "I plan to welcome the many leaders who will come here to Ramallah to meet me in the coming weeks."

Arafat has recently received a trickle of visits by European diplomats, and despite Israeli objections, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi plans to meet him Tuesday.

But the United States has followed Israel's lead and shunned Arafat, accusing him of not doing enough to rein in Palestinian militants -- an allegation he denies.

Keeping up the pressure, Israeli forces backed by helicopter gunships raided the Jenin refugee camp, where witnesses said troops shot and killed an unarmed 16-year-old boy. The army said it killed a gunman while arresting a "senior terrorist."

Last week, Arafat -- under intense international pressure -- reached a compromise with Abbas on a cabinet made up of Arafat loyalists as well as critics and reformers.

The central committee of Arafat's Fatah movement, the majority party in parliament, gave its backing to Abbas's cabinet Monday. Lawmakers will meet Tuesday and hold a confidence vote later in the day or Wednesday.

Washington has pledged to unveil a "road map," once Abbas takes office, aimed at reviving negotiations after 30 months of bloodshed. Progress toward Middle East peace could ease Arab anti-American sentiment stoked by the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

While ceding some powers to Abbas, Arafat -- the icon of Palestinian nationalism since the 1960s -- has made clear he intends to retain considerable clout.

Sharon has offered to meet Abbas, a leading moderate, and has spoken in vague terms about making "painful compromises."


But Arafat told Maariv: "Sharon is not prepared to pay the price of peace."

Sharon's right-wing government has put Abbas on notice that he should not expect any significant confidence-building measures, such as troop pullbacks in the West Bank and Gaza, until he wages a "serious fight against terrorism."

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz said Abbas would use his inaugural speech to call for an end to the use of arms to achieve Palestinian independence. But a political source said Abbas may only reiterate his opposition to Palestinian attacks.

Abbas said Sunday he would not visit foreign capitals to discuss peace until Israel allowed Arafat to travel freely. Analysts say Abbas fears that accepting a White House invitation now would make him look like a U.S. lackey in Palestinian eyes.

Asked what Sharon wanted, Arafat repeated his oft-stated view of a personal vendetta.

"I think that this whole thing started in 1982 when I caused him to lose his medals, as well as his position as defense minister," he told Maariv.

Sharon, as defense minister, directed Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon that led to a siege of Arafat in Beirut. Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters were forced to evacuate under international protection.

Sharon resigned after an Israeli government panel found him indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

Sharon last year expressed regret to an interviewer that Israel did not kill Arafat when it had a chance in Lebanon.