U.S. relations with Yasser Arafat, now at a low, filled with hope, disappointment

Breakthroughs and frustrations

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The White House lawn, where Yasser Arafat once found his longed-for legitimacy, could soon be fenced off to him.

President Bush, accepting Israel's claims that Arafat is ultimately responsible for a boatload of weapons seized earlier this month, is considering cutting off relations with the Palestinian leader.

Earning the recognition of the world's only superpower has been a high achievement for Arafat and remains central to Mideast peace-dealing. It led Bush in November to outline a vision of Palestinian statehood that was the most explicit ever in embracing Palestinian aspirations.

In exchange, Arafat forced militants to observe a cease-fire for a short while. But goodwill dissipated after Israeli commandoes seized a ship hauling tons of weapons. Arafat insists he was not involved in their purchase; Bush says he is ''enhancing terror.''

''This is now the lowest point in the relationship between Arafat and the United States'' since the heady peacemaking days of 1993, said Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied the conflict for 20 years.

On a sunny September day in 1993, Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made a promise of peace between their people and sealed the deal with by awkwardly clasping hands to shouts and applause from thousands gathered on the White House lawn.

President Clinton hailed the two for having ''the courage to lead their people toward peace, away from the scars of battle, the wounds and the losses of the past, toward a brighter tomorrow.''

That was the culmination of Arafat's decades-long struggle for legitimacy. For 19 years before, he had been denied entry into the United States and had been snubbed by American officialdom.

The first breakthrough came in 1988. Having earned world sympathy a year into the first Palestinian uprising, Arafat accepted U.N. resolutions that implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist. The United States responded by recognizing his Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Ties were on a low level -- the U.S. ambassador in Tunis met with midlevel Palestinian officials -- but with Arafat's Soviet patrons fading, it was a much needed ticket to Western legitimacy. Within months, European leaders welcomed the former pariah as a statesman.

Under U.S. pressure for a more explicit recognition of Israel, Arafat told a French reporter that articles in the Palestinian charter calling for Israel's destruction were ''caduc,'' a little-used French word meaning ''outmoded.''

Israeli officials pointed out that ''outmoded'' fashions had a habit of coming back, but Arafat refused to get more specific.

It was the first sign of an ambiguity -- attempting to please the United States while winking at Palestinian hard-liners -- that came to characterize Arafat's peacemaking. Instead of assuaging the Americans, he often frustrated them.

''At most, Arafat has been prepared to take half-measures,'' said Martin Indyk, a former senior U.S. diplomat involved in Clinton-era negotiations who now favors punitive measures against Arafat.

In 1991, flush with its Gulf War victory, the first Bush administration convened talks in Madrid and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sat at the same table for the first time.

The 1992 election of Rabin, an Israeli hawk turned dove, accelerated the negotiations, and in 1993 history was made on the White House lawn.

The Palestinians granted Israel limited recognition -- Israel's ''existence'' was fine, they said, but its ''right to exist'' was still taboo -- and Israel handed Arafat most of the Gaza Strip and a foothold in the West Bank.

Frustrated with Israel's slowness to concede more land, Arafat refused U.S. entreaties to crack down on Islamic militants. A series of suicide bombings in early 1996 killed scores of Israelis, and led Israelis to elect the hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

Netanyahu's attempt to roll back Palestinian gains drove the Clinton administration closer to Arafat. In October 1998, Clinton nudged Netanyahu to allow the CIA to monitor security agreements, an unprecedented level of U.S. involvement that unsettled Israelis, but which the Palestinians welcomed.

With the return of a dovish Israeli government to power in 1999, Clinton pressed hard for a permanent resolution.

He got both sides to the table at Camp David in the summer of 2000.

In probably the deepest ever involvement of a U.S. administration in foreign peacekeeping, Clinton put in long hours for 17 days, and leaned on Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak to stay at the Maryland compound.

Barak conceded more than his predecessors -- including a stake in Jerusalem -- but Arafat balked at giving up the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a concession that would have meant permanent, unqualified recognition of Israel.

Clinton's failure at Camp David -- and the ensuing eruption of a bloody Palestinian uprising -- led Bush to lower the U.S. profile in the region. He has refused so far to meet Arafat, although he has met hard-line Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon three times.

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