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Savoring Middle East's Ironies

The PLO's pact with Israel gives Arafat the last laugh over Arab leaders who used Palestinian aspirations to advance their own interests

MUCH of the commentary to date about the stupendous agreements of Israel and the PLO concerning mutual recognition and the declaration of principles on self-rule has centered, quite understandably, on the complicated implementation phases yet to come.

My hope, however, is that we take time to appreciate the rich historical irony being played out before our eyes. We are witnessing, in effect, the liberation of Palestinian nationalism from the smothering embrace of Arab politics. What is remarkable is Israel's role as the midwife in this incredible rebirth of a fully independent Palestinian national movement.

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Often overlooked in the drama of Israel's uneasy existence as an independent state has been the double-edged struggle of its archenemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization. Not only have Yasser Arafat and his associates had to confront the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but they have simultaneously struggled to maintain their freedom of action in Arab circles. Most of the PLO's genuine life-and-death challenges have involved not Israel, but the Arab states often casually characterized in the Western media as ``allies'' of the PLO. The PLO has no allies and no friends. Mr. Arafat has, in effect, come to terms with the least deadly of his enemies.

Some of the ironies are wondrous. Although Arafat and his associates received much publicity as guerrillas, their attempts at ``armed resistance'' have been mostly ineffective and, when they involved Israel's neighbors, nearly suicidal. Back-to-back assaults on the PLO in Lebanon by Israel in 1982 and Syria in 1983 helped convince the usually quiescent Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank that their reliance on Arafat's military ``prowess'' was misplaced.

Only by taking matters into their own hands by means of the intifadah, a spontaneous outbreak in 1987 that took the PLO by surprise, were the Palestinians in the territories able, in the end, to help convince Israel to rescue an increasingly marginalized Arafat.

Founded in 1964 as a tool of Egyptian statecraft, the PLO did not emerge as a truly independent organization until Arafat took it over in 1968. The ``Palestinian cause'' had become, in the 1950s and for most of the 1960s, a weapon that Arab leaders used to great effect against one another. In 1964, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to formalize his control of the weapon by creating the PLO. The disastrous June 1967 war, however, knocked the weapon out of his hands, while Syria's and Jordan's participation in the fiasco prevented them from picking it up. Led by Arafat, a coalition of armed Palestinian factions took control. The first heyday of Palestinian ``independence,'' as a sort of Arab state-in-exile, began.

If Arafat is eventually to be regarded as the George Washington of a future independent Palestine, historians will be quick to observe that he, like Washington, lost far more battles than he won. One of the rich ironies of his political struggle is that the PLO was invariably most vulnerable whenever it was able to establish an organized conventional military presence.

By September 1970, Palestinian military forces in Jordan, most of which were answerable to Arafat, presented a significant challenge to the rule of King Hussein. Backed steadily into a corner, Mr. Hussein finally unleashed his armed forces, reaffirming Hashemite rule in Jordan and relocating Arafat's battered military apparatus to Lebanon.

IN Lebanon, Arafat permitted his military to become embroiled in a civil war: a conflict caused, in no small measure, by his use of southern Lebanon as a base for artillery attacks on and guerrilla raids into Israel. With his choice of Lebanese collaborators, Arafat managed to bring Israelis and Syrians down upon his head. In June 1982, Israel virtually crushed the PLO's military presence in Beirut and points south within Lebanon. In 1983, Syria's Hafez al-Assad, every bit as opposed to Arafat's independence as was Israel's Menachem Begin, all but finished the job, routing Arafat's remaining forces in the north of Lebanon.

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Shorn of the albatross of a sizeable military infrastructure, Arafat retreated to Tunis and began refocusing the PLO's political attention on the occupied territories. Shimon Peres, briefly prime minister in the mid-1980s, made a serious effort to engage Arafat indirectly through Jordan. The Peres-Hussein-Arafat peace process foundered, Likud took power of Israel, and the Palestinians in the territories eventually took matters into their own hands.

By the time President Bush launched the American-sponsored peace process in late 1991, Arafat's PLO seemed very much to be in a terminal downswing. Israelis and Palestinian ``rejectionists'' assassinated key aides to Arafat. Direct discussions between the PLO and the United States in Tunis, initiated in 1988, were terminated as a result of typically slipshod but brutal acts of terrorism organized by elements within the PLO. Surprised by the intifadah and unable to control it, the PLO found itself challenged within the occupied territories by a new organization (Hamas) seeking to use Islam as a unifying political theme. Then Arafat chose to support Saddam Hussein. Yet for all of his blundering, in the end Israel identified Arafat as the only way out of an impasse created by deadlocked autonomy negotiations and continued, roiling discontent in the territories.

For the moment, at least, Arafat is enjoying an interim last laugh at the expense of Mr. Assad and the late Nasser, Arab leaders who have tried to capture the Palestinian cause, not to ``liberate'' Palestine from Zionism, but to promote their own status within Arab circles. After decades of maneuvering, much of it ill-conceived but none of it fatal, Arafat has demonstrated that his eye is still on the ball. By seizing the opportunity presented by Israel, Arafat has asserted the political independence of the Palestinian movement within the Arab world.

By offering such an opportunity to Arafat, Israel may render worthless whatever ``Palestinian card'' its enemies think they have.

History will show that Arafat and the Israelis have acted wisely. A backward glance from today's vantage point suggests that they have boldly and courageously disarmed their common enemies. Implementation is, of course, everything. Yet the very audacity of what they have done has amazed even the most jaded observers of Middle East politics. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by amil to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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