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Arafat and the Palestinian question

Is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in trouble - and should non-Palestinians care about Palestinian politics, anyway?

The answers to these questions are: Yes, kind of; and yes, definitely.

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For 35 years Mr. Arafat, now the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has been the best-known face of the Palestinian leadership. But in recent weeks, he and his closest cronies have been stridently criticized by activists in his own political-military movement, Fatah. This criticism, the "office arrest" that Israel has imposed on him for more than two years, and the Bush administration's refusal to deal with him unless he completes a thorough reform of the PA have weakened him considerably.

His situation looks precarious. But seasoned Palestinian commentatorsall agree: Don't bet on him losing his leadership position anytime soon.

Most Palestinians feel themselves caught between a rock and a very hard place. Nearly all of them agree that most Arafat cronies are corrupt and that the PA under Arafat has been incapable of defending them against the onslaughts they've experienced from Israel during the past 10 years. Many Palestinians note that the Oslo accords of 1993, which were the centerpiece of Arafat's policy until 2000, did not bring them the independence he had promised and failed even to halt Israel's continued expropriation of Palestinian land.

But since 2002, Israel and its main financial backer, the United States, have been openly calling for Arafat's ouster. Ironically, it is precisely those calls from Israel and Washington that have prevented most Palestinian reformers from openly calling on him to resign.

Thus, when angry Fatah reformers met in Nablus at the beginning of August, they loudly criticized people around Arafat - but not Arafat himself. When nationalist activists stormed a key PA office in Gaza, they successfully called for the ouster of new office chief Musa Arafat - but not of his boss and cousin, Yasser Arafat.

Other Palestinians have gravitated to the Palestinian Islamic groups, especially Hamas. Hamas is seen as less corrupt than Fatah, and more responsive to the Palestinians' pressing socioeconomic needs. Its militancy against Israel has - in a time of national humiliation - won it the respect of many, but not all, Palestinians.

Now, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is talking seriously about withdrawing from Gaza - and Hamas activists say it is only their militancy that has forced him to do so.

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These trends in Palestinian politics are extremely important to the US, because Washington's recent policies on the Palestinian issue are cited by Muslims worldwide as one of the main reasons for their strong opposition to Washington.

It may be true that Mr. Sharon is now willing to pull back from the tiny, overpopulated Gaza Strip. But what Muslims around the world see is that he continues to implant thousands of new Israeli settlers each month into the West Bank, including East Jerusalem - a holy city for Muslims, as well as Jews and Christians. When Washington continues to give Israel generous and unconditional support despite Sharon's pursuit of the West Bank settlement project, that seriously undercuts US ability to win Muslim support in the campaign against global terrorism.

How could Washington reform its policy in a way that serves both US interests and values? It needn't be so hard. A smart first step would be to spell out America's understanding that any prolonged practice of rule by military occupation is a bad thing. It would have been a bad thing in Iraq, which was why Washington made way for a local administration there after just 15 months of occupation. But Israel has been ruling Palestinians through military occupation for 37 years. That must end. The Palestinians must be allowed to rule themselves - in all of the West Bank and Gaza.

How can this happen while Palestinian society is in turmoil and Hamas is growing stronger daily? The best way would be through a speedy, authoritative negotiation, under joint US-UN sponsorship, of the final-status relationship between Israel and the Palestinian state that nearly everyone now says they want. Because of the present political turmoil - among Israelis as well as Palestinians - all interested parties, on both sides of the national divide, should be invited to join these talks. The US and the UN should jointly agree that all financial and political aid from outsiders would be used to structure peace incentives, rather than - as US aid has been used for many years by Israel - simply to perpetuate an unjust military occupation. And when the negotiators come to an agreement, the results should be presented to both peoples in parallel referendums.

What values could be more American than the end of occupation, negotiations for peace, the responsible use of international aid, and national popular referendums on the terms of the agreement?

President Bush could, any day he wants, take the first, key step of restating US opposition to prolonged rule through military occupation. That would win considerable supportive interest throughout the Muslim world. Convening the peace conference itself could happen right after the US election. And if Arafat is still in charge then, he, Sharon, the head of Hamas, and the heads of all major Israeli parties should be invited to attend. It would be quite a challenge. Let's see who would come.

Helena Cobban is a co-author of 'When the Rain Returns: Toward Justice and Reconciliation in Palestine and Israel,' recently published by the American Friends Service Committee.