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Arafat Under Pressure at Camp David

July 8, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ First as fiery young guerrilla fighter, then as ailing elder statesman, Yasser Arafat has been for four decades the enduring symbol of his people’s statehood hopes.

Now, heading into a U.S.-brokered peace summit a few weeks shy of his 71st birthday, the Palestinian leader has what may be a last, best chance to make that dream a reality.

But Arafat is going reluctantly to this meeting at Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland whose very name evokes that rarest of commodities in Middle East peace efforts: a breakthrough.

Under what is likely to be unrelenting pressure from President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Arafat risks striking the kind of bargain that could leave him branded as a traitor to the very cause he has fought for all his life.

If Arafat’s dream is to be the father of Palestinian statehood, his nightmare is to be known as the leader who lost Jerusalem, or the man who turned his back on millions of Palestinian refugees.

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s summit, the Palestinians have signaled some willingness to be flexible on territorial matters, perhaps trading away tracts of the West Bank that are already given over to large Jewish settlements.

But it would be almost impossible for Arafat to sell a statehood deal to his people that did not include at least a foothold in Jerusalem and Israel’s acknowledgment of the right _ to be exercised or not _ of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they fled or were driven from during Israel’s 1948 war of independence.

Israel says Jerusalem will never be divided, and that the return of all refugees is impossible.

In his years in power, Arafat has weathered bitter political rivalries, eluded assassination attempts and survived a near-fatal air crash. But even so resilient a leader understands the powerful emotional punch carried by issues like Jerusalem and the refugees _ and Arafat knows he cannot afford to be seen by his people as yielding too much.

Many ordinary Palestinians, and perhaps even Arafat himself, would rather see peacemaking efforts break down altogether _ perhaps even descending into violence _ rather than surrender on certain key points.

``Arafat is going to get what the Palestinians need _ this summit will show that he is not a man to fail his people,″ said Abbas Abu Ali, a shopkeeper in the sprawling, dusty Shati refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. ``He will take care of the refugees, and we will have our Jerusalem.″

Paradoxically, while Arafat is genuinely revered as a national symbol, Palestinian public opinion polls consistently turn up low levels of trust in him as a leader.

But no matter how far his popularity slips, no one else can command anything approaching his degree of support. And Arafat has made certain over the years that no other political figure emerges to challenge his authority.

Acutely attuned to public opinion, Arafat has a consistent ability to play to street sentiment even while working behind the scenes to defuse a particularly explosive issue.

The best example of that might be statehood itself. On the one hand, Arafat has recently given rousing speeches saying a unilateral declaration of statehood will occur on Sept. 13 _ the deadline the two sides set to reach a final peace accord _ whether Israel liked it or not.

But last week, even as the Palestinians’ top policymaking body expressed ``determination″ to meet that target date, Arafat was quietly polling the leadership as to whether the Palestinian public would be willing to wait longer for statehood that would come as part of a deal negotiated with Israel.

While Arafat might win some international recognition for a unilaterally declared state, the practical consequences would present enormous hardship for Palestinians, including a halt to vital commerce with and through Israel.

During the summit, Arafat will be playing to world opinion as well as domestic sentiment, and press reports in Israel say the Palestinians will field a high-powered public relations team.

Included in the large Palestinian delegation is Hanan Ashrawi, a former Cabinet minister who is no longer close to Arafat, but served as a memorably articulate spokeswoman for the Palestinian cause when peace efforts began seven years ago.

As during any high-profile international event, Arafat’s age and health are likely to be a subject of speculation. He turns 71 on Aug. 4 and has long displayed symptoms typical of Parkinson’s disease, including tremors of his hand and lip. In recent public appearances, though, he has appeared vigorous and energetic.

In private encounters, the summit may showcase the dramatic cooling of Arafat’s relationship with Barak in the year since the Israeli prime minister took office.

Their earliest public meetings were characterized by friendliness _ long, warm handclasps, repeated references to their role as partners _ but as peace efforts have foundered, the tone of their dealings has become much more adversarial.

Reflecting that, Arafat’s government summoned tough rhetoric as he prepared to head to the summit.

``Our Palestinian nation is more determined than ever to liberate our land and our holy Jerusalem,″ the Palestinian Cabinet declared Friday night after its weekly meeting. ``We will establish an independent Palestinian state, no matter how high the price and how great the sacrifice.″

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