Return of the Chairman

It is difficult to work out what Israel has gained - or lost - from the siege on Arafat. Have there been fewer terror attacks? Has the intifada abated? It's also impossible to know how much Arafat's humiliation contributed to Israeli morale.

The affair of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's detention in the Muqata, his headquarters in Ramallah, is once again on the agenda. This time, it is in connection with the Israeli withdrawal, when it happens, from the Gaza Strip. When Egyptian intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman visited Ramallah last week, he heard from Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia (Abu Ala) the routine demand to lift the siege on Arafat. He also said the way to rehabilitate the rule of law and order in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal is to allow Arafat to travel there and supervise matters.

Officially, at least, Arafat can leave his office and his residence at the Muqata whenever he pleases. Israel is not preventing him from doing so. The only thing he has been told is that if he leaves, there is no guarantee he will be able to return.

This sounds frightening to him and therefore he is not coming out. The same applies to Gaza. Israel, so far as is known, is prepared to allow him to go to Gaza, but then he will have to remain there and will not be able to return to Ramallah. Arafat does not agree.

Arafat's interlocutors say his personal situation - the siege imposed on him - is affecting him greatly. Although he has grown accustomed to the prolonged stay in the suite of rooms that remained after the demolishing of most of the buildings in the presidential complex, when he talks about political issues - it is his personal fate that interests him most. What will happen to him? How will he be able to continue to rule? What powers will remain in his hands?

The fact that everyone is interested in having peace and security prevail in Gaza after Israel's withdrawal was instantly exploited by Arafat's close associates to tell Suleiman and others that if the chairman is promised freedom of movement he will arrange matters in Gaza in the best possible way. The Egyptian general transmitted this message to senior people in Israel and it turns out the government is not rejecting the idea out of hand.

In the proposals Suleiman transmitted to Arafat it was said, among other things, that the reform in the Palestinian security services requires "the expansion of the prime minister's security powers." This is the formula published in all the Palestinian media, and presumably Arafat was angry when he saw it.

The expansion of the Palestinian prime minister's powers can have, in this context, only one interpretation - curtailing the chairman's powers. This is almost certainly why two days later, on Wednesday, at the meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament), Arafat's confidant Saeb Erekat said there is a Palestinian law that stipulates the division of powers in the matter of security.

This, he said, is an internal Palestinian matter, and nobody else's business. In other words, Arafat is not conceding anything. It turns out that from the place of his detention in the Muqata, Arafat is successfully controlling what remains to him - or more precisely, he is managing not to let others get rid of him and turn him into a scarecrow.

The public in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has become accustomed to the crumbling of the Palestinian Authority's regime and to the house arrest of its leader. For the Palestinians, the day brings three or four people killed, the demolishing of houses, roadblocks and worsening poverty and against the background of this, the humiliating imprisonment of the chairman is not making much of an impression.

Hana Amira, a member of the PLO steering committee, said at the weekend that lifting the siege on Arafat is not a matter for haggling, and when there is a cease-fire and the diplomatic process is re-started it is clear that Arafat will be free to move around as he was in the past.

It is difficult to work out what Israel has gained - or perhaps has lost - from the siege on Arafat. Have there been fewer terror attacks because of this? Has the intifada abated? It is also impossible to know to what extent the humiliation of Arafat has contributed to Israeli morale.

If there is the shadow of a chance that Arafat will be able to impose order in Gaza after Israel's withdrawal, it is worth trying. This is certainly no balm to the ears of many Israelis, but the clear alternative is anarchy and the rule of Hamas.