Arafat's Empty Chair

Ut looks as if Israel keeps Arafat from attending the Arab summit meeting, his empty chair will oblige the participants to make some sort of political gesture toward the PA- further compensation for the political, in addition to the human, suffering the Palestinians are enduring.

"We do not demand a full withdrawal before normalization begins, nor do we say the opposite, that is, normalization before a full withdrawal," the important Egyptian publicist Mohammed Sid Ahmed wrote on Thursday in the Cairo daily Al-Ahram. "Interim solutions have to be found that will satisfy both sides."

Sid Ahmed is proposing a program of stages, such as will provide a "dose" of normalization for every "dose" of withdrawal. His proposal tries to bypass the most dangerous landmine of the Saudi initiative, namely that the refusal of even one Arab state is enough to torpedo the entire initiative, as the resolutions of the summit meeting have to be passed unanimously.

However, in the course of the extensive discussion of the Saudi plan that has been going on for some weeks now, another, equally important issue has also been overlooked. The handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has now passed to the Arab states. It was Saudi Arabia, in coordination with Egypt and Jordan, that created this new axis of discussion between the Arab states and the United States, Europe and Russia; and Syria that insisted on amending the original formulation, to replace the term "full normalization" with the term "full peace," and all this without asking Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat what he thinks. As though this were an infant whose parents are the only ones permitted to act for him and in his name.

Similarly, in the public discussion of the initiative, whether in the Arab press or in interview programs on satellite television, the main spokesmen are not Palestinians but Arab intellectuals who put forward Arab - not necessarily Palestinian - opinions. It's as though the initiative has nothing to do with Arafat's status or with resolving the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.

"That impression is not mistaken," says an Egyptian publicist. "We have been writing for a few weeks now that this intifada is not leading anywhere." The chairman of the foreign relations committee of the Egyptian parliament made it clear in a trenchant article that a shift was needed in the form of talk about negotiations instead of about the continuation of the fighting; and the opposition, for its part, is accusing the supporters of the initiative of wanting American money.

"That is true," the publicist says. "The Arab states have interests that are unrelated to the Palestinian problem, and they were what generated the turn according to which the axis of the discussion now is now between the Arab states and the Americans. In the past few days it has even seemed to some people that the worse things are for the Palestinians, the greater the Arab influence becomes."

The two latest examples are Resolution 1397, passed last week by the Security Council of the United Nations, which recognizes a future Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the harsh rhetoric leveled by President Bush at Israel for its policy in the territories.

Apparently even the question of whether Arafat will be allowed to leave the territories and attend the summit meeting in Beirut is no longer especially interesting. Saddam Hussein, too, does not attend summits, and his absence does not stop the Arab leaders from holding discussions about Iraq or adopting a uniform policy in connection with the Baghdad regime. Moreover, it looks as though precisely if Israel keeps Arafat from attending the summit meeting, his empty chair will oblige the participants in the conference to make some sort of political gesture toward the Palestinians - further compensation for the political, in addition to the human, suffering the Palestinians are enduring.

"An Arab leader who is under siege, or a leader who is absent from an Arab event, draws greater attention than a leader who is present," says the Egyptian publicist. "Suddenly everyone is anxious about his honor and everyone is committed to the effort on his behalf. They all become his loyal representatives."

If Arafat does not attend the summit, the Arab leaders will this time be the representatives of Palestine as an Arab problem and not Palestine as Arafat's problem. They may take the negotiations into their own hands in Arafat's name. They apparently understand what Israel has so far failed to grasp. They are not waiting for the next generation or for the third generation of the Palestinians to conduct negotiations with Israel. Because the coming generations are liable to rebel not only against Arafat, but against the Arab world itself and create a government of juntas that will resonate throughout the Arab world. The Arab leaders, split among themselves, like external harmony that preserves the status quo and respects what has long endured and is rich. The next generation of Palestinians is liable not to accept the rules of the club, or to run roughshod over it.