Background / Arafat, Geneva, and the Power of No

It can come in many guises, in the form of obfuscation or obstinacy, misdirection or tantrum, the height of charm or the depth of petulance. But its essence is one: The Power of No. In the case of the Geneva Accord, it can even come disguised as a Yes.

It is the only power that Yasser Arafat has left. But it can be deadly in accuracy and effect.

It can come in many guises, in the form of obfuscation or obstinacy, misdirection or tantrum, the height of charm or the depth of petulance. But its essence is one: The Power of No.

In the case of the Geneva Accord, it can even come disguised as a Yes.

In trademark style, waiting until the last possible moment - and then some - an Arafat resolutely determined to defeat explicit Israeli efforts to render him "irrelevant" kept Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush and even his own loyalists guessing as to where he stood on the unofficial peace plan. This, even though there there were strong grounds to conclude that Arafat himself was behind much of the document.

Only after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his spokesman and a host of other Israeli officials condemned the Accord as subversive and deathly dangerous to Israel, did Arafat emerge with an eleventh-hour statement of support.

But it was double-edged support at best, as Arafat included a concurrent call for implementation of UN Security Council resolution 194, the one measure that an overwhelming number of Israelis - including all the Israeli co-authors of the Geneva Accord - categorically reject as tantamount to inviting Arabs to annihilate the Jewish state by legal means.

Resolution 194 advocates the principle of allowing Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee the newly created Israel in the 1948 war, the choice of return to Israel proper or acceptance of compensation. By extension, it suggests the wider principle of the right of return, which Palestinian hardliners apply to refugees of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole.

Israeli proponents of the Geneva plan maintain that in accepting the text, the Palestinians have effectively, if not explicitly, renounced the right of return, while the Israeli side has sacrificed its claims to sovereignty over the Temple Mount or Noble Sanctuary, the large plateau which overlooks the Jewish Western Wall and on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are situated.

The right of return may be the one negotiating issue on which there is near wall-to-wall consensus in Israel. By extension if not in fact, it poses the potential threat of displacement to any Jewish resident of Israel.

So sensitive is the point, that former Israeli cabinet minister and Geneva co-architect Yossi Beilin, speaking before the Geneva launch gala Monday, went out of his way to tell Israeli radio audiences that opposition to the right of return was a "red line" that would not be crossed under any circumstances.

Beilin's statements notwithstanding, even some leading moderate members of Beilin's former political home, the Labor Party, were skeptical to the point of dismissal of the Accord as a whole.

Former Labor cabinet minister MK Matan Vilnai said Tuesday that the Geneva Accord authors had put Palestinian demands for recognition of the right of return through a 'word laundry' that allowed both opponents and advocates of the principle to cite Security Council resolution 194, while declaring that Palestinians had, in fact, renounced it.

Vilnai said the opposite was the case. "Recognition of 194 is the basis for international legitimization of the right of return," he said.

Throughout the Oslo peace process and its disastrous aftermath of the intifada, the wily Arafat has consistently put himself at center stage by ostentatiously waiting in the wings.

As early as 1994, bare months after the Oslo process began, then-foreign minister Shimon Peres found himself forced to literally drag Arafat onto a Cairo auditorium stage in order to sign the initial agreements that paved the way for Israel's initial military withdrawals from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

It was that scene, the recalcitrant Arafat and the anxious Peres, repeated a thousand times in Likud election commercials in 1996, that helped Likud challenger Benjamin Netanyahu to an upset victory in prime ministerial elections two years later.

By this decade, Arafat had refined the process further, resisting Ehud Barak's entreaties to enter a Camp David meeting room, then tantalizingly keeping at arm's length - for months - the former prime minister's mounting offers of concessions.

Arafat, choosing his words, deeds, non-statements and inactions with exquisite care, later effectively finished off Barak as a first-time politician by deferring cease-fire offers at the beginning of the Palestinian uprising.

At the same time, in public comments in Arabic, he signaled - but refrained from explicitly declaring - support for the intifada's shahidim, or holy martyrs, a term that quickly became identified in the public mind, in Israel as well as the Palestinian territories, with suicide bombers.

For opponents of Arafat on the Israeli right, Monday's festive launch in the Swiss lakeside resort city supplied a wealth of new ammunition in an old war.

"The only person who can really be pleased today and rub his hands together in pleasure, the only one who really won an enormous victory in Geneva, both against us and against the Americans, is Yasser Arafat," said senior Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the influential Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

According to Steinitz, Arafat was the true "backstage producer" of the launch ceremony, from its origins with PA cabinet ministers, and through ostensibly grass-roots Fatah demonstrations that physically threatened PA delegates leaving the Palestinian territories for Geneva. "The voice was the voice of Beilin, but the hands were the hands of Arafat."

In fact, Arafat's behavior may have also served the Israeli right in a battle that hawks have waged for nearly as long, and with nearly equal ferocity - discrediting Yossi Beilin.

For long hours on the eve of the Geneva launch, as fiery Fatah street activists kept Palestinian delegates at bay, and PA officials waited for a nod or a wink from Arafat in order to decide whether to make the journey, the Chairman simultaneously hung Beilin out to dry, leaving the plainly exasperated Beilin to meet the press without a clue as to whether Palestinians would boycott the festivities or not.

As a result, a day before the Geneva launch, the Israeli right had already declared that Palestinian support for the plan was tissue-thin, that it hinged on Arafat's whims, and that there was, in the end, really no genuine partner for negotiations.

The feverishly noncommittal stance also allowed Arafat to tacitly maintain the pose of the defiant hardliner, without expressing outright opposition to the plan.

"Unequivocally, Arafat deserves congratulations, for having proved his street wisdom," Steinitz said. "He is much wiser and more cunning than Yossi Beilin, and succeeded by means of the self-deception of Beilin and his friends, in delivering a severe blow to Israel and the United States, and to the chances of peace in the context of the road map."

Where does the canny Chairman actually stand on the unofficial Accord? "When the identity of the Palestinian composers of the document was made public, numerous members of the Palestinian leadership let it be known that the document was largely the product of Arafat's initiative," Haaretz commentator and Arafat biographer Danny Rubinstein wrote this week.

"That being the case, it was a little strange to discover the extent to which Arafat and his associates avoided showing any open and explicit support for the accord," Rubinstein continued, noting that at times this week, Arafat seemed to tip his hand in both a positive and negative direction. "This is classic Arafat behavior. He prefers to wait it out and see which way the public wind is blowing."

At present - despite trends showing increasing Arab amd Jewish willingness for compromise - that wind still appears to be blowing less than warmly in the direction of moderation.

"Arafat is afraid of expressing open and clear support for the document because if he does so, many in the Palestinian public would rise up against him," Rubinstein argues.

"They would tell him that he was being hasty to concede the right of return, which is a holy asset of the Palestinians, and will ask him what he is getting in return - the completion of the separation fence and the strengthening of the settlements.

"In other words, 'You made an agreement with a few Israeli leftists, and the Sharon government is ridiculing them and you.'"