Signs of a Turning Point for Arafat

The combination of a moderate Palestinian position in an Arab forum along with indications that Arafat is determined to prove that there is only one legally empowered Palestinian may indicate that the turning point that Israel has sought since the start of the intifada is finally at hand.

The secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, had an exhausting day last Thursday. From the outset he had no desire to convene the foreign ministers of the league's member-states, as he knew there would be a stormy debate with the Syria-Lebanon branch over the Palestinian issue. Once again, he would find himself caught between the pressure exerted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who would demand that more moderate resolutions be adopted concerning Israel, and his own personal aspiration - so far unrealized - to bring about a more toughly worded resolution. The result, inevitably, would be to intensify the already serious rift within the ranks of the league.

Moussa, in a short press conference he held after the meeting, resorted to verbal contortions to answer sharp questions - sharp because the resolutions adopted by the meeting, which were moderate in character, and which were agreed to by the representatives of the Palestinian Authority, did not satisfy the journalists, especially the Palestinians among them.

This time the situation was new and somewhat strange. An Egyptian-Jordanian-Palestinian bloc overrode a Syrian-Lebanese draft resolution calling for a total break in relations with Israel. Moreover, the Palestinians were angry at Syria, which scolded them for their readiness to agree to a cease-fire with Israel and for turning against Hamas.

The Palestinians viewed Damascus's attitude as intervention in the internal affairs of Palestine. In other words, if the Palestinians want to continue holding talks with Israel, that's their business.

On top of this, when Moussa was asked about the internal battle against Hamas, and more especially about Washington's addition of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the list of terrorist organizations, he evaded the obstacle in a fascinating way: We need unity of ranks now in connection with the Palestinian leadership, he stated.

No less interesting was his reply to the question posed by a Palestinian reporter who wanted to know why the Arab League wasn't demanding compensation from Israel for those who were hurt in the struggle. "If you fight against the enemy - you have to know that this is the price of the struggle," Moussa said.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad need not pin their hopes on the Arab League. Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, with the tacit agreement of most of the Arab states, made it clear that the two organizations are dangerous in the perception of the majority of the Arab leaders and also that they expect Arafat to "unite the ranks" behind him. They also made it plain again that the ties between Israel and the Arab states that were established in peace treaties are not a matter for manipulation, not even by "sister" states.

Arafat got the go-ahead to pursue his campaign against Hamas, no less than he got the go-ahead to continue the struggle against Israel.

This event, which may not constitute a genuine contribution to the promotion of the political process or to bring about the cessation of the armed struggle, is important for understanding the new contours that mark the position of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. A series of moves by Arafat all go beyond mere showcase actions: He helped block acceptance of the Syrian-Lebanese position; aligned himself with Egyptian-Jordanian policy; launched a drive against Hamas that has already gone beyond the standard round of arrests or shutting down offices of no importance; used the expression "suicide operations" instead of "self-sacrifice" to describe the attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in his speech last Sunday; tellingly cited United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (of December 11, 1948) instead of the phrase "right of return"; and authorized security coordination meetings with Israel.

This combination of a moderate Palestinian position - not toward Israel but in an Arab forum - along with indications on the ground that Arafat is determined to prove that there is only one legally empowered Palestinian Authority that is running the show - may indicate that the turning point that Israel has sought since the start of the intifada is finally at hand. This may also be the most appropriate moment to move ahead, however incrementally, by making a goodwill gesture toward Arafat. For example, by releasing the Palestinian funds that Israel is holding, opening some of the areas under closure and setting a date for a first substantive political discussion between the sides.