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Concern for Arafat May Not Go Deep

Times Staff Writer

For almost four decades, Yasser Arafat has been lionized as the symbol of the Palestinians’ struggle for liberation. But as he lies, reportedly near death, in a Paris hospital, sorrow among Arabs appears faint, and in some quarters there is a sense of relief.

Regional analysts say Arafat became a leader who held on to power too long, and whose passing might provide a fresh opportunity to advance peace with Israel and the Palestinian cause.

French medical officials and the Palestinian delegation in Paris said there was no change Sunday in the condition of the 75-year-old leader, but there were suggestions that those around him believed he was very close to death.

Palestinian sources said Sunday that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei was to travel to Paris today, accompanied by Mahmoud Abbas, the former premier who has emerged as the top official in Arafat’s absence, and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath.

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But the visit appeared in question after Arafat’s wife said in an emotional television interview today that the top Palestinian officials’ visit to her husband was an attempt to “bury [him] alive.”

“I appeal to you to be aware of the scope of the conspiracy. They are trying to bury Abu Amr alive,” Suha Arafat said on Al Jazeera satellite television, using her husband’s nom de guerre.

Israeli media had reported that it was likely Arafat would be taken off any life-support machines during the high-level visit.

Earlier Sunday, senior Palestinian officials gathered in Arafat’s battle-scarred compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah and approved a plan for restoring law and order in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Although the initiative was formulated some time ago after factional fighting, it represented the first major decision by the Palestinian leadership since Oct. 29, when Arafat was airlifted to Paris for medical treatment.

In Israel, senior officials Sunday reiterated their intention to deny Arafat’s reported wish to be buried in Jerusalem. They said plans were being made for the funeral to be held in the Gaza Strip. Israeli media reports quoted Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz as telling a closed-door Cabinet session that the army had all but completed its preparations for the event.

Mofaz also said it appeared that the Palestinian leadership was taking measures to quell any violence that might arise with the funeral or a transfer of power.

After a weekend of near-silence from French officials, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told the LCI television network that Arafat was alive, but “in a very serious condition.... I would say it is a very complex condition, very serious, and stable.”

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If there are mixed feelings about Arafat’s anticipated death, it reflects “a striving for fresh air in the region,” said Mohammed Sayed Said, an Egyptian political scientist at Cairo’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Over the years, Said said, Arafat had clashed with many, if not most, Arab governments and irritated his supporters with his style and his desire to maintain control over all aspects of Palestinian life. Countries that financed his movement for a Palestinian state, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, at times found Arafat to openly oppose their policies, he said.

“He was certainly never a lackey to Egypt, or any other Arab country for that matter,” he said. “Nevertheless, he was recognized by all countries as the undisputed leader for the Palestinians.”

A smooth transition to a more predictable Palestinian leader might be more “comfortable” for a country such as Egypt, he said.

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Said said Arafat would be mourned, but that it would be a mourning by Arabs for “their own tragedies” over the last 40 years -- their defeats and failure to recover territory from Israel.

“I personally never ceased to criticize him,” Said said of Arafat. “But I, too, will be mourning him in that sense.”

Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo, said he expected no change in sympathy toward Palestinians once Arafat is gone.

He said that Arafat’s reputation had been tarnished in recent years by allegations of corruption and former President Clinton’s accusations that he had hindered the peace process.

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“In spite of that, people held Arafat in rather high esteem,” Kazziha said. “Of course, some will say that he has outlived his time. Most Arab leaders have outlived their time, and change and reform is required.

“And I guess his departure without having a state, there is a personal tragedy in it. But from my point of view, I think he has achieved a lot.”

Arafat managed to unite a people physically and ideologically fragmented after 1948, and get them to focus on a single demand for a Palestinian state, Kazziha said. “He established a Palestinian national sentiment and almost created a nation out of refugees,” he said.

Stressing that the Palestinians “now have a foothold,” he says Arafat “is someone who started with nothing and ended up with something -- maybe not what everybody expected or wanted, but it was a good start.”

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Abdallah abu Romman, editor in chief of the independent weekly newspaper Al Miraa in Jordan, was more critical. He accused Arafat of helping to engineer much of the Palestinians’ misfortune by his mistakes and his refusal to relinquish power.

“His main goal was to make sure he was the No. 1 guy,” Romman said. “He turned the Palestinian movement into a bunch of gangs.”

With Arafat out of the picture, he said, the United States could assume a more conciliatory role and push Israel to make concessions for a Palestinian state.

Some Arabs now see Arafat as irrelevant. Businessman Tawfic Hathat, 37, said Arafat was “like a logo, like a generic symbol for the whole cause. I haven’t heard anything about him for months -- not until he got sick.”

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Times staff writers Ashraf Khalil in Amman, Jordan, Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Laura King in Jerusalem and Reuters news service contributed to this report.


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