Restricting Yasser Arafat
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MARGARET WARNER: Joining me is Serge Schmemann, who’s reporting from Jerusalem for The New York Times.
Serge, this situation about whether Yasser Arafat is going to the Arab summit seems to change hour by hour. The latest report we’re getting is Palestinians saying Arafat has decided not to go. What’s your understanding? Is that a firm decision?
SERGE SCHMEMANN: Well, in this part of the world, everything is a firm decision, and they often change, so you can never trust this being the last words, but the day’s events basically were that Sharon set fairly stringent conditions on Arafat’s trip. He said Arafat would have to announce in Arabic that there is a cease-fire, and that he, Sharon, would have to have permission from the United States to bar Arafat from returning if he… if there are terrorist acts in his absence. After that, about an hour later, the Palestinians angrily said that this was provocative and that Arafat would not go, that he would not meet any such conditions. And now, as we approach midnight, we hear from the West Bank that Arafat may be preparing some kind of very stern statement. We will see what he has to say.
MARGARET WARNER: From what you understand, what is Arafat’s thinking here? Does he even want to go, or could he be afraid to go at this point?
SERGE SCHMEMANN: Arafat is in a curious position. According to most of the commentators here, the thinking here is that he is in a win/win situation. If he is prevented from going by the Israelis, he will be perceived by his people, by the Palestinians, as a hero. He stood up to Israeli pressure, he’s staying with his people, he’s being humiliated. They will rally around him as they have throughout the siege on him over the past three months. And of course, if he is allowed to go, he gets to speak to the Arab world. He gets to come back to Beirut, from which it was Sharon who kicked him out in 1982. His fear had been that he might not be allowed back, or that he would, for example, be allowed back only to Gaza. And of course, that had been one of the things Sharon spoke about today, that he hoped to prevent Arafat from returning. So that would have been his only fear. But I think otherwise he stood to gain either from going or from being blocked.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what’s your understanding, if we turn now to Sharon, what he was thinking or calculating in adding this new condition today, as you described; that he wanted the U.S. to essentially give him the green light, the right to refuse or block Arafat’s return. What was that about?
SERGE SCHMEMANN: Yeah. Well, from the beginning of this mission by Zinni and by Vice President Cheney, there’s been a question who decides when Arafat has met or not met a given condition. And basically, the Americans have insisted that in most cases they will be the judges of whether Arafat should go, whether he should come back. And of course, Sharon was wary of releasing this sort of authority, because he is under intense pressure from his right wing and from the Israeli public to do something about the continuing terror attacks. So in his position, if Arafat does leave, and if terror attacks do continue– which, frankly, they will — there are constant reports of more suicide bombers trying to get into Israel. There was a pair of bombers who blew up today on their way to the shopping mall. There are threats of major attacks in coming days. So Sharon wanted to have the authority to punish Arafat, to prevent him from returning if this happened, and thereby to really become serious about destroying the Palestinian Authority and Arafat’s entire structure.
MARGARET WARNER: Sharon also– I think I read this on The New York Times Web site– made a rather provocative comment to an Israeli newspaper today about promises he had given to President Bush. Tell us about that.
SERGE SCHMEMANN: Yes, speaking to one of the newspapers here, he said he regretted that he had given a pledge to President Bush that he would not harm Arafat. Prime Minister Sharon, is not a man who conceals his feelings about Arafat. He has given previous interviews in which he said he wished that he had killed Arafat back in 1982. And much of what’s happening right now has the quality of a very personal feud between these two old warriors, almost a vendetta that each one is waging, that, you know, may be one reason that Arafat particularly wanted to go back to Beirut. That may be one reason that Sharon feels so strongly about this. There is no doubt that they both feel very, very strongly about each other, and that there’s something very personal here.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, meanwhile, of course, the Bush Administration has been pressing both Arafat to go, but more importantly, Sharon to let him go. It appears… or does it appear to you that both sides are perfectly willing to essentially, you know, deny the U.S. what it… what it wishes here, and what’s their political calculation there?
SERGE SCHMEMANN: Well, this certainly is one of the problems that both Vice President Cheney and General Zinni have confronted. The Americans are not having their way quite automatically. And there are many reasons that are discussed for this here. One, of course, is the fact that the violence has reached a very, very intense… or had reached a very intense level, so the passions are enormously high, and each side feels that it has the right to strike the last blow. But I think there’s another factor here that is sometimes mentioned by commentators by people here. It’s that this Administration is not perceived to be entirely neutral in the sense that it has its own agenda. There is a sense here that President Bush’s real goal is to go after Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and that what he is trying to do, essentially, is to park this conflict. That’s the word, I guess, diplomats use. They want to park this conflict so that the Administration would have a clear hand with Iraq. And that here diminishes, I think, the authority of the Administration, or at least in the eyes of people who are watching this.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Serge Schmemann, thank you so much.