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Analysis: Mideast peace hopes

What does the future hold for Arafat?
What does the future hold for Arafat?  


By CNN's Jerrold Kessel

JERUSALEM -- As 2001 ends with Israeli tanks perched ominously within eyesight of Yasser Arafat's headquarters, what does 2002 hold for the Middle East peace process?

This symbolic backdrop raises several key questions at the end of what has been a turbulent year for the region.

Both Palestinians and Israelis wonder when their bloody and bitter 15-month confrontation will finally die down and is the 35-year Israeli occupation near its end?

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How will Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon handle the challenge of a new peace drive mounted by his own Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and how will all these issues affect the Middle East's broader involvement in the global war on terror?

There are also questions over the future of Arafat.

Will the beleaguered Palestinain leader and his fragile Palestinian Authority survive the pressure and can he revive his international standing and credibility while curbing internal Palestinian violence?

The answers could be determined by the shape of bitter relationship between the two opposing leaders -- Sharon and Arafat.

Ari Shavit, an Israeli political analyst, told CNN: "The two men hate each other, detest each other, but ironically they depend on each other.

"Arafat brought Sharon into power. There was no way for Ariel Sharon to be elected prime minister if it wasn't for Arafat. He was hoping that by having Sharon in power he would be able to turn Sharon into a sort of Milosevic and to turn Israel into a pariah state."

Mahdi Abdel Hadi, of the Palestinian Acadenic Society, said: "Arafat is a maestro of tactics.

"He is a survivor and he has been proving it so far. Sharon is a military general obsessed with power as might and he wants to crush the Palestinians and to delay the inevitable.

"Now its up to people to realise what destiny they are leading them to. Its an endless conflict."

The Palestinian leader, banned by the Israeli prime minister from moving until he's judged to be cracking down harder on terror, remains marooned in his West Bank headquarters.

But while he has been written off by Sharon as irrelevant, Arafat is proving very relevant.

His empty chair in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve gained world-wide attention.

Since September 11, Sharon has seen his chance to de-legitimise the Palestinian leader permanently, especially in the eyes of America.

Israeli political analyst David Landau said: "President Bush and the people around him are suspicious of where Yasser Arafat's real heart lies.

"And Ariel Sharon time and again since September 11, with enormous determination, has tried to drive that wedge between the American administration the American public and congress and the Palestinains, with, it seems, increasing success."

Meanwhile, some Palestinians see Arafat as making a parallel effort to de-legitimise the Israeli prime minister.

Hadi said: "No agreement is visible. No agreement is possible. No future is there in the life of the two peoples as long as Sharon is in office."

We may not know what Sharon and his supporters really intend -- we know what he does not want: the putative peace plan being worked on by Peres.

"Lets play the political game of contacts and dialogue," says Hadi.

"Lets play the game of media and to show the Israeli policies and practises. And lets expose Sharon's war of attrition."

Polls show a clear majority of Israelis believe the Peres plan is promising, causing Sharon to worry lest his foreign minister change the dynamic in the relationship with the Palestinians.

Shavit said: "As long as it's a game he can handle it. Mr. Sharon and Mr. Peres are in an interesting sort of marriage.

"They are a unique political couple. They like each other personally but each has his own political mistress -- Peres has this Palestinian thing going and Sharon has his right-wing thing going."

As we enter 2002, the pressure remains on Arafat, but some pressure is already building on Sharon too.

One thing is certain -- despite protestations, Peres has already squeezed through a crack in his Sharon's ban on negotiating under fire.

It is a crack into which the U.S. might now choose to use to resume Zinni's aborted mediation mission.



 
 
 
 


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