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Washington Watch

Down on his luck, Barak faces one political blow after another


by James D

March 9, 2000 | 6:59 pm

Spending 90 minutes in a small room with Yasser Arafat doesn't quiet old qualms. In military garb and his trademark headdress, Arafat still evokes images of the stubble-bearded terrorist mastermind who caused so much misery and fear for Jews worldwide.

But in person, it's also easier to see why Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is determined to move quickly to strike a comprehensive deal with the Palestinians. Barak believes that the time is right because a fragile Arafat, nearing the end of his lifelong quest, is almost desperate to see the creation of a Palestinian state before he departs the scene.

At a small gathering sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week, Arafat's words, his physical appearance and his body language all seemed to support Barak's assessment.

A cautious, restrained Arafat offered no new proposals, created no headlines. But in personal nuance, he seemed to reveal much about a steely determination to win statehood in the limited time he has left -- and, not incidentally, to keep his new status as a legitimate statesman instead of despised pariah. People who know him say Arafat looked better last week than he has in recent months -- a telling assessment, since he came to the CSIS gathering looking frail and unhealthy.

He was gingerly led into a small conference room by two aides. After a turn around the room for handshakes -- his hands were unusually white and bloodless looking -- he was eased into his seat at the head of the table. Once there, the facial tremor that has led to speculation about Parkinson's disease or worse was continually evident. His lower jaw moved spasmodically; he gripped the table in front of him, as if to keep them from trembling as well.

For much of the session, he stared impassively in front of him. Disconcertingly, he never seemed to blink.

But certain questions or people animated him, producing a sudden and striking change. When old friends addressed him -- for instance, former Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, the man who conducted the first official U.S. dialogue with the PLO in 1988 -- Arafat's face came alive. Suddenly, the glassy look was gone; his pleasure in the encounter was almost embarrassing to watch, as if it was somehow too private.

And he became engaged when certain issues were raised, most notably Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

But then he lapsed back into impassive detachment, offering short, not particularly focused answers, seemingly content to let his chief negotiator -- the brilliant, tough Saeb Erekat -- take license with his translator's role.

The impression all this leaves is twofold. First, this is a man who seems to be holding himself together by sheer force of will, fending off disease, exhaustion and age. That iron self-control -- and the sense of urgency to get the job done in what must seem to him like an increasingly limited amount of time -- is evident in his words and manner and in the way he seems to conserve energy until the conversation turns to what he views as a core Palestinian issue.

That's also Barak's assessment, which is why the new prime minister is racing to a final-status deal with the Palestinians. Arafat is ready to deal as never before, the Israeli premier believes -- and the ex-terrorist will be far more amenable to an arrangement Israel can live with than will his likely successors.

At the same time, Arafat gives the impression that on certain issues -- Jerusalem, refugees, water, all of which he spoke about with an intensity that broke through his apparent detachment -- he will be an enormously tough negotiator.

Israel would be mistaken to assume his determination to win statehood during his lifetime or his obvious frailty will lead him to make big, surprising compromises on issues that have become as emotionally powerful for the Palestinians as they are for Israelis.

Another aspect of the inner Arafat was on display at Friday's meeting: the enormous pleasure he takes in the status and respect he is accorded in Washington.

Once an international pariah, now he is a welcome friend, accorded all the perks -- the blaring motorcades, the nice hotels, the fawning attention of State Department functionaries -- of kings and presidents.

He clearly relishes the change in his status and the personal relations he has forged; he seems to take it all much more personally than the other world leaders who do the VIP rounds in Washington.

At CSIS, he spoke with a touching reverence about his visit to Barak's home. "His family was there," he said with evident wonder. "It was a very warm meeting."

In print, his frequent references to his "partner" Yitzhak Rabin sound trite; in person, he seems genuinely affected by the relationships that are pillars of his new standing in the world.

Arafat is no paragon, but he gives the appearance of a man who knows he's writing the final chapter of a long and explosive career. Barak believes that Arafat wants to go out as the man who led the Palestinians to a measure of statehood -- not as the leader who brought them to the brink but in the end couldn't deliver.

Last week, a feeble, resolute, proud Arafat did nothing to suggest Barak is mistaken.

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