When Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafattouched down in Tunis last month, he had no expectation of anotherround of pomp and circumstance, of sumptuous banquets and piousexpressions of boundless brotherhood and solidarity. This wasbusiness, pure and simple.
Two of Arafat's most trusted and long-standingaides, who adamantly opposed the Oslo Accords that were signed on theWhite House lawns back in September 1993, had refused to move to Gazawhen the PA leader and his lieutenants dismantled their headquartersin Tunis.
The two hard-liners who stayed behind were left todry out in the political wilderness.
Last month, in what is perceived as a majorpolitical climbdown and a significant personal humiliation, Arafattraveled to Tunis to implore Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO'spolitical department, and Mahmoud Ghnaim, head of the mobilizationand organization department, to change their minds and move toGaza.
Their terms were swingeing. By the time theyeventually agreed, it was on the understanding that Arafat wouldsurrender much of his power and responsibility, and that the Tunispair would participate in a new collective leadership team whichwould take over running the Palestinian Authority, the PLO and Fatah,Arafat's majority wing in the PLO -- "in the event of anemergency."
For Arafat, it was an admission of unmitigatedweakness, a move that was clearly borne out of dire necessity.
The stalemate in the peace process was the leastof Arafat's worries as his executive jet carried him to Tunis.Indeed, he has used the impasse well, playing to packed houses andwinning rapturous applause at a stream of international events, fromthe Islamic Conference through the Non-Aligned Movement and theUnited Nations. Not least, he has enhanced his position in Washingtonand in the capitals of the 15-nation European Union, carving deeplyinto the flesh of traditional Israeli support.
But even as he basked in the internationalapplause and strengthened his standing abroad, Arafat's position athome -- within both his Palestinian and wider Arab constituencies --has been eroding, his growing vulnerability fed by rumors of hisdeteriorating health.
Arafat is facing mounting dissent from within the88-member Palestinian Legislative Council, which has threatened avote of no-confidence in the Palestinian Authority over itscontinuing fiscal mismanagement and corruption. Arafat responded bysacking his entire Cabinet and promising -- again -- to put his housein order.
He is also facing a growing challenge to his claimto be "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" fromthe blind, quadriplegic Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Yassin, who scorns Arafat as Israel's poodle,returned to Gaza two weeks ago from a triumphal tour of Arabcapitals, where he provided a focus for Arab leaders who wanted tocover their bets by taking a shot at the PA leader. Nor were theycheap shots: Yassin netted "gifts" worth an estimated $50 million toswell the Hamas war chest.
At the same time, Arafat encountered a stunningrebuff from the Arab League when he attempted a show of strength tocounter Yassin's unexpected success: The Arab League was unable tocobble together sufficient consensus to meet Arafat's demand for asummit that would condemn Israel and agree to roll back the"normalization" process as a punishment for the stalled peaceprocess.
There is something deeply disturbing in the courtof Chairman Arafat these days, something that transcends the greedand graft, the cronyism and corruption that have become endemic inthe Palestinian political firmament. Arafat -- Mr. Palestine, holderof the purse strings, source of power and ultimate arbiter ofPalestinian affairs -- is losing his grip.
All this, according to the Jordanian daily"al-Majd," has intensified the maneuvering for succession, whichmakes Arafat's trip to Tunis all the more significant.
There are thought to be three principal contendersfor power when Arafat departs the scene:
* Mahmoud Abbas, secretary of Arafat's majorityFatah wing in the PA and Arafat's appointed deputy (earlier thisyear, Arafat confided in both President Clinton and EgyptianPresident Hosni Mubarak that Abbas was his choice for succession, buthe is now understood to have cooled to the idea). Abbas has thebacking of Jordan and Israel.
* Ahmed Kureia, speaker of the PalestinianLegislative Council and an architect of the Oslo Accords. He also hasthe backing of Jordan and Israel.
* Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO's politicaldepartment -- the Palestinian foreign minister -- a founding-memberof the Fatah wing and leader of the mainstream opposition to the OsloAccords. He has the backing of Syria.
All three might be rewarded. The smart money is onAhmed Kureia to head of the Fatah wing; Mahmoud Abbas to take overthe leadership of the Palestinian Authority; and Farouk Kaddoumi tosucceed as PA chairman. At present, all three positions are occupiedby Arafat.
Yasser Arafat has always been the shrewdest ofoperators, perversely translating his relative weakness into hisgreatest strength. In his declining days, Yasser Arafat will need todeploy all his considerable political and diplomatic skills toconsolidate and expand the gains he has achieved, while averting adescent into bloodshed, perhaps even civil war.