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After Meeting with Radicals, Israelis Debate Arafat's Views

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

When Yasser Arafat kissed and embraced the leaders of Hamas at a meeting of Palestinian factions this week, the conciliatory gestures toward radical Muslim groups suspected of perpetrating terrorist acts outraged much of Israel and the Western world.

Was Arafat condoning violence against Israel and preparing for the kind of armed confrontation that has spilled so much blood in the Middle East between two peoples fighting over the same land?

Or was he engaged in a clever ploy to co-opt the enemies of peace and thus strengthen his hand for future negotiations with the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

Nearly four years after he signed the Oslo peace accords, Arafat finds himself trapped by conflicting pressures that threaten to undermine his self-governing authority, destroy his fragile partnership with Israel and shatter his dream of establishing a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The self-styled father of the Palestinian revolution is renowned for his survival skills in times of political peril.

But this time, his fate seems intertwined more than ever with an Israeli government that profoundly distrusts him yet loathes even more the extremist alternatives to his leadership.

An impassioned debate has gripped Israel in recent days over whether the country's interests are best served by weakening or strengthening Arafat.

Nearly a month after the Israeli government imposed tough sanctions and security measures in the wake of a suicide bombing that killed fourteen people and two terrorists in a Jerusalem market, Israelis are starting to question whether those measures may inflict more harm than good on their country.

As so often happens when he finds himself in a jam, Arafat has resorted to ambiguity to mask his intentions until the dust settles. On the first day of the Palestinian unity conclave in Gaza, he waved the sword and the olive branch with equal gusto.

"There was an uprising for seven years. Who did it? Our lion cubs, our children. This glorious uprising. Seven years. We can ... do it again from the beginning. There is nothing far from us. All options are open to us."

But he also offered a vigorous defense of the peace process. "We must not forget that most of the Israeli people voted for peace," Arafat said. "I say to the supporters of peace in Israel: We are with you to make this peace of the brave, a just and comprehensive peace, not the peace of the weak or the cowards."

Just before the bombers struck, Arafat was confronting a barrage of criticism about alleged corruption in his ruling entourage.