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Arab leaders still divided on Arafat

The body of Yasser Arafat arrived in the Egyptian capital Thursday night for a memorial service to be attended by a group of men he managed to inspire and antagonize over decades of tireless public diplomacy: his fellow Arab leaders.
Egyptian Guards of Honor carry the coffin of Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat on its arrival in Cairo
Egyptian Guards of Honor carry the coffin of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on its arrival in Cairo Thursday.Aladin Abdel Naby / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The body of Yasser Arafat arrived in the Egyptian capital Thursday night for a memorial service to be attended by a group of men he managed to inspire and antagonize over decades of tireless public diplomacy: his fellow Arab leaders.

The heads of six Arab countries will gather Friday morning at a military club here to pay tribute to a former guerrilla leader who cajoled, criticized and counted on them during his four-decade effort to create a Palestinian state, a cause that often united the Arab world. But even more Arab nations will not send heads of state, underscoring the contentious relationship many of them had with Arafat.

Over the years, such Persian Gulf states as Kuwait gave millions of dollars to Arafat's cause, only to have him side with Saddam Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Lebanon and Jordan provided refuge for his exiled Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s and '80s before turning against Arafat's militants in bloody conflicts for fear they were undermining state authority. Syria, a champion of Arab nationalism, sent troops to Lebanon to battle the PLO.

Arafat had his own leverage: the popularity of his cause among millions of disaffected Arabs across the region. The threat this represented was enough to win him refuge and resources from many Arab leaders, whose political standing at home benefited from their association with the Palestinian liberation movement. But their support was quickly withdrawn when it clashed with their overriding concern of maintaining domestic stability, and Arafat eventually overshadowed and outlived some of his fiercest Arab rivals.

"His relationship to other Arab leaders was extremely ambivalent," said Mohamed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "On the one hand, most Arab leaders have argued strongly with Arafat. On the other, they have accepted him as the golden mean within the Palestinian movement. He was never seen as someone they could sideline, ignore or upset."

Those mixed feelings were evident across the region Thursday as some leaders expressed their condolences following his death while others reserved judgment for hours after it was announced. Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, called Arafat a "historic leader," while King Fahd of Saudi Arabia said he shared the pain of the Palestinian people. Jordan's King Abdullah called his death a tragedy, and several Arab states declared an official period of mourning.

Clashing tactics
But other prominent Arab leaders, most notably Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, remained silent. Of the Arab countries, only the heads of state of Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Sudan and Algeria had announced by late Thursday that they would attend the memorial service. The Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, will also fly in. But the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia, among others, had not disclosed whether they would pay tribute to Arafat in person or send a proxy.

Since emerging in the mid-1960s as the face of the Palestinian movement, Arafat benefited enormously from military, economic and political support extended by various Arab leaders. But waging a guerrilla war against Israel from foreign countries put Arafat in constant conflict with his donors and hosts, whose views on the eventual shape of a Palestinian state and the tactics to achieve it often clashed with his own.

After the 1967 war, thousands of Palestinian refugees flooded camps east of the Jordan River and in southern Lebanon, where many of them remain and demonstrated in small groups Thursday to mourn Arafat's death. Palestinian refugees were welcomed by Jordan, but the late King Hussein, the father of the current monarch, moved against them in 1970 at a time when their numbers and militancy posed a risk to his rule. The king's eventual move to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994 was criticized by Arafat.

In the mid-1970s, Arafat's PLO was a source of concern in Lebanon, where it had taken refuge after fleeing Jordan. Hafez Assad, the Syrian president, sent thousands of troops into Lebanon in 1976 at the request of the allied Christian government to put down the PLO, a clash that helped fuel what would be a nearly 15-year civil war. Bashar Assad, who became president on his father's death in 2000, had not sent a message of condolence hours after Arafat's death was announced.

Support for Saddam
The oil boom of the 1970s brought Arafat hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, which gave tens of millions a year to the Palestinian cause. Kuwait, which welcomed many Palestinian refugees as manual laborers and engineers, also contributed oil proceeds to the cause.

But in a move that angered many Arab nations, including his most generous donors, Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, waged to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Kuwait never forgave Arafat for supporting Hussein, a generous supporter of the Palestinian cause in his own right, and the principality had not sent official condolences on his death by late Thursday.

Mubarak, a frequent mediator between Israel and Arafat, also fought bitterly with Arafat at times, mostly over his refusal to accept peace agreements put forward by Israel and the United States. Mubarak encouraged Arafat to accept the August 2000 proposal outlined at Camp David and sweetened a few months later at a conference in Taba on Egypt's Sinai coast.

Arafat won popularity at home for what was seen as a refusal to compromise on the return of all the West Bank and the right of Palestinian refugees to reclaim land lost in Israel's war for independence in 1948. But his stance angered Mubarak and U.S. officials, who believed he had failed to seize his best chance for peace.

"The Arab leaders stood by him politically, militarily and economically," said Abdelraouf Elreedy, chairman of the Egyptian Council on Foreign Relations and a former ambassador to Washington. "The problem is that the Palestinian problem itself is a most oblique problem, and the definition of the national project has gone through so many phases."

Elreedy, who was a member of the Egyptian delegation that negotiated the Camp David accords with Israel in the late 1970s, said Arab leaders often found themselves in a weaker position than Arafat because of the popularity of his cause on the Arab street. As a result, even the most powerful Arab leaders failed to push Arafat toward peace agreements that to many of them appeared fair or at least the best that could be achieved.

"There has been friction and contradiction between their objectives," Elreedy said. "The Arabs did not feel they were in a position to pressure the Palestinians to accept any offer for fear they'd be accused of selling out the Palestinian cause."