Palestinian Leader Attempts to Explain His Remarks

Article excerpt

AT a meeting for Palestinian contractors on May 29, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat gave a speech packed with anecdotes that made the audience laugh at its irony, and even brought some to tears.

But before the speech was over, Mr. Arafat, as he has done more than once in recent weeks, raised both ire and eyebrow.

The chairman jumped from one subject to another in this speech, but made his message clear: The deal with Israel is far from adequate, but he has not betrayed his people's cause.

"It is the most we could get in the worst situation possible," he said, applauded by the contractors who attended from the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip to discuss their role in building a Palestinian entity.

In his attempt to rally his supporters, however, he provoked Israeli anger when he drew parallels between the autonomy agreement he signed with Israel and a 7th-century pact that the Prophet Muhammed reached with the Quraysh clan, who had initially refused to convert to Islam in Saudi Arabia.

PLO officials present immediately exchanged meaningful looks. Arafat had repeated the very words he used in a mosque in South Africa less than three weeks earlier, knowing the implications they had for the Israeli government and public opinion.

Some Israelis saw in Arafat's reference to the Hudaybiyyah pact proof that the Palestinian leader would renege on his agreement with Israel.

But a reading of the full text indicates that it was mainly an unsuccessful attempt to clarify his statements in Johannesburg, in which he referred to the Palestinian struggle for East Jerusalem as a jihad (holy war) to assuage wide Palestinian opposition for the limited autonomy agreement in Gaza and Jericho. Arafat explains himself

The chairman explained that it was the Quraysh who breached the pact with the prophet. He seemed to be drawing parallels between himself and the Prophet Muhammed - rather than the two agreements, which he obviously believes were unfair and imposed by the power of the other side.

In the Hudaybiyyah pact, the Quraysh clan refused to recognize Muhammed as the messenger of God. In a similar way, at least according to Arafat, Israel is refusing to deal with him as president of Palestine. The insinuation to his audience was clear, that by sacrificing the title he has not jeopardized the goal of the establishment of a Palestinian state.

According to the agreements signed with Israel, Palestinian autonomy is an interim arrangement that should not jeopardize the final status of the Israeli-occupied territories, which will be discussed at a later stage.

Arafat's statements reflect the gap between the Israeli view that the final status remains open, while the PLO has repeatedly and publicly declared that it is seeking an independent Palestinian state.

"We are witnessing the birth of the Palestinian state," Arafat told supporters, explaining that the implementation of the agreement, regardless of how flawed Palestinians see it, will eventually lead to the attainment of their goal. …