The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation said he was prepared to recommend a deadline for a Palestinian withdrawal from negotiations after Wednesday, the target date for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho. 'After 13 April, I have the right to call upon the Palestinian leadership to make the decision,' he said at a meeting with journalists organised by the UN in his Tunis home.
Asked if he was really ready to pull out of the best prospect yet for his own return to Palestine, he said: 'We are not puppets. They have to respect what had been agreed upon and signed.' He said he had sent messages to the co-sponsors of the peace process - the United States and Russia - as well as to other permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union, asking them to 'start all their efforts for an accurate and honest implementation' of the Declaration of Principles signed at the White House last September.
Mr Arafat appeared tired but confident in immaculate green battle fatigues as he received journalists at the, for him, exceptionally early hour of 8.30pm on Friday. He did not rage; in a display of relaxed showmanship, he insisted that he was not optimistic. 'I am sorry to say, no. It's very difficult to say it, but I arrive with my back against the wall now,' he declared, raising his hand against the backdrop of a huge photograph of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock hanging behind his desk.
'I offered all the flexibility and effort but the other side is not responding. I left my team in Cairo under orders to continue but I do not know if the Israelis will come back to finalise or to manoeuvre,' he said of the talks that reopen today.
Mr Arafat was particularly indignant about two things: the first, that a week after an agreement signed with Shimon Peres, Israel's Foreign Minister, on 31 March, whereby Israel had agreed to be 'guided by the target dates' in the declaration, Israel had issued a statement saying merely that the negotiations of Gaza and Jericho may be finalised by the end of this month.
'May,' said Mr Arafat. 'We were preparing to send an advanced group of policemen two days ago but the Israelis refused, putting many excuses.
'But not only that,' he added, getting to the bigger bone of contention. 'They suspended our talks in Cairo because there was a commemoration of the Holocaust in Israel. Why did they not suspend the negotiation in the economic committee which is still continuing in Paris? What does this mean?
'I have the right to ask, is there one Israeli government or two? One government which accepts continuing in Paris, and another which accepts suspending in Cairo?
'They are not listening to me. They are not listening to anybody. This is the peace of the braves. We have to be courageous.'
Time and again, Mr Arafat recalled the words of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, last December - 'There are no sacred dates' - implicitly contrasting that with the Israeli decision to leave the talks to attend a Holocaust memorial at home. 'It is unbelievable, believe me, unbelievable.' Even more so because Mr Peres had 'accepted to return back the next day and to send a delegation, and then he gave me these statements of the delay.
'If it was the first manoeuvring, OK, we could let it pass. But there has been manoeuvring, manoeuvring, manoeuvring, manoeuvring. For how long? Not to forget: I was in Washington in September and nothing has been achieved on the ground. They are destroying the peace process by this manoeuvring. The whole credibility of the peace process has been lost.'
Asked about calls within his ranks for a less autocratic style of leadership, Mr Arafat declared: 'The PLO is one of the democratic oases in the Middle East.' He could not resist a jibe at criticisms from salon Palestinians such as Edward Said, the academic based in New York: 'More democracy, yes, when we are in our own state. Not when we live in the United States, away from our people's daily needs.'
Mr Arafat cautioned that further delays would lead to an escalation of extremist acts on both sides. On fundamentalism in general, he issued a covert warning to the US to learn from past mistakes: 'This is part of what happened in Afghanistan. Do not forget how these fanatic groups were trained, armed and financed - and here we are. It is not me who has done it. It is the American administration. They gave all kinds of support. Remember? So here we are - the shadow of what was done in Afghanistan.'
This was also an oblique reference to allegations that the United States' ally, Saudi Arabia, is financing fundamentalist groups across the Middle East. 'If there will be no peace, there will be complete confusion in this area, in the most strategic area in the world - confusion and Balkanisation.' Asked when he thought he might be able to take up the reins in Jericho, he said: 'I can't give you an answer because, as you see, I was supposed to be there since last December. But the Israelis have delayed the peace accord.'
Both the West and extremists such as Hamas should take heed, however: 'I am the leader of the Palestinian people, not of Fatah or Hamas, or the Popular Front, or the Arab Front, or any other organisation. I am the leader of the Palestinian people according to three elections in the Palestine National Council.'
At their Cairo meeting in December, Mr Rabin had promised to return within 10 days and had still not done so. Mr Arafat recalled the words of Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak: 'Next time I will close one of these villas till the white smoke appears.' Mr Afarat concluded: 'It seems the Israelis do not want the white smoke to appear.'
'It is my duty now to call upon the co-sponsors, the international community and the Security Council . . . to bear their responsibility and not to leave me alone.'
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