After 20 years, Arafat will return to Beirut in political chains

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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat will be coming to next week's Arab summit in Beirut with his hands tied and a chain around his feet.

Incite violence, the Israelis have told him, and he may be refused permission to return to the West Bank and Gaza. Speak of peace, and he may be allowed home – on Israel's terms.

The Arab kings and presidents who wish to show their support for the Palestinian intifada are going to have a hard time squaring their demands for Palestinian struggle with Mr Arafat's role as Israel's "controller of terrorism''.

Amid this humiliation the Syrians and Lebanese – with little love for Mr Arafat themselves – have got to fight off Saudi Arabia's "American Peace Plan'', as the Arab press have started to refer to it, without incurring the wrath of the United States. Both Beirut and Damascus suspect the initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – a total Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 in return for full recognition of Israel – was really concocted in Washington, and insist that withdrawal should come before any exchange of diplomatic relations and that a "right of return'' for Palestinian refugees, however symbolic, should be written into the final document.

Syria will want to express its support for the Palestinian struggle against occupation, while Mr Arafat knows that the moment he does the same – even though he is the de facto Palestinian leader – Ariel Sharon's Israeli cabinet may use this as an excuse to announce his permanent exile from those same occupied Palestinian lands. Indeed, in many Arab capitals there are those who hope that Mr Arafat might be persuaded to stay away from Beirut altogether.

All too conscious of the physical risks to the Arab kings, princes and presidents at so incendiary a moment in Middle East history, the Lebanese authorities are cordoning off vast areas of Beirut, even closing the city's international airport to all commercial traffic 24 hours before the summit begins on Wednesday.

Delegates will be accommodated at the expensive if somewhat sleazy Phoenicia Hotel, fully restored since its destruction in the 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War. But next to it still looms the giant, shell-smashed ruin of the unrepaired Holiday Inn Hotel, a gaunt portent of the destruction which could be unleashed if the Arab world is confronted by the anarchy that all its leaders fear.

This will be Mr Arafat's first visit to Beirut since his enforced exile in 1982 when, after years running his refugee camps as states within a state, he was finally evicted from the Lebanese capital following a brutal two-month Israeli invasion and siege which ended with the massacre, by Israel's Phalangist militia allies, of up to 1,700 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in the Sabra and Chatila camps.

Will Mr Arafat visit the mass graves to honour the Palestinians who died there? Would he dare risk the anger of those Palestinian refugees who believe he betrayed them? Or the fury of Mr Sharon, who still faces the possibility of a war crimes indictment in Brussels for his role in the slaughter – for which he was held "personally responsible'' by an Israeli commission of inquiry.

President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan will be playing the role of the West's "good guys'', talking of moderation, warning of disaster if Israel does not end its occupation – or if America bombs Iraq – carefully expressing their sympathy for the Palestinians without encouraging their anti-colonial war.

President Bashar Assad of Syria, whose country still hosts Palestinian groups accused by the US of being "terrorist organisations'', has perhaps the most difficult task of all: To keep Syria out of America's "axis of evil'' while still maintaining his late father Hafez's conviction that Damascus is the capital of the umma Arabia wahida, or "one Arab nation", the vanguard of resistance to Israel's occupation not only of Palestinian land but of the Syrian Golan Heights as well.