Leader cannot escape the scorn of his own people

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The Independent Online

The middle-aged Palestinian sat in his grubby office, a little more paunchy since the days 20 years ago when Beirut was surrounded by Ariel Sharon's army, but as scornful as ever of Yasser Arafat.

"What did he think he was doing, letting the Israelis send those 13 men away into exile?" he shouted. "Was that just a deal to get him out of Ramallah? Didn't Arafat realise what a precedent this has set? Next time, the Israelis will want to send 30 into exile, then 300..."

Derision and mockery is everywhere for Mr Arafat in the Arab world. Among the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon, among the Gulf sheikhdoms, in Egypt and in Syria.

The man who fraudulently promised to reform the Palestinian Authority 18 months ago now finally says he will honour that promise – but only after the Israelis and Americans have told him to.

In the Saudi daily al-Hayat there is a column by Jihad Khazen which quotes Mr Arafat's PLO second-in-command, Mahmoud Abbas. Why, Mr Abbas wanted to know, did a single man – Mr Arafat – control all the financial affairs of the Palestinian Authority? The number of Palestinian security authorities should be reduced to two or three now, "not ignored, just because the US and Israel are demanding it". When the columnist reminded Mr Abbas that Mr Arafat often says he will not "change horses in the middle of a battle", Mr Abbas snapped: "We've been in a battle for 40 years, and the horses have become tired."

Not that many Palestinians outside Mr Arafat's squalid little statelet have much time for his battles anyway. One armed Palestinian officer asked me yesterday why the Palestinian Authority had "given way so quickly" when faced with the Israeli invasion of West Bank cities. "Why didn't they fight? All the men who were in the siege of Beirut 20 years ago are stuck in Gaza. There were none in Ramallah. They didn't destroy a single tank."

Samir Atallah, writing in the Beirut daily an-Nahar, fears talk of corruption and reform may be a Trojan horse to ease Mr Arafat out of power. After all his trials and tribulations with Israel, America and the Arab states, "he now stands face to face with his own leadership ... the issue is between him and his people".

Far more scathing is the UAE newspaper al-Khaleej, which has suggested that the purpose of the reforms Israel and America are demanding is to turn the Authority into a replica of the "South Lebanon Army", the gang of militiamen who acted as proxies for Israel until its retreat from Lebanon two years ago.

If Mr Arafat has been humbled in front of his own people, he has only himself to blame. His cronies and elderly friends dominate business and the media in the West Bank, and until recently it was Mr Arafat's tired old men – speaking execrable English – who would inevitably turn up to represent the Authority on satellite news shows, where they were constantly outdone by Israel's spokesmen.

Recently Diana Boulou, a legal adviser to the Authority, has appeared on CNN, proving Palestinians can be represented by smart young people with fluent English. "She won't be allowed to represent the Palestinians much longer now that Arafat is back," a Palestinian official in Beirut lamented yesterday. "Soon we'll have the old men back on the screen again."

It's a long time since Mr Arafat's stock has fallen this low. In 1983, after his departure from Lebanon, Israel warned that Palestinian "terrorists" were hiding bombs inside watermelons. The Beirut daily as-Safir immediately ran a cartoon of Mr Arafat sitting on a pile of the fruit, captioned: "The King of Watermelons." These days, they wouldn't even make a joke about him.