Vain leader playing a dangerous game that he can't afford to lose

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The Independent Online

Vain, nepotistic, dictatorial, ruthless. Yasser Arafat is all of these; a man who was prepared to watch his people massacred in the Tel el-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut, under siege by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies in 1976, so that he could show the world the brutality of his enemies.

Vain, nepotistic, dictatorial, ruthless. Yasser Arafat is all of these; a man who was prepared to watch his people massacred in the Tel el-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut, under siege by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies in 1976, so that he could show the world the brutality of his enemies.

He declared a ceasefire. Then he broke it. Then he placed the survivors of the subsequent massacre in the ruined Christian village of Damour and - when he visited them in 1976 - they threw stones and rotten vegetables at him. But by then he had made his point: the Palestinians were massacred by Israel's allies.

Cynical, a manipulator, a man with a peasant cunning. No student would ever put his moustached portrait on the wall. This was no Che Guevara, but a man who understood the most important quality of a guerrilla leader: to change his mind when all others had decided his actions. In 1982, surrounded by the Israeli army in Beirut, he had only to surrender. And then, just when he seemed vanquished, he decided - to the despair of the Lebanese - to fight on against the most powerful army in the Middle East. Up to 17,000 civilians died in Israel's 1982 invasion. Up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians were slaughtered in the Sabra and Chatila camps, for which the Palestinians and the Israelis, too, blamed Ariel Sharon, then Israeli defence minister. The Palestinians lost. Mr Arafat won. Mr Sharon was for ever a war criminal in the eyes of the Arab world.

"We are proud of our democracy in the revolution," Mr Arafat told me then. "It is the hardest and most difficult kind of democracy - because it is democracy among the guns. But we have succeeded in creating a democracy, and those freedom fighters who have been given a democracy will continue to have democracy in their independent state." Some hope.

In the end, offered a "state" in Palestine, Mr Arafat was not interested in democracy. His secret policemen (trained by the CIA) arrested those who opposed his "peace" with Israel. His relatives were offered sinecures. His treasury redirected money to his loyal acolytes. He was now the friend of America and Israel. He trusted them. He called it the "peace of the brave". He was the president of Palestine.

In retrospect, President Bill Clinton should have remembered the Beirut years. Just when we all thought Mr Arafat would leave besieged Beirut in 1982, outgunned and outnumbered by the Israelis, he chose to fight on. And now, outgunned and outnumbered by the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza and east Jerusalem, he chooses to fight on once more. Yes, he abhorred the cruelty of Palestinians who murdered his opponents. Just as he did the killers of the two Israelis held in the Ramallah police station.

And at the Camp David talks in July, he was supposed to make the final compromise - leaving Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty - but decided to refuse the deal. Mr Clinton blamed him for "wrecking" the peace. The Israelis blamed him for the violence provoked by Ariel Sharon. But Mr Arafat, the obedient colonial servant, was his own master. He wanted the Palestinian state he thought he had been offered by the Oslo agreement, negotiated by henchmen who, most of them, did not speak English and who included no lawyers. He had been tricked, so he thought. So there was no deal.

Mr Arafat has a characteristic so familiar to guerrilla leaders, so incomprehensible to Westerners: he changed his mind without even realising he intended to do so. But he understands the brutality of politics. If he understood the weakness of his antagonists, he struck. Let the Israelis and Americans blame him for the "violence" in the occupied territories: so be it. Let the world decide who kills Palestinians. The Americans were to blame, as well as the Israelis. Let the Palestinians die - and prove the cruelty of the Israelis. All this he learnt in Beirut. All this he now plays out in "Palestine".

Despite all, he is a brave man. The Israelis tried to bomb him to death in Beirut - and claimed they weren't shooting at him. The Israelis tried to kill him in Gaza two days ago - and claimed they were not trying to kill him. In 1982 he announced that his Palestinians had been transformed by "a miracle of heroism" and become a "symbol which will go down in our history". All the while, in 1982, he demanded international recognition and protection.

In the end, US warships escorted his fighters out of Beirut - leaving the civilians to be massacred in Sabra and Chatila. Now he demands the same international recognition and protection - but he cannot leave. Mr Arafat understands the endgame. Let the Israelis attack and kill the Palestinians. The world will understand. It is a dangerous game - but one that the Israelis have still not understood.

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