Survivor who lived to lead his nation

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Jerusalem - His political obituary was written many times, writes Patrick Cockburn.

''Bye, bye PLO,'' said Zbigniew Brzezinski, then the US National Security Adviser, with famous lack of foresight almost 20 years ago.

Driven from the West Bank in 1967, from Jordan in 1970 and from Beirut in 1982, Yasser Arafat, elected President of the Palestinian Authority at the weekend, has survived political and military defeats that would have destroyed most national leaders.

The reason for his survival is simple enough: for a quarter of a century Palestinians have regarded him as their national symbol. His 88.1 per cent poll on Saturday does not quite make the point, because he faced no opponent of stature. The real test of Mr Arafat's popularity was his ability to continue to lead the Palestinians after great tactical disasters.

Palestinians understood that he was almost always inferior in strength to his opponents, notably Israel and the US, but, at other moments, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. If there were miscalculations, then they often were not Mr Arafat's alone, but were backed by the majority of Palestinians. It was they who gave massive support to Iraq when it invaded Kuwait in 1990, and paid a high price for it when the Kuwaitis expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Mr Arafat, 66, has always given priority to making sure that his movement would live to fight another day. To the anger of militants, no battle was ever fought to the last round. There was always a new ally to be found when old friends turned hostile, giving Mr Arafat a reputation for slipperiness. Yet he has always shown sure judgement of what, at the end of the day, Palestinian public opinion would accept. He was always aided by the tendency of his opponents to under-estimate him. Mr Brzezinski was not alone in this. Others who have tried and failed to eliminate him politically, and probably personally, include some of the hardest men in the Middle East, such as General Ariel Sharon of Israel and President Hafez al-Assad of Syria.

They underestimated him because he has few of the personal attributes of a national leader. He is a dreadful public speaker; in interviews he often appears shifty and insincere; he has a much-criticised fondness for appointing courtiers to important positions.

At the same time he has never been a bloodthirsty man, though he has lived in a bloodthirsty world.

Even when feuding with the leaders of other organisations in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, he seldom cut them off from funds.

Mr Arafat's support for Iraq in 1990 did not wholly fail. The Gulf war increased the power of the US in the region. President George Bush pushed Israel into talks with the Palestinians. A row between the US and the right-wing government in Jerusalem helped Labour to win the election in 1992.

A year later the Oslo accords were agreed, giving Palestinians autonomy and something close to a state, though hedged with restrictions on its authority.

Opponents of the Oslo agreement said it was a sell-out on refugees from 1948, Palestinian prisoners, Israeli settlements, Jerusalem and borders. Mr Arafat would have none of it. He was desperate to establish facts on the map of what had once been Palestine, even if he was accused of being a Palestinian Buthelezi, ruling isolated cantons.