Leading Article: Arafat: actions speak louder than rhetoric

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WHEN Yasser Arafat made his triumphant entry into Gaza on Friday he came more as a prophet than a politician. He seemed predictably unaware that political skill and economic acumen, rather than messianic talk, will determine the fate of the Palestinians and their nascent state.

Of course, the father figure of Palestinian nationalism could be forgiven for surrendering to instinct at such an emotional moment. But in promising to take his struggle to Jerusalem he retreated to his tragically familiar technique of deceiving the innocent with hopes of the unattainable. With this technique he has visited schism upon the Palestinians, caused destruction to rain on Lebanon, condemned thousands to a futile life in camps and helped to prolong their unjust plight.

Shimon Peres was right to respond that Israelis, too, harbour dreams. The Israeli Foreign Minister is probably more aware than any other politician of the delicate path peace negotiators must tread between militants who shout betrayal from either side. Israelis regard Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of a Jewish state. Palestinians want their share of a city that is holy to Christians and Muslims.

Yet, whatever is said by diehard Zionists or Palestinians, the status of Jerusalem will one day be decided by negotiation. The international community has signalled its refusal to acknowledge the Israeli claim by keeping all foreign embassies of any significance in Tel Aviv. This policy remains a clear sign to Palestinians that their cause is not entirely lost. The recent opening of relations between Israel and the Vatican may also contribute to a new climate of discussion on this apparently insoluble issue.

James Baker once said that progress in the Middle East is measured in very small steps. As US Secretary of State, he had the task of coaxing an extreme right-wing Israeli government to the crucial Madrid peace conference of 1991. It is therefore worth recalling that the PLO was not even formally represented at that gathering. Yet, at the weekend, Mr Arafat was installed in Gaza protected by Israeli as well as Palestinian security men.

So it is possible to make slow progress even in a dispute for which men willingly die and in which the victory chant is too often the orphan's wail. Mr Arafat displayed great physical courage in going to Gaza, and it could just be that his rhetoric was necessary to carry the day. So it is right that he should be both applauded for his bravery and understood in his emotion. But now he must deliver good government, which requires an altogether different set of skills.