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A Weakened Arafat Might Be among the Casualties

Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat is looking desperate. With his popularity falling and Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets growing increasingly deadly, Arafat seems to be groping for a way out of the spiraling conflict.

His predicament opens a narrow window for a U.S.-led mediation effort. Trouble is, the Bush Administration is still reluctant to become enmeshed in often thankless diplomacy between the Palestinians and Israel. Without U.S. help, though, the two sides are unlikely to find their way to a cease-fire anytime soon.

Arafat's position could become increasingly precarious--making an eventual deal between the Israelis and Palestinians even more unlikely. Arafat is losing influence to leaders such as Marwan Barghouti, chief of Arafat's Fatah organization in the occupied West Bank. Barghouti, 41, has been a kingpin of the intifada and favors an uncompromising approach toward Israel. On Aug. 6, he called for a Palestinian "national unity" government still headed by Arafat but including militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Barghouti lacks Arafat's stature. But many Palestinians think the reform-minded leader offers an attractive contrast to Arafat's seamier inner circle. While Arafat is unlikely to be ousted, he could be increasingly relegated to a figurehead role as others call the shots. "Arafat is not the guy for confrontation with the Israelis," says Rashid Khalidi, a University of Chicago history professor and author of several books on the Palestinians. "If [they] want someone bloodthirsty, there are younger bucks."

Indeed, a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy & Survey Research in Ramallah shows that Arafat's support has fallen to 33% from 46% a year ago. For the first time, backing for Hamas and Islamic Jihad is level with Arafat's Fatah. The survey also shows that 80% of the population favors armed conflict with Israel. "The public mood stands strongly behind the violence," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the center.

Such sentiments make it hard for Arafat to snuff out the intifada. But doing so could be the only way for him to seize the initiative. "He is on a path in which his overall authority is diminished," says former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis B. Ross. "It's in his interest to impose order." That is why he might be tempted back to negotiations. Arafat has put out feelers, including a letter to President Bush, asking for help in implementing recommendations of the commission headed by former Senator George Mitchell (D-Me.). If the U.S. helped put some of Mitchell's proposals into practice--such as putting an end to Israeli settlement building--Arafat could portray the move as a victory that would justify stopping the intifada.

Should Arafat somehow stop the violence, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might be persuaded to play along. But these are mighty big ifs and are unlikely to happen without forceful U.S. arm-twisting, particularly of Sharon. The Israeli leader still enjoys popular support for his so-far-unsuccessful efforts to pound the Palestinians into submission.

Unfortunately, the best chance to stop the killing may be an escalation in the violence to such levels that it forces the U.S. to intervene. It would take a major event--a big suicide bomb, say, and a massive Israeli reprisal--to trigger that scenario. Whether it wants to or not, the Bush Administration should get ready. Mounting evidence of police brutality at the Group of Eight summit last month in Genoa and alleged human rights abuses against jailed demonstrators may force Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to cancel a NATO summit planned for September 26-27 in Naples. A United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization meeting scheduled for November in Rome is also in doubt. On Aug. 8, the Italian government opened a parliamentary inquiry into the violence at the G-8 summit, which left some 200 demonstrators injured and one dead.

Serious revelations would focus a painful spotlight on defects in Italy's democratic intstitutions. Already, lawyers for the wounded have filed eight criminal inquiries, and three police officers have been fired. The fallout could be tough to manage as international outrage over Genoa grows. A slowing economy could force French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to make politically sensitive cuts in domestic spending, just as he gears up to run against President Jacques Chirac in 2002. France reported on Aug. 6 that its budget deficit widened to $14 billion during the first half of the year and warned that full-year tax revenues would likely fall $3 billion short of predictions, as economic growth slows to around 2.1% vs. earlier estimates of 3.3%. Under pressure from the European Union to control deficits, Jospin may have to trim popular programs--such as a $3 billion-a-year youth employment scheme--in the 2002 budget he presents in the fall.

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