Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
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'Determined to go ahead'

By Dina Ezzat

Yasser Arafat Yasser Arafat
A few days after the signing of the Sharm Al-Sheikh Protocol for the implementation of the Wye River Accord, and shortly before the opening of the final-status talks with Israel on Monday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appeared "generally hopeful".

Talking to African dignitaries at the extraordinary summit of the Organisation of African Unity, last week in Libya, Arafat stressed that the peace process will have to go on and that the Palestinians will have to rely on it to realise "an independent Palestinian state with holy Jerusalem as its capital".

"We are ready to enter the final-status talks, and we are ready to deal with whatever comes along," Arafat said. He emphasised his point by hitting his armchair with a shaky hand: "We are determined to go ahead; nothing will dissuade us; we are going to have our independent state."

Arafat did not see his confidence as misplaced. "When we started the peace of the brave with the late [Israeli prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin -- who paid the price of peace with his life -- we knew that the road to peace was not going to be easy. That's why we call it the peace of the brave."

Arafat was clear on his expectations of the final-status negotiations: "We want our sacred land back, we want our people [in diaspora] back, we want our state and our future to which we are entitled. US President Bill Clinton himself spoke of a free people on their free land, and that is what we are going to get."

Regarding his "new partner in the peace of the brave" -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who expresses his opposition to everything the Palestinian president talks about -- Arafat said, "God willing Barak will walk on the road of peace."

Judging by the recent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on the implementation of Wye River, Barak's form of peace does not meet the aspirations of Arafat and the Palestinian people. "The only peace that we accept is that which will allow us to have an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital and with the Palestinians as free citizens."

Arafat entertained few illusions about the true nature of Barak's peace. "Certainly Barak is not like Shimon Peres or Rabin; but we also have to remember that he comes out of the same political trend, namely the Labour Party."

He was also realistic about the possibilities available to the Palestinian negotiators who, despite their skills, cannot independently wrestle an acceptable peace deal from the Israeli side. He had no hesitation in asserting that throughout the final-status talks he will be greatly relying on the help of Egypt.

"Egypt is a key factor in regional peace-making. The role of President Hosni Mubarak is indispensable. The efforts of Foreign Minister Amr Moussa have always helped the Palestinians so much. We are counting on Egypt. As in previous agreements when Egypt fought with us every step of the way, we are counting on Egypt to go on doing the same."

The help of the US is certainly another hope of Arafat's for the coming phase. "We should never forget that Mrs Clinton spoke of the Palestinian right to have an independent state," he argued.

The Palestinian leader expected to receive the support of other regional and international players, including the EU and the Arab countries, who were instrumental in the reaching of the agreement at Sharm Al-Sheikh last month.

"The Israelis were trying to make us procrastinate, but with the help of President Hosni Mubarak, Foreign Minister Moussa, the US and the EU we managed to get the Sharm Al-Sheikh agreement signed."

The controversial Sharm Al-Sheikh agreement is straightforwardly defended by Arafat. "This is a step on the road. It is a step in the right direction."

The agreement has met with criticism for not fulfilling Palestinian demands regarding prisoners in Israeli jails and Israeli settlement building on occupied territory. Arafat responded, "I have one thing to say to the critics: we are restoring our land, our sacred land. For one inch of this land we will do all we can. For one inch of this sacred land, [I can put up with] anything the critics have to say... Who said we are not opposed to settlement building on our occupied territories. We are opposed to the settlement policy. We think it is destructive to peace and that is why we are trying very hard to get back as much land as possible."

Critics, however, say that Arafat's control over this land is only superficial and that he is just a "mayor" for Israel. "We are fighting the war of peace to restore our land and to have our independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

Despite the reduced number of Palestinian prisoners to be released from Israeli jails, Arafat believed he had got a decent deal. For him, the struggle to get more Palestinian prisoners out of Israeli jails has not ended. "I want all the warriors who sacrificed for the Palestinian state, for our homeland, to see the light of freedom. This week we secured the release of 200 of my comrades in the battle for freedom. We will have more released -- God willing."

Did Arafat sign at Sharm Al-Sheikh with a clear conscience and without a shadow of a doubt that he was doing the best thing? The Palestinian leader paused for a while and then said: "Well, you cannot help thinking this way -- I mean to be somehow sceptical of what is going to happen. But it is not our fault. It is because of the experience we had with [former Israeli prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu. Netanyahu signed agreements with me but he failed to honour his commitment for peace. He promised President Mubarak, US President Clinton, French President [Jacques] Chirac, and British Prime Minister [Tony] Blair, and again he failed to honour his word. Netanyahu promised the world to help in working to bring about peace and he broke his promise; so we are entitled to feel somehow sceptical".

What if Barak was to let him down on the road? Arafat: "I hope that Barak will walk on the road of peace -- our peace of the brave."

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