Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Arafat's choice: peace or status quo

The Clinton administration has confronted Yasser Arafat with one of the most painful choices of his enduring career: the unknown territory of a comprehensive peace or the familiar role of victim.

No one is quite sure which way Arafat will turn. With President Clinton leaving office in three weeks, time is of the essence, and Arafat is not known for speedy decisions.

The White House, Arab leaders and the U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, have all tried to steer him toward the package, which would deliver him sovereignty over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and the longed-for Palestinian state. In exchange, Arafat would be required to sign away one of the fundamental tenets of the Palestinian nationalist movement, the right of refugees to return to Israel.

In short, Arafat has been presented with something close to Israel's best offer _ too good an offer, in the eyes of many Israelis. Part of Arafat's dilemma is that he probably understands there is not likely to be a better deal than this one.

One question is whether his people accept or believe that. Arafat knows that he is likely to face serious repercussions if he forecloses the options of people who have spent 50 years as refugees.

Among others, Arafat would face the wrath of extremist groups such as Hamas, the fury of the refugees themselves and perhaps threats from within the Palestinian Authority to his own position.

Arafat's popularity has steadily eroded over the past five years, mostly because of corruption in the Palestinian Authority and a failed economy, and the Palestinian streets have been awash in violence and rage for the past three months. So accepting what is perceived as flawed peace deal could make his standing tenuous.

The Palestinian leader's choice is burdened with other questions that have little to do with the actual merits of the deal, but have plenty to do with its sustainability.

Israel is in turmoil over proposed concessions, and there is no guarantee that if Prime Minister Ehud Barak signs an accord that it will survive opposition in the Israeli parliament.

The parliament is not in session now, but members of the opposition Likud Party have circulated a letter to Barak listing their objections, for which they said they could obtain the signatures of a majority of legislators.

And there is no guarantee that if a deal is reached, Barak would win re-election on Feb. 6, or that the deal would survive under the new prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

Sharon, who is leading in polls, has said he opposes the package, which gives sovereignty to the Palestinians over the very holy site he visited in September in a gesture that sparked the uprising.

But if Arafat rejects the proposals and refuses to come to work on the details, he knows he would make Barak's defeat, and Sharon's victory, far more likely.

And under a Sharon government, Arafat could well face more Jewish settlements, more bloodshed and the likelihood that he would not see such a favorable offer again for a long time.

As Arafat pondered his choice, he maneuvered for time, calling for a meeting of a committee of the Arab League. There, he would look for support in his decision.