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Kessel: Arafat back to center stage

CNN's Jerrold Kessel
CNN's Jerrold Kessel

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(CNN) -- News Thursday of an Israeli government decision to "expel" Yasser Arafat was not greeted warmly by his supporters. CNN anchor Daryn Kagan spoke with CNN deputy Jerusalem bureau chief Jerrold Kessel about the news.

KAGAN: We're talking about repercussions in Ramallah on the heels of an Israeli Cabinet decision to expel Yasser Arafat, at least theoretically. Hundreds of Arafat supporters [are] marching towards his West Bank headquarters. Our Jerrold Kessel is watching events from his post in Jerusalem and brings us the latest.

KESSEL: Well, we get a sign here of those scenes in Ramallah, with the crowds of Palestinians there to support Yasser Arafat, of just how explosive a situation this is.

And it comes, of course, against the backdrop of that escalating confrontation between the Israeli military and the militant Islamic group Hamas, which has seen suicide bombings and Israeli strikes against Hamas leadership down in Gaza over the last several weeks.

Now this explosive situation, compounded by this decision taken by the Israeli Security Cabinet this evening to, in principle, "take action" -- the words used by the Israeli government. Not necessarily to expel but to take action against Yasser Arafat, [who] is described as an obstacle to peace.

"Take action" could mean, explained the Israeli government spokesman, expulsion. It could mean limiting further his freedom in that Mukhabarat headquarters where he is, where he has been beleaguered for over a year. It could mean, in the words of a spokesman, neutralizing Yasser Arafat. For whatever it is, the Palestinian leader has brought out his supporters to resist that. And there we have that kind of standoff which is explosive enough in itself.

But over and above that, Daryn, we have a very, very, very dangerous situation which was described to me by a top Western diplomatic source this evening, saying that the real reason the situation is explosive, given this Israeli statement tonight, is that there is a power vacuum in the Palestinian leadership.

The "road map to peace," the peace process which is on the table, which was agreed to by all sides, which was backed very firmly by the United States, calls specifically for a new and alternative Palestinian leadership, a new government alongside or instead of Yasser Arafat.

With the resignation of the Palestinian prime minister last weekend, and with the fact that the new Palestinian prime minister-designate has not been able to take up his post -- his attempt to get an emergency Cabinet today was blocked by Yasser Arafat and his supporters -- means that there is no Palestinian government in place.

And, the Western diplomatic source, Daryn, says, there is no diplomatic avenue, and there is no diplomatic process on the table, other than what the Israelis are doing or choosing to do. That is the source of this explosive situation, with Yasser Arafat, Daryn, striking back, but perhaps striking back in confrontational mode, not really to advance things down that elusive peace road.

KAGAN: All right, Jerrold, I want to talk about the power vacuum in just a second.

But meanwhile ... this compound in Ramallah [is] where Yasser Arafat has basically been for, what, the last two years?

KESSEL: That's right. He was holed up there, he has been kept there, he has come out on two occasions only and he has basically been kept in there by Israel. Israel has never said he can't formally come out in the last year. But it's been made plain to him that should he leave, he may not be able to go back again. And therefore he would be in limbo. And therefore he would be in a sense moving to his own expulsion, to advance his own expulsion.

So there is a problem, and there is a problem for his leadership, there is a problem with the United States and Israel's policy of trying to sideline Yasser Arafat. Clearly by this action today and by the response of the Palestinian people, he is back [to] center stage on one level.

But I will remind you of another thing, Daryn. As this Palestinian leadership crisis has been evolving over the last few days, there's another significant development. No longer only the United States and Israel, but also the Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations -- they're partners in the so-called quartet of parties which have been responsible for the road map -- have not been going to Yasser Arafat. He is, in the words of a top diplomatic source, isolated.

Well, he's clearly not isolated from his people or from his supporters, given these views in the Mukhabarat headquarters, it is clearly resistance to Israel's potential action against him. But that does not in any way diffuse the explosive situation simply because there is not only a Palestinian leadership vacuum, there is a vacuum in a diplomatic or peace process, and that leaves only the possibility of confrontation, I'm afraid.

KAGAN: The big criticism of going through expulsion has been that . . . it continues and it only enhances the idea of Yasser Arafat as a martyr.

Let's get back to this question of the man who was supposed to be the new prime minister, Ahmed Qorei. What was the thinking or logic in Yasser Arafat blocking his confirmation?

KESSEL: That is a $64,000 question, or perhaps even more than that. Really, it came down -- it seemed to be a stroke of diplomatic genius by Yasser Arafat to relieve the isolation by appointing, by naming Abu Ala, or Ahmed Qorei, to become the next prime minister because Mr. Qorei has credit with the Palestinian people, and he has credit as the man who was the architect, in a way, from the Palestinian side of the whole Oslo Peace Process, of a real structured move towards peace between two states, Israel and the Palestinian state. And also for independent security responsibilities between the two sides.

That seemed to suggest that Israel and the United States will have to agree to negotiate, to go back to negotiate with Abu Ala, and not just say, as the Israelis and the United States are saying, "First let's tackle terror, first let's tackle the militants. Only then can we negotiate."

There was a prospect for negotiations coming back [to] center stage. Why this failed today, I don't know. But there is a suggestion that perhaps Yasser Arafat did not want to accord Abu Ala, Ahmed Qorei, the powers he wanted, even for a month, to establish that emergency Cabinet which would have provided that alternative leadership to Yasser Arafat.

He has succeeded in blocking that. He has succeeded in moving back [to] center stage. But it doesn't leave the prospects of any diplomacy or peace any rosier. In fact, the opposite.

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