Yasir Arafat is the Middle East's ultimate survivor. In his 24 years as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, he has eluded numerous Israeli assassination attempts and walked away from a 1992 plane crash in a Libyan Desert sandstorm that killed three people. Perhaps it shouldn't have been too surprising to see a smiling Arafat arrive at the White House on Sept. 13 to endorse a peace pact with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But surprising it was. The man who had been condemned as a ruthless terrorist and denied entry to the U.S. for 20 years was now being regarded as a statesman. So when Arafat stepped forward to shake the hand of his lifelong enemy in a moment carefully choreographed by the White House, there were gasps—and then applause. For the first time in nearly a century, peace in the Middle East seemed possible.
Arafat's decision to make peace with Israel was a bitter political necessity. "I want a homeland even if the devil is the one to liberate it for me," Arafat has said. In recent years he has come to realize that dealing with the enemy might be more productive than relying on his friends. In 1990 his disastrous backing of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War cost the PLO the financial support of such rich Arab states as Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, militant Palestinians with few loyalties to Arafat were rioting in the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Gaza Strip nearly every day. And Muslim fundamentalists were making no secret of their disapproval of Arafat's 1991 marriage to Suha Tawil, a liberated Palestinian Christian woman 35 years his junior. In desperation, Arafat agreed to negotiations with Israel. The two sides met secretly in neutral Norway for nine months before reaching an agreement. Under the plan, the 1.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip will eventually be given home rule.
Born 64 years ago in Cairo, the son of a shop owner, Arafat earned an engineering degree at Cairo University and was trained in the Egyptian army as an explosives expert. In the late 1950s he became committed to the Palestinian cause and abandoned a comfortable engineering career to work as a guerrilla commander behind Israeli lines.
In 1969 he became the chairman of the PLO, the group dedicated to establishing a state for 5 million Palestinians scattered throughout the world. Now he spends all his time traveling, trying to put the treaty, which he calls' 'the final quarter hour of our struggle." into effect. The obstacles are formidable. Extremists on both sides oppose the pact; more than 50 people have died in violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents in the territories since it was signed. Yet the man Palestinians call the leader of their struggle is determined to make history as the first president of Palestine. "Peace needs courageous men," he has cautioned. "It is very easy for anybody to start a war, but it is very difficult to achieve peace."
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