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Islamists put Arafat's back against the wall

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The stakes are very high, not just for Mr. Yasser Arafat's political survival but, more important, for the future of the Palestinians. Mr. Arafat confronts daunting tasks in responding to Hamas' bloody methods and in seizing the political initiative from the seasoned and effective Islamists. In the final analysis and regardless of the brutality of the Israeli military occupation, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have done considerable damage to the legitimate Palestinian cause, internally and externally. Their strategy of establishing a 'balance of terror' with the right-wing government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been costly to Palestinians and Israelis alike and counterproductive as well. Mr. Sharon feels emboldened with a popular mandate to invade Palestinian-controlled territory and threatens to destroy the Palestinian Authority and the prospects for genuine peace. Despite his waning popularity, Mr. Arafat is still viewed as a powerful symbol of Palestinian nationalism and retains a deep residue of support within Palestinian society. He can be most effective by using the symbols of Palestinian nationalism to redefine the political debate less as a zero sum game, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad would like the Palestinians to believe, and more as a give-and-take bargaining process.

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