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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arabs Abandoning an Isolated Arafat?

CAIRO, Egypt -- For the first time since the Palestinian uprising began 16 months ago, Arab leaders have failed to rally around Yasser Arafat as he comes under intense U.S. criticism and remains confined to his headquarters by Israeli troops.

There has been no public condemnation from Arab rulers, who usually are quick to denounce Israel's restrictions on the Palestinians and to call on the United States to mediate between the two sides. Most Arab leaders reportedly have not even called Arafat since his West Bank compound was encircled by Israeli tanks two months ago. In turn, the Arab "street" -- the scene of fiery demonstrations against Israel's military response to the intifada -- has been largely silent.

"The Arab leaders seem to have completely abandoned Arafat in a critical period. They've allowed Israel to put him under house arrest," said Abdel Aziz Shadi, a political science professor at Cairo University. "The Arab masses take their cues from the rulers, and they have been quiet as well."

Arafat's isolation appears to grow with each passing day. Israeli forces trapped the Palestinian leader in his Ramallah office in late November to pressure him to round up more Islamic militants and arrest suspects in last year's assassination of Israel's tourism minister. The noose around Arafat tightened early this month when Israel seized a ship carrying a large cache of weapons headed for Gaza. Israel claimed the arms shipment was ordered by top Palestinian Authority officials from Iran, with Arafat's knowledge.

Despite Arafat's repeated denials of involvement in the weapons shipment, the episode has heightened international criticism, especially from the United States. U.S. President George W. Bush said last week that he was "very disappointed" in Arafat, and administration officials expressed support for the Israeli restrictions on his movements. U.S. officials say the administration is weighing several actions against Arafat, ranging from closing the Palestinian Authority's office in Washington to a complete break in relations.

Egypt's largest newspaper, Al-Ahram, summed up Arafat's predicament last week with a political cartoon showing the Palestinian leader clinging to prison bars. Nearby was a row of microphones atop an empty podium, where Arab leaders normally would be denouncing Israel. The cartoon was titled, "The Arab Stand."

In a remarkable comment last week, Qatar's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad al-Thani, said Arabs "don't have the power" to help the Palestinians.

"We are obliged to beg the Americans for a settlement," he said after talks with U.S. officials in Washington.

Analysts say al-Thani's remarks reflect a crisis among Arab rulers since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Many Arab leaders are trying to prove to the West that they do not support terrorism, and are distancing themselves from Arafat.

"There is a tremendous sense of helplessness and defeat among the Arab leaders," said Tahsin Bashir, Egypt's former ambassador to the Arab League. "They're afraid to be associated with Arafat and the Palestinian cause."

In an indirect appeal to Israel, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Tuesday urged an end to the "virtual house arrest" imposed on Arafat as a first step toward ending Middle East violence, The Associated Press reported.

Arafat "is being asked to stop the violence ? to lead," he told reporters. Nevertheless, the Palestinian leader and aides "are so much under pressure that I really don't see how he can deliver what the international community wants him to do."