Yasir Arafat the politician has had a rough 10 days. Gunmen turned their weapons on his security forces in the Gaza Strip, his prime minister submitted his resignation, and his parliament sent him a rare rebuke. But Yasir Arafat the icon appears to have suffered only minor scratches.
The recent turmoil put on display an easy-to-miss truth about Mr. Arafat’s place among the Palestinians. His policies have become fair game for criticism and even expressions of despair, yet he remains the enduring symbol of Palestinian aspirations to full nationhood. Even as violence flared in the streets of Gaza, his staunchest Palestinian critics were not making explicit calls for his ouster.
Many of the sharpest complaints about corruption and ineffectiveness in the Palestinian leadership have come not from rivals, but from within his own Fatah movement, the core of his support. Almost anywhere else, this would signal that a leader was in trouble.
In Mr. Arafat’s case, it has meant something more subtle: he must endure harsh criticism, and perhaps make some political concessions. Still, many Palestinian and Israeli political experts agree, there is no serious threat to his position, at least for now.
Ahmed Qurei, his prime minister, had said he was quitting because of the chaos in Gaza and the disarray in the security agencies, and he had expressed frustration at the limited powers allotted to the prime minister under Mr. Arafat.
Mr. Arafat and Mr. Qurei now plan to meet Tuesday. There were hints that they were patching up their dispute, and that Mr. Qurei might be willing to rescind his resignation, delivered on July 17.
Mr. Arafat said Saturday that he would support any cabinet changes sought by the prime minister. But it was not clear whether he was prepared to yield on the most important issue, his tight control over all of the Palestinian security forces.
In Gaza, militants linked to Fatah have carried out a series of kidnappings and battled members of the Palestinian security forces. The fighting embarrassed Mr. Arafat and reflected his inability to rein in the factions in Gaza, where Israel’s government says it intends to pull out soldiers and settlers. Yet the militants identified the problem as the corrupt security chiefs appointed by Mr. Arafat, not Mr. Arafat himself.
The militants, from Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, say they are waging a vigilante campaign against corruption, while remaining loyal to Mr. Arafat.
“We do not like taking the law into our hands,” the group said in a statement last week. But, it added, “the leadership is neglecting our plight and suffering.”
Indicting “the leadership” did not include Mr. Arafat though. Instead, Al Aksa described him as “the symbol of our struggle” and called on him “to seriously and immediately go after those who are corrupt.”
When Palestinian lawmakers gathered in Ramallah to address the crisis, they, too, opted for an indirect approach. They said Mr. Arafat should accept Mr. Qurei’s resignation and appoint a new government with expanded powers to combat lawlessness. In effect, they turned to Mr. Arafat as the man who could fix the problem, not as the one who had helped create it.
“We have a saying in Arabic: The man sees the wolf but prefers to just follow his tracks,” said Salah Tamari, the minister of youth and sports. “Arafat is the wolf, and we should have had the guts to confront him, and not just work around him.”
So Mr. Arafat, 74, has remained on familiar political ground: maneuvering around the infighting Palestinian factions, an exercise at which he has been consistently successful for more than 30 years.
He often seems to thrive during times of crisis, embracing his role as a unifying figure for the Palestinians, a people of many competing groups without either a state or strong institutions.
There are Islamic militants like those in Hamas and more secular nationalists like those in Fatah. Some leaders seek a bargain with Israel on a two-state solution, while groups like Hamas reject any acceptance of a Jewish state. There are rivalries between Palestinians who stayed in the West Bank and Gaza all through the Israeli occupation and others who went into exile with Mr. Arafat for more than a quarter century.
Mr. Arafat’s powers have been whittled away in the last few years, and he now presides over a crumbling and impoverished Palestinian Authority. Israel has confined him to his battered compound in Ramallah for more than two years, while the United States and some European nations have stopped sending diplomats to visit.
Though he has found it increasingly difficult to exercise day-to-day leadership, there is little doubt that his voice would still carry the day on any substantive issue affecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“From his point of view, I’m sure he feels he has survived many crises like this one,” said Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator and a critic of Mr. Arafat. “He can probably outmaneuver his rivals in this crisis, but I’m skeptical that he is prepared to make any real changes.”
Most Israelis are happy to see Mr. Arafat squirm, but they also believe there will be no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as long as he remains in power.
Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University, sees him as skilled in exploiting a tradition that avoids direct attacks on political rulers.
“There is no tradition of legitimate criticism against the leader, and this is true throughout the Arab world,” Mr. Avineri said. “You can criticize corruption, or maybe a particular policy, but not the leader himself.”