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Arafat Fights to Stay in Mideast Limelight

While Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas flew around the region in recent days, meeting with Arab leaders, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat (search) sat in his mostly destroyed office — directing his premier every step of the way.

The United States and Israel have worked to sideline Arafat and remove him from all peace contacts, but the veteran PLO leader refuses to fade away. He remains the undisputed leader of his people and has worked feverishly in the past few days to prove it.

He delayed a pre-summit meeting between Sharon and Abbas, publicly greeted a released Palestinian prisoner in a show of power and saw to it that he would have effective veto over any peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

He was in constant phone contact Wednesday with the Palestinian delegation during Abbas' meeting with Bush and Sharon in Aqaba, Jordan, according to a Palestinian official. He made two adjustments to Abbas' final declaration and was briefed by Abbas on the phone for 20 minutes after the meeting, the official said.

Some of Arafat's international cachet is gone and some of his authority may be seeping to Abbas, but "Arafat still has tremendous power," Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi (search) said.

Israeli officials say they really don't care, focusing instead on their victory in keeping him out of the summit.

"People can say what they want, but Arafat was not there," Justice Minister Yosef Lapid (search) said.

On Thursday, Arafat criticized the summit's achievements.

"Unfortunately, the Israelis did not give anything," he said.

Arafat was once courted by world leaders. Just a decade ago, he stood before the world and shook Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's (search) hand on the White House lawn as the Oslo accord (search) — the first interim peace agreement — was signed.

But Israel and the United States now accuse Arafat of at best failing to stop terror attacks, and at worst orchestrating many of them during the past 32 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence. They have refused to deal with him anymore.

Under intense international pressure, Arafat reluctantly appointed Abbas in April.

Now he sits in his office compound, the Muqata (search), as Abbas is feted by world leaders instead.

Once the symbol of Arafat's rule, the Muqata now lies in a permanent state of half-ruin, crushed by the Israeli army a year ago during Operation Defensive Shield (search).

Where buildings once stood, there are now piles of crushed white stone, broken concrete and twisted metal. Charred, smashed cars lie stacked in one corner of the compound.

Arafat has not left the compound since May 2002, afraid that Israel will arrest wanted Palestinians in his office complex while he is gone. Further, Israel has indicated that if Arafat leaves the West Bank, he will not be allowed to return.

But from his ruined headquarters, he has worked to prove that he is in charge and not his soft-spoken premier, who took office April 30.

Arafat objected to the makeup of Abbas' proposed Cabinet and reshaped it with many of his allies. He ensured his continued control of most of the Palestinian security forces.

He pushed through a law giving the Arafat-headed PLO executive final say over all negotiating steps with Israel.

He delayed a meeting between Abbas and Sharon for a day last week because he wanted to review Israeli security proposals before approving the talks. When that meeting was over, Abbas rushed to the Muqata to brief Arafat.

In a good will gesture to Abbas, Sharon agreed to release 100 Palestinian prisoners. When one prisoner, the oldest Palestinian jailed by Israel, was released Tuesday, he was immediately taken to Arafat's compound, where, in front of television cameras, they grasped hands.

Palestinian officials say privately that Arafat has been trying to send a message that he still makes the key decisions on negotiations.

But Arafat adviser Saeb Erekat (search) says there is no effort to undermine Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. His appointment as prime minister was a continuation of his 42-year relationship with Arafat, he said.

"No one is more loyal to Arafat than Abu Mazen, and no one is more loyal to Abu Mazen than Arafat," he said.

Abbas has decried efforts to marginalize Arafat, and other Arab leaders say keeping the veteran leader out of a peace agreement will make it difficult to sell the plan to the Palestinian people.

Hundreds of Palestinians waving Arafat posters marched through the streets of Gaza on Thursday in support of the Palestinian leader, demanding that attempts to isolate him stop.

According to an April poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Arafat's popularity rating was 35 percent, while Abbas' was 3 percent, the same as the margin of error.

Even after Abbas was confirmed as prime minister at the end of April, Palestinians still considered Arafat their leader.

Abbas is simply his top political adviser, said Waleed Ayyoub, 30, a Ramallah artist, as he stood on the street surrounded by his portraits of Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Che Guevara — but none of Abbas.

The men need to work together if they are to bring peace and a state to their people, Ayyoub said.

"If the two cooperate, they can do something. But one of them without the other will achieve nothing," he said.