His glory days are behind him. At 75, he is frail, his hands shaky, his lapels covered with a score of badges from organizations as diverse as Peace Now and the Samaritans. Yasser Arafat was once a regular visitor at the White House: The Palestinians say he saw Bill Clinton when he was president 28 times. But George W. Bush refuses to have him in Washington, and he is no longer welcome at Downing Street. Visits from the world's leaders are diminishing. The last delegation to Arafat's presidential compound in Ramallah was from Luxembourg.
He remains a virtual prisoner of the Israelis, unwilling to take a chance by leaving his compound, where he has spent the past 41 months. The reasons are piling up: the fear of assassination, capture or exile; the possibility that Israel might attack the 20 wanted Palestinians sheltering there. But he professes to be sanguine about his predicament. "It makes no difference," he said in a three-hour discussion over dinner with British journalists this week.
He'd had worse experiences as a fighter more than 30 years ago, he said. "It is not my first time to face these troubles. I was obliged to stay in Mount Hermon [on the borders of Israel, Syria and Lebanon] for two years in the ice and snow with Israeli planes shelling me and many comrades being killed." His home these days is the remains of the presidential compound, partially destroyed by Israeli forces in 2002. The entrance is protected by oil drums filled with concrete to slow tanks, and the doorways and halls are lined with sandbags.
Unable to even wander around Ramallah, Arafat tries to maintain his fitness by walking back and forth along a corridor between the two remaining buildings. The corridor was rebuilt after being demolished by the Israelis. His alternative fitness regime is to walk repeatedly around the table that doubles as office and dining place. His bedroom is next door.
He eats little. From a table filled with lamb, chicken and rice, he took only broccoli, garlic and steamed corn on the cob, and a Diet Coke. He answered questions until midnight, at times directly addressing issues, at other times distracted, wandering back to recall in detail old diplomatic triumphs and blunders, mainly the negotiations at Camp David with President Clinton more than four years ago.
At the end of the dining table are relics of the days when peace seemed close. In the jumble of presents is a tarnished aluminum dove presented by the Peres Center, run by former Israeli Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and a brass owl from the Samaritans.
Arafat intersperses opinions on the chances of a renewed peace process or the planned Israeli pullout from Gaza with odd or unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. The Israelis may have known about the Taba bombings in advance but did not pass the information to the Egyptians, he said. The Iranians are interfering in South African politics and the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, had asked for his help; the Israelis had been firing depleted uranium shells at the Palestinians.
The ministers and advisors flanking him occasionally whispered into his ear to advise moderating an opinion, to complete a sentence or to suggest that a fact was wrong. Occasionally he accepted the advice, and at other times told them that their memories were faulty. He teased one of them, Jibril Rajoub, claiming he was having secret talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's son Omri.
He was more pessimistic than usual about the chances of ever reaching a deal with Sharon that would see him released. Asked whether an agreement with Sharon was possible, he said: "It is very difficult. Maybe with [Benjamin] Netanyahu." He recalled that Netanyahu, though on the right of Sharon, had in the past, in spite of tough rhetoric, signed deals with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu may not be prime minister for years to come, if at all, and there is no guarantee he would contemplate a deal with Arafat.
It is not just that the Israelis have succeeded in isolating Arafat physically and diplomatically, even the Arab countries are no longer helping as much as they once did, tired of the corruption surrounding him or sensing that there is little prospect of a resolution to the conflict in the near future. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, he said, Arab countries had either stopped or reduced contributions to the Palestinian Authority, which is not sure whether it has enough to meet this month's pay bills.
Asked whether Bush or John Kerry would be more likely to find a Middle East settlement, Arafat chewed his food and smiled: "For me, it makes no difference." Both have said they will not meet with him.