By Peter Carlson
August 01, 1983 12:00 PM

After roaring through the desert at 80 mph, sirens howling and tires screeching on the pavement, the dark blue Mercedes bearing diplomatic license plate “1” pulls to a stop in a remote Tunisian training camp of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yasser Arafat, 53, the PLO’s embattled chairman, steps from the back seat into a throng of soldiers who wipe tears from their cheeks as they push forward to greet him. The warm reception in Wadi Al Zerka outside Tunis—which comes at the same time some of his troops in Lebanon and Syria are mutinying—moves Arafat. His eyes glisten with tears. He strides toward a platoon of soldiers who stand at attention on a blacktop strip shimmering under the fierce North African sun. The troops are a motley assortment—soft-faced boys of 16 clad in dirty sneakers stand next to gray-haired men of 60 in patent leather boots—but Arafat treats the ceremony with all the pomp of a full military inspection. He moves solemnly past each soldier, his right arm cocked in a salute, then greets their commanding officer in the traditional Arab manner—a kiss on both cheeks.

Inside a meeting hall, Arafat speaks to the assembled soldiers, starting slowly but building to an emotional climax, his arms clawing the air, his eyes bulging with fervor. ‘There are people out there who are trying to destroy us,” he says, alluding to the mutiny in Lebanon. “And I say they cannot. This revolution is higher than the mountains.”

Then, amidst wild cheering and shouts of “Revolution until victory!” Arafat’s performance abruptly ends. He glances at his Omega wristwatch and moves to leave. But as he strides toward the door, an impassioned young guerrilla darts through the crowd and plants himself directly in Arafat’s path. “My Chairman,” he says, “you cannot leave us so soon. We have questions to ask you.”

Arafat stares into the soldier’s eyes. “I cannot stay here,” he says. “I have other places to go. We will talk on another occasion.” But the soldier is insistent. Sobbing, with sweat streaming from his brow and his face distorted in anguish, he demands to learn more about the mutiny. “We have to know what is happening,” he begs. “You must stay and explain things to us.” Arafat caresses the young man’s face without saying a word, and then his phalanx of bodyguards escorts him back to the Mercedes.

Arafat’s reticence to talk is understandable: He is in the midst of the worst crisis of his turbulent career—an armed uprising among his finest fighters. For 14 years Arafat has held together an unlikely coalition of numerous disparate factions using little more than his personal charm and an exquisitely tuned instinct for politicking. Now, frustration and confusion are opening deep schisms in the organization. For years, PLO malcontents have muttered that Arafat was too moderate in the struggle against Israel, too compromising in dealing with nations such as Egypt and Jordan and too autocratic in internal PLO matters. In the aftermath of the Palestinians’ humiliating forced evacuation from Beirut last summer and the subsequent massacre of some 800 Palestinians, mostly civilians, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the dissension started to become more visible. Two months ago several key PLO officers, led by a proven combat veteran, Colonel Said Mousa, rebelled, claiming that Arafat’s leadership had grown too dictatorial and that his policies—like his negotiations with Jordan’s King Hussein on the Reagan peace initiative—had betrayed the revolutionary cause. Arafat’s attempt to moderate PLO strategies, by turning away from such acts of international terrorism as the slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, won praise in the West. But PLO hardliners seek a return to the old strategy of liberating Palestine by military means. “Arafat lost contact with his people while playing his international games,” charges Colonel Abu Khalid, a PLO rebel leader now based in Syria. “He began thinking that he was not just a revolutionary but an actor on the global stage. Palestine came to be nothing but one element of his grandiose dream.”

Last month the rebel faction, supported by Syrian tanks, defeated Arafat loyalists in several skirmishes in the Bekaa Valley. When Arafat protested Syria’s actions, President Hafez Assad promptly ordered him out of Syria. Arafat took refuge in a Tunisian hotel more than 1,000 miles from the Lebanon battlefield, and some observers pronounced him beaten. “I see Arafat as a burnt-out case,” said one Western diplomat in Damascus. “You get the feeling he has lost all hope of seeing a settlement in his lifetime.”

Yet Arafat’s ability to survive should not be underestimated. Time and again he has recovered from military and political setbacks of crushing proportion. Indeed, when the danger is gravest, Arafat seems to be guided by a sixth sense. In 1967 he narrowly escaped capture by Israelis while traveling in the occupied West Bank. In 1970, after the Jordanian Army defeated PLO troops, Arafat fled the country disguised as a woman. In 1972 he was aboard a boat boarded by Israelis but, posing as a sailor, Arafat escaped once again. During last summer’s battle for Beirut many observers felt the Israeli Air Force was systematically trying to kill Arafat, yet he escaped without a scratch. An aide recalls, “He would often stand up without warning in a meeting and say, ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ The buildings were always hit within the hour.” Now the man most hated by the Israelis as the master of Palestinian terrorism is confident that he will overcome this latest crisis. “If the Syrians close their doors to me,” he says, “I will open a window. If they close the window, I will find a hole to crawl through.”

Arafat has already tried various “windows” in his efforts to overcome the threat posed by the mutiny. At first he attempted to placate the PLO rebels by taking a harder line against the common enemy—Israel. He then proclaimed himself willing—even eager—to negotiate with internal rivals like Colonel Mousa as well as with his sometime ally King Hussein. Through the Soviet Embassy in Damascus, Arafat obtained a supportive message from Yuri Andropov, who happens to be Syria’s munificent benefactor. And now Arafat is busy courting support from such Arab leaders as Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and Algeria’s President Bendje did Chadli. It is in these one-on-one negotiations that Arafat excels. “He is a very affable person, very outgoing, a charmer in face-to-face encounters,” says Hisham Sharabi, a history professor at Georgetown University and editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

The strongest single factor in Arafat’s favor is his stature as a dedicated leader who embodies the plight of the Palestinian people. Even since the PLO rebellion, a poll of Palestinians living on the West Bank put support of Arafat at 92 percent. He is accepted by scores of nations—both inside and outside the Islamic world—as the de facto head of a stateless state. “Arafat is the symbol of Palestinian nationalism,” says William Quandt, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Washington, D.C. foreign policy think tank.

This close personal identification with the Palestinian cause has kept PLO rebels like Mousa from demanding Arafat’s removal. They ask instead that he be held more accountable to the PLO’s governing central committee. “We think Arafat will survive this,” said one U.S. government Middle East expert. “But he will have considerably less freedom of action. He will no longer be able to make individual decisions.”

Ironically Yasser Arafat won the job that has made him so internationally controversial almost by accident. Born in 1929 to the family of a Gaza textile merchant, Arafat joined the Arab cause by running guns during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Later he founded the Palestinian Student Federation at the University of Cairo, where he earned a degree in civil engineering. During the 1956 war with the French and British over the Suez Canal, he served as a demolitions expert in the Egyptian Army.

After the war, Arafat joined the clandestine Palestinian organization Fatah. In 1965 Arafat’s colleagues named him spokesman for the group. “He was a very ordinary person—full of initiative but still very ordinary,” remembered Khalid Al Hassan, co-founder of Fatah and one of Arafat’s closest associates. “To be honest with you, the reason we elected him was because he was the only one among us who was a bachelor. If he was killed or captured, it wouldn’t cost us a lot of money to provide for his family.”

Arafat is still a bachelor and has no intention of changing that status. “There was a woman once but we didn’t marry,” he says. “In the early days of the revolution, marriage might have been possible for me. Now it is too late. My responsibilities are clouded day by day.”

Seated in the back of the blue Mercedes, his head propped against the window and his well-manicured hands folded atop his ample paunch, Arafat permits himself the luxury of a few personal comments. As he passes the ruins of a Roman arch, he talks about his travels. “You know, people think I travel so much and see so many wonderful things. But on my trip I never have the opportunity to see the sights. I’ve traveled to Moscow, Peking, Havana and elsewhere, but when I land at an airport a car is always waiting to drive me quickly to a palace or some other meeting place. Then I’m driven back to the airport. I never see a thing. And it’s a shame because there are so many historical things I’d love to see.”

His substitute for historical sightseeing is historical reading. “I like all periods,” he says, “Chinese, Roman, European, Arab—but perhaps ancient history is my favorite.” Reading is among the few diversions that Arafat’s grueling schedule allows him. “Now and then, if I have the time,” he says, “I like swimming and horseback riding.” An aide, hearing that statement, scoffs good-naturedly. “Sure he likes swimming. Every night before he retires he says, ‘Tomorrow morning, I will get up early and go for a swim.’ But he never does. When I remind him about it during the day, he always says, ‘Oh, I will get to that later.’ ”

As Arafat talks, the Mercedes draws closer to Tunis, and the city’s flickering lights grow more distinct in the desert darkness. It is nearly midnight when Arafat leads his bodyguards and associates into his temporary home in a suburb of Tunis. He will sleep only four hours before rising for the traditional Islamic dawn prayer ritual. He pauses on this night to offer one final thought. “This, I will admit, is a time of serious crisis,” he says. “But it is not the worst I have faced. And I will continue. We are struggling to find our home. It is all that simple.”