JERUSALEM — From his days as a guerrilla fighter to his recent career as peacemaker, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has for decades slept, eaten and breathed one overriding ambition—a state for his people.
The Palestinian leader's long-held dream will be one of the most crucial issues on the peace table at the Camp David summit in the United States which starts on Tuesday.
Arafat, who wears his trademark black-and-white checkered headdress in the shape of a map of Palestine, has pledged to declare a state this year regardless of whether he and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak manage to seal a deal.
The success or failure of the U.S.-brokered summit may well determine whether a future Palestinian state will be consecrated with blood or with an olive branch.
If Arafat leaves the summit without a deal and declares a state later this year as he has promised, then Israeli officials say Israel too will take unilateral steps and annex parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Middle East experts warn of bloodshed if this happens.
Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki says Arafat's pledge to declare a state this year has been so unequivocal that it would be hard for him to shelve the idea as he did when international pressure made him back down doing it in May 1999.
"He will be under extreme pressure to declare a state. Not just pressure coming from the opposition but pressure from those who are very close to him," Shikaki said.
A cloud of pessimism hangs over the Camp David summit. Even Barak, the prime instigator of the meeting, gives it only a 50-50 chance of success.
If Israel and the Palestinians fail to overcome their differences, the sides will probably miss a September 13 deadline for a final peace treaty, leaving Arafat to decide whether to go ahead with his statehood plans or bide his time.
But time is precisely what the 70-year-old Palestinian leader, who is rumoured to be in ailing health, does not have.
From his days as a pistol-carrying guerrilla through his transformation to Israel's partner in often conflict-ridden peace negotiations, Arafat has set his sights firmly on being the first president of a Palestinian state.
"We don't have historical national leaders every day. We have to seize the time with Arafat now," said Palestinian analyst Mahdi Abdul Hadi.
When Arafat reiterates his pledge to declare a state in speeches and radio addresses to his people, in the next breath he invariably promises that Jerusalem will be the capital of that state.
The dispute over the holy city, which Israel insists will remain its "united and eternal capital," may prove to be the one issue that neither side can compromise on.
Arafat's dictatorial leadership style has riled some Palestinians who envisaged their state would be a true democracy.
Shikaki says the future Palestinian state "will be democratic in name" because "the authoritarian nature of the executive will remain dominant as long as Arafat is alive."
Arafat has taken in his stride criticism by opposition Palestinian groups accusing him of selling out steadfast national objectives by forging peace agreements with Israel.
But by signing the deals, Arafat has come closer to his goal of establishing a Palestinian state than at any other time during more than 30 years at the helm of the Palestinian cause.
Under the interim Oslo peace accords with Israel signed in 1993 and through successive deals, Arafat has managed to gain control—either partially or fully—of about 40 percent of the West Bank and much of the Gaza Strip.
Gone are the days when the Palestinian leader was Israel's Public Enemy Number One.
An Arafat puppet which regularly appears on an Israeli political satire television show is extremely popular and has done much to reform the Palestinian leader's image in the eyes of Israelis.
The awkward moment at the historic peacemaking ceremony on the White House lawn in September 1993, when the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin hesitated before offering Arafat his hand, has become little more than a memory.
Since then Arafat has shaken the hands of three other Israeli leaders, including right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu and countless ministers. No longer persona non grata, he has been known to sup at Barak's house while they talk peace.
At Camp David, Arafat and Barak will embark on perhaps the most serious peace talks ever undertaken. They will discuss the nature of a Palestinian state, including its borders and the fate of Jerusalem, the city both nations want for a capital.