Subtracting Arafat won't bring Mideast peace closer

September 18, 2003

"We must kill as many of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders as possible, as quickly as possible, while minimizing collateral damage, but not letting that damage stop us. And we must kill Yasser Arafat, because the world leaves us no alternative."

-- editorial in The Jerusalem Post

The Israeli government's threat to kill Yasser Arafat, now muted but not withdrawn altogether, was the act of a desperate nation with no rational recourse, no means by which it can hope to escape its current crisis.

It is all too understandable that Arafat would come to personify the Israeli nightmare; it is only natural that the Israelis would focus their frustration on the Palestinian leader and longtime terrorist.

But any belief that Arafat's assassination or forced exile would provide a new opportunity for peace is crazy talk. His removal by whatever means would still leave 3.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza simmering in anger and frustration and would solve nothing. There have been times in recent history when Arafat's presence as head of the Palestinian people was indeed the single most important obstacle to peace, but that is not the case today. Today, it is just one of many such obstacles.

The Israeli refusal to disband its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and repudiate any interest in building Eretz Israel, or greater Israel, is an obstacle to peace. The refusal of the Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general to accept Israel's right to exist in peace is an obstacle to peace. The unwillingness of the American government to force major concessions from its Israeli ally is an obstacle to peace, as is the similar refusal by Arab and European supporters to force similar concessions from the Palestinians.

The Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of addressing such obstacles on their own. Each nation is a captive of its own extremists; neither has shown the strength to wake itself from its nightmare and address reality.

And no matter how violent they may get, neither side is capable of cowing the other. They can and surely will wound each other -- deep, agonizing wounds, inflicted over and over again -- but neither side has the strength to strike the killing blow against the other. Each side has proved it can absorb more pain than the other is capable of inflicting.

The once-promising road map approach, which required the two sides to take a series of small, mutual steps to build confidence in each other's intentions, has collapsed and cannot be revived. Today, the only remaining hope would be a settlement imposed on both parties from the outside.

If the United States insisted that Israel dismantle settlements and withdraw to boundaries near those of the pre-'67 border or lose financial aid, if Arab and European donors simultaneously insisted that no further aid would flow to the Palestinians until terror attacks cease and Israel's right to exist is recognized, peace would have a chance.

But without such an unlikely step, two hopeless, desperate peoples will continue to claw at each other. And who knows what depths that desperation can take?