The Baltimore Sun

Confronting Arafat

September 14, 2003

THOUSANDS of Palestinians vowing to defend him to the death - Yasser Arafat couldn't be happier. Chanting crowds outside his hovel of a headquarters in the West Bank show that, despite a concerted U.S. effort to marginalize him and Israel's determination to expel him, Mr. Arafat is in command and in control - at least of the public events unfolding across that blood-soaked landscape.

His revival as the defiant leader of a besieged people only complicates the prospects of defusing a dangerous situation that will lead to more suicide bombings, more retaliatory strikes, more dead.

No one should underestimate Israel's intent here. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government faults Mr. Arafat for the return of suicide bombers to Israeli cities and his refusal to cede power to a Palestinian prime minister willing to rein in the militants. Mr. Sharon's ministers could well decide to suffer the political fallout of removing Mr. Arafat and reoccupying all Palestinian areas solely to crush Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

But such a move would bestow on Mr. Arafat the martyr's mantle. Israel can't make that mistake unless it is prepared for a protracted war. President Bush's Middle East policy-makers need to expend every effort to save Israel from moving against Mr. Arafat, an operation that would reverberate throughout the region. At the same time, the president's advisers better be working overtime on a response to the next wave of violence that could push the Israelis to act.

This impasse will be extremely difficult to break. Mr. Arafat enjoys his role as rebel with a cause. An aggressive Israeli military works to his benefit, regardless of the impact on the Palestinian people. Mr. Arafat has been incapable of bold steps that would undercut his influence. Mr. Sharon refuses to restrain his military under the threat of suicide bombers.

Unfortunately, the U.S. isolation of Mr. Arafat hasn't furthered peace efforts. But direct (or indirect) talks with him must be conditioned on a consolidation of his security forces under the authority of the new prime minister, Ahmed Qureia. Mr. Arafat's refusal to meet that demand would signal his lack of interest in dismantling the terror network. America and its European allies also should urge Mr. Qureia to exile leading militants, which would undermine the ability of terrorist groups to act with impunity and spare civilians from the punishing retaliatory strikes carried out by Israel.

Mr. Bush should lean on Israel to stop its confiscation of Palestinian lands for a security barrier and halt the flow of financial assistance to Jewish settlers, a move that would send a signal that Israel can and will make painful decisions for peace.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun