There's Nothing to Gain from Exiling Arafat

September 14, 2003

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is an egomaniacal demagogue who has frustrated the best efforts to reach a lasting peace agreement in the Mideast conflict. He is a cunning, treacherous, conniving man who can be trusted only to break every promise he makes unless it's in his personal interest to keep it.

But for all that, Arafat is the elected representative of the Palestinians. Like it or not, they've chosen him, and it's up to them, not Israel, to oust him. For the Israeli government to decide to "remove" Arafat, threatening him with expulsion from the Palestinian territories - as it did Thursday - is a bad mistake that invites unfortunate consequences.

The White House is right to oppose Arafat's ouster, arguing that his removal would be counterproductive to efforts aimed at restarting the stalled peace talks and "would just give him another stage to play on." An exiled Arafat, fulminating at Israel from a villa in Morocco or the French Riviera, would revel in his role as a martyr to the cause of Palestinian nationalism. He would be lionized by Islamists and revered as a victim of Israeli oppression. Why give him that?

More to the point, with Arafat gone from the West Bank, Hamas would probably supplant Arafat's Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority as the dominant force. If Arafat could be counted on to play frustrating games over peace talks, Hamas can be expected to wage endless war for the unattainable goal of eradicating the Jewish state. There is no negotiating with Hamas.

Fortunately, Israel's announced intention to oust Arafat is more of a threat than an actual plan. Israeli leaders were intentionally vague about specific details and timing. With mobs of enraged supporters ringing Arafat's headquarters, Israel knows expulsion by force could result in carnage that would be condemned worldwide.

Indeed, the expulsion decision, born of frustration with Arafat's refusal to act against terrorists, is aimed as much at a domestic Jewish audience. Faced with escalating violence, Israel's government had to show its people it was ready to take drastic action against a man who has come to symbolize everything wrong with the peace process.

But it should be remembered that, when it suits his purposes, Arafat is not averse to playing a constructive role in the peace process. He did that after the Oslo accord, cracking down effectively for a time on Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. His chief - his only - interest is clinging to power. If that means inciting violence, he will do that. If it means playing peacemaker, he will do that, too.

When Mahmoud Abbas - hand-picked by Washington, Israel and the European Union as the anti-Arafat - was rammed down his throat as the first Palestinian prime minister, Arafat sabotaged him. He refused to give him the means to crack down on violence and actively encouraged terrorism until Abbas was forced to quit. Now that he has his man, Ahmed Qureia, as prime minister, Arafat might actually be willing to resume playing the peace game. Sure, that's a slender, speculative reed on which to hang peace talks. But there's not much else. And if Israel throws Arafat out, all bets are off.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.