the Israeli government hopes to marginalize Yasir Arafat — an aim
we heartily endorse — then recent threats by senior ministers to
have him killed show how poorly they understand the Palestinians.
They have propelled Mr. Arafat back into the warm embrace of his
besieged and increasingly desperate people — returned him to where
he is happiest, to the role of a scrappy fighter standing firm against
the Israeli behemoth. This posturing on both sides serves neither
people. Ariel Sharon and his ministers have a responsibility to
pull back from their explosive language and take real steps that
could alter the Palestinian political dynamic for the better.
The Israeli foreign
minister, Silvan Shalom, has already issued a clarification, saying
that killing Mr. Arafat is not official policy. That is a relief.
Nonetheless, last week the security cabinet announced a decision
in principle to have the Palestinian president "removed," which
presumably means sent into exile. This is less extreme, although
not much wiser. After all these decades, it is self-evident that
Israel cannot pry Mr. Arafat's grip from Palestinian politics. Trying
to do so only tightens it. A far wiser path is to outflank him by
empowering his reformist rivals.
This is a process that
tentatively began earlier this year. Palestinian reformers, fed
up with Mr. Arafat's duplicity and repeated failures, forced him
to appoint a prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who had repeatedly denounced
terror and violence. Mr. Abbas quickly arranged a cease-fire among
Palestinian armed factions and asked Mr. Sharon to help him win
over public opinion. But Mr. Sharon failed to grasp the opportunity.
He freed a few hundred prisoners, lifted a few roadblocks and handed
out a few thousand work visas to Palestinians. But he did nothing
about the core issue: ending Jewish settlements in the West Bank
and Gaza Strip. Mr. Abbas, who failed to confront Palestinian armed
groups, resigned in disgust with Israel, with splinter groups and
with Mr. Arafat.
Israel has something
of a second chance with the new nominee for prime minister, Ahmed
Qurei, the longtime speaker of the Palestinian legislature. Mr.
Qurei is less known for independence from Mr. Arafat or for making
brave political pronouncements than Mr. Abbas. Nonetheless, Mr.
Qurei has a history of serious and fruitful negotiation with Israel.
Moreover, Palestinians are backing Mr. Arafat now more out of solidarity
than out of any real belief in his leadership. Palestinian analysts
believe that he remains vulnerable — as long as Israel helps those
trying to ease him from power. That will happen only with a withdrawal
from occupied lands.
The Bush administration
was right to veto on Monday a U.N. Security Council resolution that
was offered by Syria and would have called on Israel to withdraw
the threat to deport Mr. Arafat. But the White House can do much
more to push Israel. The administration's decision this week to
use loan guarantees as a stick to prod Israel into freezing settlements
was a small step in the right direction.
If Israel would start
that process, which is in its own self-interest, it might finally
find a way to eclipse Mr. Arafat.