September 18, 2003

Israel's Threats Against Arafat

If 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.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company