Arafat's Alibi

By Richard Cohen

Thursday, May 9, 2002; Page A31

Following a suicide bombing, fatalities are usually listed in two categories -- the innocent victims and then, almost as an afterthought, the bomber himself. For the most recent bombing near Tel Aviv, a third category must be added: Ariel Sharon's credibility. It has been shredded.

Frankly, I am not sure if credibility is the right word, because it's possible that Sharon believes what he says. But in saying the bombing proved "the true intentions of the person leading the Palestinian Authority," he was insisting on what most of the world -- anyone with a TV set, that is -- suspects cannot be true.

Until just the other day, Yasser Arafat was under house arrest in Ramallah. He was surrounded by Israeli troops. No one went in and no one went out -- not, that is, without the Israelis seeing him. I presume that all telephone conversations were monitored, because that was the case for Arafat even before he was cooped in Ramallah. It's hardly possible that he gave an order -- even in the most complex code -- while a prisoner.

What about since? Still, not likely. Unless the vaunted Israeli intelligence services have become inept, I would assume that they had Arafat under surveillance the entire time. I assume his phone is tapped. I assume his car is bugged. If he had a pacemaker, I assume the Israelis could turn it off.

It is, of course, remotely possible that Arafat either gave the order for the bombing or looked the other way. But Sharon did not make such a case. He offered no proof -- nothing to overcome our skepticism. It's not, mind you, that I don't believe Arafat is a terrorist and has in the past either initiated or acquiesced in suicide bombings. It's rather that this time Sharon seems only to be rounding up the usual suspects.

Suicide bombings are abominations. They are the true massacres of the Israeli-Palestinian battle -- not the concocted one at Jenin. Here, so obvious the United Nations need not investigate, is the purposeful murder of innocents. This is what the world should condemn. Suicide bombers, not the occasional and limited Israeli military excess, are what the world will learn to fear.

But Sharon cannot allow terrorists to set his agenda. It was no coincidence that the blast went off as Sharon was meeting with President Bush. Arafat noted "the timing of this dangerous attack" in his statement condemning the bombing. He went on, of course, to attack Sharon and once again mention "the massacres in the Jenin camp and other places." The man is incapable of the truth.

Nonetheless, Arafat had nothing to gain by permitting a suicide bombing at this time. He must know how Sharon will retaliate. He must know that Sharon is perfectly capable of snatching him and sending him back into exile. At a minimum, Sharon could destroy whatever the Palestinian Authority has left -- and that ain't much.

For Sharon, a terrorist attack is a clarifying event. It juices him, puts him back in a tank, on the offensive and certain of his moral mission. It is diplomacy where he is lost. It's a bog. He rejects diplomacy's aims -- a Palestinian state, for instance -- and its insistence that he treat his enemy as an equal. He recoils from that, as if he has eaten something bitter.

And yet, he must know that there is no getting around Arafat. Sharon has made his enemy the essential man if there is to be a peace process, anointed him with his hatred and scorn as the unquestioned king of the Palestinians. He has dismantled Arafat's political and police apparatus, turning him from a feared foe to a victim of supposed Israeli excess. The world, particularly Europe, now sees both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle as equally worthy -- also equally contemptible.

In a sense, Sharon has lost the only war that matters in the long run. In the United States and Europe, Israel has suffered a public relations debacle. Its leader seems intransigent; the Palestinians pose as innocent victims. The gullible, unburdened by historical knowledge and suffused with the latest TV images, rally for the corrupt Arafat -- and the American Jewish community, spooked by anti-Semites, has lost any ability to distinguish between Israel and its current leadership. It embraces failure as if it were success itself.

These bombings make everyone crazed. The rending of flesh, the unspeakable horror of bodies vaporized, make us all a little nuts. But we cannot let go of what we know. Suicide bombings are virtually nonexistent when Israel and the Palestinian Authority cooperate on security matters. A meaningful peace process discourages terrorism. The only way out of this mess is not with further violence -- but across a table.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company