The escalation in Palestinian-Israeli hostilities overshadows an equally daunting political challenge facing Palestinians: their lack of visionary leadership and the absence of a public debate on this critical issue. With the exception of a few courageous voices, Palestinians and the Arab world have refrained from publicly discussing Yasser Arafat's dismal failings with regard to peace negotiations and the urgent task of nation-building.
Arab and Muslim colleagues confide to me that they fear that criticizing Arafat's autocratic conduct would play into Israeli hands, particularly the ruling Likud government, which is trying to destroy Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's besiegement and humiliation of Arafat compel Palestinians to side with their nationalist leader. Sharon's destructive methods are producing the opposite of their intended results.
Tragically, Palestinians appear to be repeating the costly mistakes committed by their Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi brethren, who sacrificed economic and political development at the altar of security and the fight against the "Zionist entity," losing both battles in the process.
Palestinians are at a crossroads and no longer can afford to blindly trust a bankrupt leadership. Arafat has squandered humble but important achievements that were hard-won by Palestinians over the last two decades. Closedminded and authoritarian, Arafat has not digested three of the most critical lessons in the prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict.
* Lesson one: Violence and terrorism against Israeli civilians undermine, not strengthen, the legitimate Palestinian cause by empowering the hard-liners in Israel who oppose a sweeping peace settlement.
Instead of building bridges directly to the Israeli public and informing his people of the requirements of peace, Arafat spent more time abroad, conducting shuttle diplomacy. He also spent more time abroad than in communicating with Palestinians.
The academic debate about who is accountable for igniting the armed Al Aqsa intifada overlooks the fact that violence and terrorism threaten not only to destroy Arafat and his Palestinian Authority but also Palestinian nationalist aspirations.
* Lesson two: Despite signing the 1993 Oslo accords, Arafat continues to pursue the illusion of an Arab option.
Although Arab rulers pay lip service to the plight of the Palestinians, they have not translated their rhetoric into real currency. Since the outbreak of the intifada 17 months ago and after two Arab summits, Arab rulers pledged billions in U.S. dollars to aid the collapsing Palestinian economy but delivered little of this promised aid.
Palestinians should not expect much concrete assistance from the Arab summit in March because the Arab world is deeply divided over the Palestine question. While Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf countries call for an end to the intifada and a return to the negotiating table, Syria and Lebanon oppose giving up armed resistance.
Mainstream Israelis--some of whom have become skeptical--must be convinced of the limited nature of the Palestinians' nationalist aspirations.
* Lesson three: Socialized into the chaotic street politics of Jordan in the 1960s and 1970s and of Lebanon in the 1970s and early 1980s, Arafat took what he learned and applied it to the Palestinian situation: He behaved much more like a militia boss than a statesman confronting the challenge of constructing a democratic state.
By failing to understand the real sources of Israeli power, Arafat, using corruption as a tool to consolidate his political control and marginalize opposition, built a bloated bureaucracy and several security agencies beholden to his will.
Shattered were the high hopes pinned on Palestinians to avoid imitating the deadly models of Arab militarism and authoritarianism and to chart, instead, a more liberal path.
The result is that his Palestinian Authority lacks moral legitimacy in the eyes of the world and many Palestinian citizens as well.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian cause has become synonymous with Arafat to the detriment of the former. Yet Palestinians remain ambivalent about taking their leader to task and holding him accountable for his wrongful deeds, thanks mainly to Sharon's shortsighted policies and his brutal crackdown. The Palestinian public is terrified of what the future holds after Arafat's departure.
In the final analysis, Arafat's dismal failure to nourish an open society and develop transparent institutions likely will have as much lasting negative effects on Palestinians as the current setback in peace talks and the devastating Israeli onslaught.
Sooner rather than later, Palestinians and Israelis will recognize their common interests and make the needed painful compromises to settle their differences.