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The Arafat Distraction

September 18, 2003

In the last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has done a remarkable job of rehabilitating Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Israeli government had wanted to do the opposite, isolating Arafat and pushing him to the sidelines in recent months, then threatening last week to "remove" him as an "obstacle to peace."

Now, the Israelis -- with Arafat back from the margins and a hero anew among Palestinians -- have backtracked on their harangue and forced the United States to expend diplomatic capital Tuesday to derail a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel. That veto infuriated the Islamic world, including key ally Pakistan, whose U.N. envoy warned that the vote would have "implications for other situations," such as Iraq.

The Israelis and Palestinians both deserve blame for wrecking the "road map" to peace, backed by the U.S. and allies. Sharon and Arafat hold their people hostage from peace as they play out tired, decades-old roles -- the bellicose general and the self-proclaimed revolutionary. Sharon holds out to embattled Israelis the pipe dream of security through force and the settlement of the West Bank. Arafat wrongly pretends that a Palestinian state can be built on a violence aimed at driving off the Israelis.

Both men delude themselves that the bloodshed they promulgate, directly or indirectly, lets them escape painful peace talks that must occur and that would force them to compromise on their demands.

After years of targeting radical Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Israel is succumbing to frustration over the hydra-headed monster of Palestinian terrorism. But a number of assassinations of Palestinian figures have led only to more suicide bombings. The notion that Arafat is the singular mastermind and his demise would end Palestinian terrorism belies reality.

As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has said, if the Israelis act against Arafat it will only inflame Palestinian sentiment and provoke widespread Mideast unrest. That's the last thing the Israelis or the Americans -- struggling with an Iraq occupation -- need.

The Palestinians too must halt their provocations. Arafat and a string of Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombers -- murderers of Israeli men, women and children -- undermined moderate former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. He battled Arafat for, among other things, control of Palestinian security forces so he could try to quell terrorism. He quit when it became clear that he had lost his power struggle.

President Bush correctly has told both sides to get back to making peace, not war. He rightly has warned Sharon against exiling Arafat, or worse. The administration's decision to curb loan guarantees because of construction of West Bank settlements amounts to a slap on the wrist. But it is yet one more message to the parties to end their enmities and seek their only hope for the future -- a negotiated and real peace.

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