The United States has had it with Yasser Arafat: President George W. Bush is "very disappointed," Secretary of State Colin Powell is again speaking of a "moment of truth," and envoy Anthony Zinni has reportedly likened him to a Mafia leader. The question is whether Arafat's total loss of credibility will lead to the last of his last chances.
Arafat has many last chances. In 1970, he was driven out by Jordan's King Hussein. In 1982, he was allowed to retreat under IDF guns in Beirut and set up shop in Tunisia. In December 1988, the US-PLO dialogue was opened after Arafat pledged to renounce terrorism, and in 1990 that dialogue was cut off when he was caught supporting terrorism again.
Following the 1991 Gulf War, Arafat who had chosen the wrong side and once again seemed to be broke and finished, was saved by the 1993 Oslo agreement.
In the context of Oslo, the US reopened its dialogue with the PLO. Now Arafat has turned the clock back to his days as a terrorist, and the US and Israel are trying to decide whether to try to move past Arafat or try and save him from oblivion again.
The latest last straw, as far as the US is concerned, was the Iranian-supplied arsenal of terror captured on the Karine A. This was a triple-header: It proved Arafat was double-crossing the US, his intention was to escalate terrorism, and he was opening a new alliance with one of terror's top sponsors, Iran. On Fox News yesterday, Vice President Richard Cheney said the weapons ship must have been linked to Arafat, because some of his key people were behind the operation.
Powell called the ship "a smoking gun," and the US reportedly is sharing its evidence on the matter with Egypt and Saudi Arabia to explain any future steps against Arafat.
So what is the US waiting for before closing down the PLO offices in Washington and cutting off all contact with Arafat? The answer seems to be that as much as Washington wants to see Arafat go, there is concern over what comes next. This concern - and confusion - is greatly compounded because Israel has not sent unambiguous signals in this regard.
This confusion likely explains the Bush administration's request to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to come to Washington on February 7. There is, indeed, much to talk about, as the US is also contemplating its next steps in the war on terrorism, particularly regarding Iraq.
It is very encouraging, sensible, and wise the Bush administration has shifted markedly from treating Israel as an unruly element that must be lectured about restraint to an ally with mutual interests fighting the same war. But now that the US is listening, Israel must also decide what it is saying.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is as clear as anyone about what Arafat must do, but he also has not strayed from portraying him as the only alternative to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Peres does not go as far as Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief did in The New York Times - calling Arafat a "man of peace" - but his conclusion is the same: Arafat represents the lesser of available evils.
It is not at all clear the notion Hamas and Islamic Jihad would likely fill a leadership vacuum left by Arafat is based on any serious thinking. It seems to be based on the fact these fundamentalist organizations are the main opposition to Arafat at the moment. But to use Anthony Zinni's analogy, the dons with the most guns are not the fundamentalists but the security organizations now under Arafat. Some of these dons are not only unlikely to go quietly into the night, but have reportedly urged Arafat to engage in the crackdown he continues to resist.
In any case, the US and Israel have nothing to lose by jointly pulling the plug on Arafat. Either total isolation will lead him, as a desperate act before losing power, to confronting rather than preserving his terrorist option, or he will simply lose power. Arafat's likely successors will be no friends of Israel, but they will not inherit Arafat's aura of indispensability, and therefore will be more easily compelled to accommodate the post-September 11 commandment against terrorism. Arafat, long seen as the only leader able to face down opponents of peace, has become the opposite: the main obstacle preventing such an internal Palestinian confrontation.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post