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In the fall of 1989, then-president George Bush Sr. convened his National Security Council to discuss the situation in the Gulf. "We know a lot about the nature of this guy, Saddam Hussein, and the question is whether the leopard can change its spots," the president summed up. The CIA presented its assessments, which supported the suspicious approach of then-under secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz. The conclusion was clear, the spots wouldn't be erased, and the predator would not turn into a pet. Nonetheless, for "other reasons," as Wolfowitz says, Bush decided - with support from the State Department and then- joint chief of staff Colin Powell - to continue the conciliatory policy toward Saddam.

Those lessons are now serving Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of defense in Bush Jr.'s administration, as well as former defense secretary Dick Cheney, now vice president, and the current defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. They are not only the hawkish faction in the administration when it comes to Saddam but also the group that regards Yasser Arafat, Saddam's ally then and now, as an incorrigible, miniature version of Saddam.

When Wolfowitz met this week, as reported, with Muhamed Dahlan, head of Palestinian Preventive Security in Gaza, there was no mistake about the platform under debate in the Washington "primaries" over who'll take over from Arafat. "Lead, follow, or get out of the way," is the basic principle of teamwork in American organizations, whether commercial or political. If Arafat refuses to lead, and it's not to be expected he'll totter along in the rear, then he has to go.

It's been nearly 50 years since the campaign at Dien Bien Phu, in the French/Indo-Chinese war, which turned the phrase "light at the end of the tunnel" into a cliche. The French gave in to the liberation movement headed by Ho Chi Minh for many reasons, with the most important being president Eisenhower's decision - which rang around the world even louder than in the case of the Suez Campaign - not to intervene on their behalf (especially not with nuclear devices). Ho went on to use subversive violence to violate the agreement that divided Vietnam. Even if Arafat was like Ho, the precedent would not be in his favor; to get out of the tunnel, the Palestinians will have to put their car in reverse.

Despite pockets of opposition around Powell, the Bush administration is closing in on a policy that skewers the Palestinians on the horns of a dilemma: An independent state is within reach.

If they stop trying to blow up the path with suicide missions and prove they are determined to end terror and start fighting it, they have to get rid of Arafat, who refuses to do so. Arafat is not the bridge between the Palestinian people and its independence, but the chasm that separates them. He's not beating the occupation, he's perpetuating it.

The Palestinians could prefer Arafat, and leave him in place as an odd combination of Fidel Castro, object of American isolation, and the corrupt dictator Castro overthrew, Fulgencio Batista. Alternatively, under another leadership, they could prove to the skeptical Israeli public that they have the strength to honor agreements, and demilitarize the attitude of Palestine toward Israel. Without those two decisive pieces of evidence, there won't be an Israeli majority for a withdrawal from the territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state in them, nor will there be American pressure to do so.

Arafat is tempting fate by letting suicide bombers do their thing. The double shock wave, of a terrorist attack and internal and external pressure, will throw him out of the territories and leave the arena open for Dahlan's wars with his rivals.