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Barring blaring personality changes of the sort seen in Jerry Lewis flicks, it could be that we witnessed this weekend Yasser Arafat's final bow at the historical center of stage. In a moment that might be engraved for posterity in some future documentary film, Arafat exclaimed in rage during an Israel One television interview: "What do I care about the Americans? Who cares about the Americans?"

To utter this sentence at this precise historical instant is to set one of the all-time records for "the worst conceivable political timing." When articulated by one who is monitored as closely as a target seen through a telescopic gun sight, the statement constitutes rank foolishness on a level not to be found even in a Monty Python skit.

But the statement was not Arafat's sole display of bad timing. No less grotesque was the moment when Arafat got to the basic point of the interview, appealing to Israeli public opinion, begging for his hide and his reputation. And, as though in some sloppy satire, at this precise critical juncture in the interview, it turned out that some behind-the-scenes prompter (Shimon, was that you?) had to whisper and prod Arafat to say the sentence, "I offer my hand in peace."

True, the whole interview appeared misbegotten and coopted - it looked biased and like an interrogation in a B film, and Arafat seemed anxious and besieged, stewed as though he had stayed in one place too long, like a chicken overdone on the barbecue (he promised to search for "Ze'ev Schiff's murderers, when he meant Rehavam Ze'evi's killers). The interview's editing might have been tendentious, too. Nonetheless, under light more blinding than ever, the real "Arafat" was revealed. This was the figure we had only heard about previously from negotiators who found themselves pulling their hair out and climbing the walls after bargaining and formulating agreements with him.

When Arafat started to haggle like a huckster about the number of terror suspects he's arrested, or hasn't arrested, or when he started to meander endlessly with remarks about "Zinni's list," repeating the U.S. envoy's name like an impish child, he provided an extremely off-putting spectacle of infantile evasiveness, dangling over an abyss of emptiness.

Many political circles in Israel, particularly on the right, have for years demonized Arafat; and, in so doing, they actually glorified him. If their characterization is to be believed, Arafat is a kind of arch nemesis, the Professor Moriarty of world politics - a wily, satanic genius who has no peer, who spins evil webs like a spider, concocting schemes for the short and long term. Arafat has been depicted as master strategist, responsible for the exact placement of each random-looking terrorist, and for the brilliant timing of each errant-seeming gunshot.

But now it appears that Israel's most closely guarded secret is being exposed (such exposure might be one of the reasons why officials in the Prime Minister's Office were so furious about the interview broadcast). The demonic figure is being laid bare: Arafat is simply a fool. An idiot. A dunce. Like our dunces, and maybe even worse. And why shouldn't we give stupidity its due? For us, this possibility of idiocy is no less chilling than other alternatives. It might be more frightening.