Arafat's Israeli Coalition

The existence of Arafat ensures there will be no change in Israeli policy. All that's left to do is to wish the Palestinian leader good health and continued political stability. Without him we may yet have to figure out how to resolve the conflict.

Arafat must not be assassinated. This is not some left-wing notion or a sudden burst of compassion for the Palestinian leader. No, Arafat must not be assassinated because as long as he's around there will be no peace, Israel will be able to go on holding the territories, there will be no need to evacuate settlements or come up with a political plan, the Labor Party will not have to vie for public opinion, the Likud will continue to enjoy policy successes at home and abroad, and if we return to a routine of "only" one terrorist attack a month, we will forget very quickly who is heading the Palestinian Authority, because we will be - in fact we already are - the Palestinian Authority. That is, the authority that is managing the Palestinians.

Arafat is not the only leader who holds this status today. Widespread conspiracy theories among large segments of the Arab public hold, for example, that the United States does not really want to do away with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The existence of Saddam makes it possible for the U.S. to go on imposing a regime of sanctions that result in a closure that is apparently more effective than the international supervision imposed on Iraq previously. Saddam's existence accords the Americans considerable leeway for making threats that serve as a means of pressure on the Arab states, and his existence even acts as a good bargaining chip in the various disputes that Washington has with Europe and Russia on other issues.

Just as Saddam was "appointed" to shape U.S. policy in the Middle East, so Arafat shapes Israeli policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If there is one person, more than any other, on whom the policy pursued by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rests, that person is Yasser Arafat. He is an island of stability in the government's policy.

This government has succeeded in what is, after all, a very short time, to persuade the public that everything, but everything, depends on the existence or nonexistence of Arafat. So if only it were possible to remove him, if only he would die of natural causes or take up residence on a desert island to write his memoirs, the Palestinians would agree to every Israeli proposal, establish a state on 42 percent of the area of the West Bank and insert a note in the Western Wall.

Alternatively, Israel presents him as the obstacle preventing the Palestinians from reaching the Promised Land. Were it not for him, we would have given back the territories and dismantled the settlements long ago. This is exactly the bluff that Defense Minister and Labor Party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer tried to sell the public on the festive evening of the party's convention last week. He painted an almost perfect picture of the shape of the Israeli-Palestinian future: Two states for two nations; divided Jerusalem; dismantlement of isolated settlements; 1967 borders with adjustments; the Clinton formula - everything, the whole political horizon was laid out in bold colors. The only thing is, though, he said, is that as long as Arafat is around, our hands are tied.

Tied? Is anyone preventing the defense minister from dismantling isolated settlements or even just the illegal outposts? What does that have to do with Arafat being in power? Is anyone preventing him from transferring the money Israel owes to the PA directly to the local governments in the territories and thus avoiding Arafat's treasury? Is anyone stopping him from reading the coalition agreement his party signed with the Likud and refreshing his memory about the clause on the freeze on the settlements and only announcing he is adhering to it? But why bother now - after all, there is no partner and therefore no policy is needed.

On second thoughts, it's not the Palestinians who need a political horizon, it's us. Because after we have been utterly persuaded there is no future with Arafat, the direct conclusion is that there is no need to replace the government or demand the resignation of the Labor Party. What for? After all, the existence of Arafat, even according to Ben-Eliezer, ensures there will be no change in Israeli policy. All that's left to do is to wish the Palestinian leader good health and continued political stability. Without him we may yet have to figure out how to resolve the conflict. Meantime, those who held their breath at the weekend ahead of the publication of Sharon's secret political plan can go back to breathing normally.