Extending a Hand to Arafat

The whole world has turned its back on him, trying to keep in step with the United States. The Arab world ignores him, while former American president Bill Clinton surprisingly and mistakenly omitted him from his itinerary during his recent visit to Israel.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's position has never been worse. This is very bad news for Israel, contrary to what Israelis generally think.

Our second meeting in Arafat's besieged Ramallah office in less than a month clearly demonstrates the change that has occurred in his situation: He is more isolated, Israeli tanks are closer to his window and apparently he recognizes how grave his position is, despite his giving the appearance of "business as usual."

The whole world has turned its back on him, trying to keep in step with the United States. The Arab world ignores him, while former American president Bill Clinton surprisingly and mistakenly omitted him from his itinerary during his recent visit to Israel.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, one of the most decent of the world's leaders and one of the most involved in this region, said late last week to one Israeli leader that he must support the American position "to avoid splitting the camp."

American President George W. Bush has stated that he is very disappointed in Arafat and, as punishment, has put Anthony Zinni's mission on hold.

All the world's leaders, whom Arafat used to visit so frequently, are ignoring him in his distress. No one bothers to call, not even on the phone. When asked about this situation, he tries to cover up the truth: A Lebanese cabinet minister transmitted a letter to him and a personal emissary was received by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Arafat is the world's latest victim of the September 11 terrorist attack on America. The "contract" the Bush administration has taken out against him could be the beginning of the end for Arafat. Israel has now received the go-ahead from the U.S. to proceed with the humiliating siege on Arafat. For Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, this is excellent news, but it is a bad omen for Israel.

It is easy to understand why Sharon is delighted with his enemy's downfall. The deposing of Arafat has been almost the only declared goal Sharon has ever disclosed. It is difficult to know what exactly Sharon has in mind once his objective is achieved. If journalist Uri Avnery's projection is correct and Sharon tries to begin implementing his grand scheme for getting the Palestinians out of the territories; if Sharon attempts to set up a puppet regime for the Palestinians; or if former justice minister (Labor) Yossi Beilin's assessment is right and Sharon, like anyone who dramatically changes the rules of the game, never gave much thought to what would happen after Arafat was deposed, Arafat's toppling is no cause for celebration as far as Israel is concerned.

An enlightened nation never seeks to topple the leader of another state or entity. What right does Israel have, after all, to determine for the Palestinians who should be their leader?

Arafat - is there any need for recalling this point - is the Palestinians' founding father, their historical leader and their national symbol. He is also the initiator of the historical compromise the Palestinians accepted: Recognition of Israel and receipt of only half of what was once British Mandatory Palestine, a compromise Israelis treat lightly - and unjustifiably so.

He erred in the munitions ship affair; however, that episode is no justification for the world to be so furious with him - so furious in fact that the affair gives the appearance of being merely a pretext for the anger. It is hard to understand how the U.S. and Israel, which arm the world's most sinister regimes, have managed to stir up such a scandal over a single munitions ship. What the American administration considers to be in Israel's best interests is not always the best thing for Israel.

Israel is now free to treat Arafat however it likes. His banishment or perhaps even his assassination will not incur the wrath of Bush's America and perhaps will not even anger Europe, which is so subservient these days. Arafat's banishment or assassination will, however, inflict severe damage on Israel in the long run.

Banishment will not spell the end of the road for Arafat. He has already proven that, as a banished leader, he can wield immense power; thus, banishment could actually serve his interests. The Arab world would regard his banishment as yet another manifestation of Israel's cruelty toward the Palestinians. In the territories his standing would be enhanced and nobody would dare disobey him (even if the orders are given by remote control), let alone try to replace him. If his banishment would have any influence on Palestinian terrorism, that influence would be expressed in an expansion of this terrorism's scope.

Even the plot to continue "drying him out" in his Ramallah office is not doing Israel any good: The American-Israeli demand from a besieged Arafat, who can barely emerge from his own office, that he fight terrorism from Rafah to Jenin is thus no more than a bad joke.

Things will be no better after Arafat is gone. Whether he is succeeded by a leader-cum-collaborator or by a dictatorial regime run by the heads of Palestinian security agencies, no new leader would dare concede to Israel more than that which Arafat has conceded. Any leader who exceeds Arafat's concessions would not be recognized as legitimate in Palestinian eyes. Israel would therefore find itself faced with anarchy, a radical leadership or leaders who will do its bidding but who will be condemned by their own people.

In Arafat's most difficult hour, it is in Israel's best interests to extend him a helping hand. No less relevant than Sharon, Arafat is Israel's only partner, period. It is difficult to understand why Israelis who oppose Sharon's policies are not loudly protesting the idea of Arafat's removal from the political scene and are not extending him a helping hand - a move that would earn much gratitude from the Palestinians.

Although it may sound illogical today - as a noisy chorus unanimously and constantly enumerates his errors and crimes - Arafat is no more of a problem than is Sharon. Furthermore, unlike Sharon, Arafat has no worthy replacement. Both Sharon and Arafat should be replaced - when the time comes - solely by their own nation.