WHAT IT MEANS: Politically, Arafat Is a Dead Man Walking

Yasser Arafat, the seemingly immortal leader of the Palestinian nationalmovement, was politically assassinated Monday by President George W. Bush.

His role as Israel's prospective partner in any future diplomatic process was effectively snuffed out by a stern-sounding American president, delivering his verdict on two years of violent intifada and his recipe for a turnabout towards peace in this war-torn region.

Bush's verdict: Arafat is the guilty party. "Today," he asserted, "the Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing, terrorism." The Palestinian Authority, he added, had "rejected [Israel's] offered hand and trafficked with terrorists."

Bush's sentence was brutal and unequivocal: "Peace requires a new anddifferent Palestinian leadership," he pronounced.

The U.S. president, in a rare and direct call to a foreign nation, urged the Palestinians to elect a new leadership "not compromised by terror." And he pledged the support of Washington and of the world for a Palestinian people demonstrably embracing democracy and stamping out the murderous militancy that it has begat.

The president's speech is a huge triumph for Ariel Sharon. At the end of last year, the Israeli prime minister seemed either naive or perverse, orboth, when he pledged to render Arafat "irrelevant." Now, he can cogently contend, he has won his case convincingly before what for Israel is the highest court of world opinion: the U.S. government.

Arafat's relevance after this speech, in Israeli eyes at any rate, will be measured solely by the extent to which he seeks to cling to power despite his consignment, by the president, to history.

Doubtless, the initial reaction in the Palestinian territories, and through much of the Arab world, will be one of angry, bitter rejection.

But the president and his aides presumably will expect that, and will have discounted it. Their focus is on the longer term. Their expectation, apparently, is that despite an initial outburst of rancorous resentment, the weight of opinion among major Arab players, and within important segments of Palestinian opinion, will turn against Arafat - and will hasten his downfall.

Bush hinted at this when he said the U.S. would be working with "key Arab states" to move peace prospects forward. Top Israeli analysts say they have discerned of late a deepening disillusionment and exhaustion with Arafat that affects a large and growing number of European and Arab capitals.

As for Israel, Bush made it clear he will expect it "to respond" to Palestinian progress towards democracy, accountability and an end to militancy by itself ending the occupation and with it the Palestinians' life of squalor and suffering.

But there was no question as to the chronological order of his wish-list. First, Arafat must go. Only then, as an Israeli government official remarked with undisguised jubilance, will the three-year period begin by the end of which, in Bush's vision, the two states of Israel and Palestine can start to live, side by side, in peace.