Arafat Comes Back to Haunt Bush

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We’ve seen this movie before: Israel surrounds what’s left of Yasser Arafat’s battered compound and assumes a menacing posture, vowing to act against him for failing to end terror attacks; masses of Palestinians, regardless of what they may think of Arafat’s stewardship, rally to their elected president and national icon; moderate Arab leaders warn of a regional cataclysm if the Israelis carry out their threat; and U.S. officials suggest politely but firmly that Arafat’s physical ouster would be “unhelpful.” But each rerun of the “Rumble in Ramallah” appears to simply confirm the aging Palestinian leader’s centrality to the fate of his people — and that of their neighbors. And also that, three years into a Palestinian uprising that has killed 818 Israelis and 2,595 Palestinians, neither side is able to break the strategic stalemate by imposing its will on the other.

Following the death of 15 Israelis in a brace of Hamas suicide bombings Tuesday, the Israeli cabinet on Thursday branded Arafat an obstacle that Israel would remove “in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing." The Israeli Defense Force was even mandated to prepare plans for that removal, but no date was set. And Israeli media reported that in light of U.S. opposition to Israel harming or removing Arafat, the cabinet’s decision was simply an in-principle one that would not be implemented right now. For Arafat, however, the latest Israeli threat proved to be an unlikely boost, provoking massive street demonstrations in his support in Ramallah and Gaza, and forcing the region’s preeminent moderate Arab leader, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to warn that dire consequences would follow an Arafat expulsion and that — notwithstanding U.S. and Israeli efforts to sideline him — ''no Palestinian prime minister will succeed without the help of Arafat.” Even Sharon’s former foreign minister, Shimon Peres, warned that expulsion would be an “historic mistake” that would only strengthen Arafat’s grip on Palestinian politics. Despite having long ago been branded “irrelevant” by Sharon and banished from the diplomatic itineraries of the Bush administration, Thursday’s actions capped a month-long performance in which Yasser Arafat has reaffirmed his centrality to events in the Middle East.

The arguments for restraint on Arafat are well known in Israel, all the way up to Sharon’s cabinet. Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky wrote in Haaretz on Tuesday that "We must face the simple truth: Arafat has unsurpassed stature in Palestinian society. Palestinians view him as a national hero. And since Arafat's strength is sustained by his opposition to Israel, his exile would only fortify his position." An exiled Arafat would retain the leadership of the Palestinian national movement, thereby rendering redundant the Palestinian Authority, which would be unlikely to survive his departure. Simply put, no one would be willing to negotiate in his stead, and the PA would be left without a functioning government. That would force Israel to resume the responsibilities of the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza, including civil administration — in the face of a population boiling with hostility and various militias and terror organizations more than ready to fight new Israeli incursions. The Bush administration is alarmed by the prospect of not just a new wave of bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians, but also the collapse of the institutional framework for any further movement toward a two-state solution.

For the Israelis’ part, the renewed moves against Arafat express the frustration at their inability to break out of a strategic logjam that has made commonplace the spectacle of broken, bloodied bodies on the streets of Israel’s cities despite the best efforts of its military to kill the commanders and operatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. Some argue that Arafat is the terror kingpin, that the whole Oslo enterprise was a tragic mistake that Israel now has an opportunity to rectify by turning back the clock 12 years. Others see him a cynical power broker flitting between the different Palestinian constituencies and tolerating, rather than directing terror, but preventing the emergence of a new leadership with whom Israel might reach a deal. Still others see expelling him as a mistake that would remove the possibility of negotiations with the Palestinians for years to come. But even among fervent advocates of his ouster, few believe that it would bring an end to Israel’s troubles any time soon. And Israel’s leaders will take U.S. concerns as the reason for avoiding action right now.

But simply restoring the equilibrium of the recent past — two governments at least rhetorically committed to implementing President Bush’s “roadmap” initiative, even if real progress was negligible — may no longer be possible. That’s because Arafat has carefully raised the stakes: Whereas previously, the U.S. had insisted that he not be harmed but also that he be isolated and ignored, the Palestinian leader has effectively junked that strategy by bringing down Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas — the man designated by Washington and Israel to succeed Arafat — and reasserting his dominance in the PA. His new prime minister-designate Ahmed Qureia warned this week that there could be no progress toward peace as long as the U.S. and Israel refused to acknowledge Arafat’s status as the elected president of the Palestinians. But the Israelis refuse to deal with Arafat or anyone mandated by him. The Bush administration has largely followed suit, although it has on some recent occasions proved more inclined to deal, discreetly, with Arafat’s proxies, even while avoiding the PA president himself. Washington sought to sidestep Qureia’s challenge, saying the new prime minister would be judged by the same standard Washington has used with Abbas — the extent to which he’s willing to crack down on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical groups. But Qureia is no more likely than Abbas to launch a Palestinian civil war, and he’s insisting on Arafat’s rehabilitation as a precondition for new peace efforts.

And so a President facing the twin perils of a troubled Iraq occupation and a tough reelection battle is forced to contemplate a mounting crisis in his Middle East policy. You can’t live with Arafat, say the Israelis. You can’t live without him, say the Palestinians. To George W. Bush, then, the task of reconciling the obviously irreconcilable.