Yasser Arafat is still the undisputed leader of the Palestinians, but the title is worthless. He has become irrelevant. The keffiyeh-cloaked head of the PLO leader, whose words and actions opened news bulletins for decades, has largely disappeared from the screens, VIP lounges and halls of power.
For the past year, following the terror wave that culminated in the Pessah outrage in Netanya, Arafat has been under virtual house arrest in what's left of his Ramallah headquarters.
The lineup of visitors is reduced to a pathetic trickle of cronies and third-tier diplomats still popping in for coffee and small talk. Whereas a few years ago the world hung on every declaration to come out of Arafat's mouth or fax, the results of his catastrophes are in plain view.
Despite Wednesday's bus bombing in Haifa, the policy of isolating Arafat that was implemented by Ariel Sharon's government at the time of Operation Defense Shield has worked better than could have been expected.
In the first few days the implementation was partial, with journalists jumping IDF barriers to enter Arafat's Mukata compound. The soldiers were, sensibly, wary of confronting journalists (who often use their power to accuse Israel of deliberate attacks), and the world was treated to romantic, candlelight interviews with the terror leader playing his usual role as martyr.
To end the charade, the Israeli cabinet declared the entire area a fully closed military zone so that journalists and Arafat groupies could not get within shouting distance.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blocked a high-level EU delegation from visiting Arafat during this period of brutal Palestinian terror attacks. In contrast, special US envoy General Anthony Zinni was allowed to see Arafat (but without the usual media entourage), and then Secretary of State Powell went twice.
When Powell's terms for immediate, serious and visible measures to end Palestinian terror were rejected, the US delegation departed abruptly, leaving a furious Arafat behind. Journalists and diplomats could no longer make the pilgrimage to Arafat's headquarters and he soon faded from view.
Eventually Arafat was released, but only after accepting humiliating concessions such as agreeing to banish the collaborators who had taken refuge with him including the main figures in the murder of Israeli minister Rehavam Ze'evi and the Karine A arms ship to a jail in Jericho.
This episode reinforced Arafat's earlier humiliation in Bethlehem, when he accepted Israeli terms and the televised exile of Palestinian gunmen who had hidden in the Church of the Nativity.
After these incidents, when the president of the Palestinian Authority emerged to tour what was left of his realm, he found very little enthusiasm. He gained a short-lived resurgence of influence when the IDF returned to the ruins of the Mukata following the Tel Aviv suicide bus-bombing in October, but when the troops were withdrawn, Arafat faded again.
BY HIGHLIGHTING Arafat's impotence and extreme corruption this policy has been more effective than exile, which would have allowed Arafat to control events from the outside, or death, which would have turned him into a martyr. (In a world that took morality seriously instead of just using the language of ethics to excuse murder and hatred, Arafat would be on trial or in jail for war crimes.)
Without a leader or direction, the terror war that Arafat engineered is losing momentum. Palestinian motivation has declined significantly (although perhaps not as much as had been hoped), and while daily efforts to kill Israelis are continuing (and, as in the case of the Haifa bus attack, not all are thwarted), most Palestinians are exhausted, physically and psychologically.
Facing increasing ridicule at home and demands for regime change from Washington and the more enlightened parts of Europe, Arafat is being forced to at least go through the motions of relinquishing some power.
The appointment of a professional and competent finance minister, Salaam Fayad, slowed the flow of money into Arafat's coffers and might reduce the diversion of European aid into terror networks, but Fayad cannot act independently of Arafat.
The selection of a puppet prime minister will be another symbolic step, but as long as Arafat pulls the strings from behind the curtain and no one else can step forward to end the policy of terrorism and hatred, there is no sense in talking about a road map to stability and beyond.
In contrast to these cosmetic measures, the end game for Arafat and his inner circle could come in the wake of dramatic regime change in Baghdad, triggering other societies in the Arab world to depose their tyrants.
Many Palestinians realize that to achieve some degree of sovereignty, international respect, and avoid deeper economic disaster, a new and credible leadership is necessary. Recent IDF actions in Gaza are also aimed at weakening Hamas, which was attempting to take power and create an Islamic tyranny in Palestinian society in the wake of the decline of Arafat and the growing power vacuum.
While there are many sound reasons to be cautious in predictions, the post-Arafat phase could create the potential for a more open, tolerant and peaceful Palestinian society. Indeed, movements in this direction after Arafat is replaced should be met by bold Israeli responses to encourage a relaxation in tensions and support for Palestinian political and economic development.
It will take many years to undo Arafat's legacy of terror and hatred, but when he is forced off the stage the process can finally begin.The writer is director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation in the Political Studies department at Bar Ilan University.
©2003 - Jerusalem Post