Yasser Arafat has had any number of "last chances," but even he must be noticing that something new is going on. One of the most emblematic events of this change in the wind is yesterday's visit of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. The minister's visit, during which he shook hands vigorously with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem and for the cameras, is in sharp contrast with Egypt's withdrawal of its ambassador a year ago.
In the past, the pattern has been that the more Arafat attacks Israel, the more the Arab states side with him and condemn Israel's responses. The Maher visit is a clear break with this pattern, and Egypt is not alone. As The Washington Post noted yesterday, the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have "avoided any direct criticism" of Israeli actions that in the past would have triggered an emergency Arab summit and other efforts to convey solidarity with Arafat. According to the same report, a Western official said that these leaders are telling Arafat "roughly the same thing [US Secretary of State] Colin Powell is telling him." The diplomat continued, "They are frightened. They hate Sharon, but Arafat is not without culpability, and they know that you can't pull out the old playbook anymore."
What has changed? The change cannot be explained by September 11 alone, because initially these same Arab leaders were trying to get the US to pressure Israel and arguing that Palestinian terrorism was "resisting occupation." Four things happened to change the Arab tune. First, US President George W. Bush stood before the United Nations and completely rejected the notion that states may support terrorism against anyone, anywhere - a dramatic shift from his welcoming of a terrible Arab summit declaration a few weeks before. Second, the Taliban collapsed like a house of cards, proving the US meant business. Third, Bush dropped the evenhandedness between Palestinian terror and Israel's right to self-defense that had plagued US policy since the beginning of the Palestinian offensive. Fourth, Israel, instead of once again giving Arafat the benefit of the nonexistent doubt, seemed determined to force him to crack down on terror or step down from power.
Arafat may not yet have gotten the message, but the Arab states have: In the face of US and Israeli resolve, Arafat had better stop terrorism now. The lesson here is straightforward. If Israel hesitates to defend itself, and the US hesitates to defend Israel, the Arab street smells blood and the Arab states call for more pressure on Israel. If the US and Israel show resolve, the Arab street falls silent and the Arab governments fall into line. American "evenhandedness" that was designed to placate the Arab world had exactly the opposite effect. American support for Israel, far from weakening the US-led coalition, signaled that it was time to throw out the old playbook and put real pressure on Arafat.
The danger now is that the advocates of the old US and Israeli policies will attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Arafat, still using that old playbook, is trying to do just enough to placate the US without burning bridges with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. As of yesterday afternoon, Arafat had made over 100 arrests, but had reportedly arrested only eight of the 33 top terrorists named by Israel. As Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has repeatedly pointed out, democracies have many voices and one army, while the Palestinian Authority still has one voice and many armies.
It is not enough for Arafat to put Hamas in a closet, ready to be taken out again whenever he feels like it. Since September 11, that is called "harboring terrorists" and, if the war on terrorism is to mean anything, that crime is punishable by removal from power.
It is possible, even likely, that for the new US and Israeli policies to succeed they must be taken further in the same direction. If the current US shift is not sufficient, the US should show even more support for Israel, and more determination to isolate Arafat. The resolution of the US Congress calling for a total break with the Palestinian Authority if the infrastructure of terror is not destroyed is a step in the right direction, and Bush should tell Arafat that he fully intends to act on it if he does not see quick results.
Israel, for its part, must do a more consistent job of speaking with one voice. During Maher's visit, Peres and Sharon seemed to be on the same song sheet, but it is critical that Labor stop acting as if it is uncomfortable with keeping Arafat's feet to the fire. The bottom line is that Sharon and Peres agree: If Arafat does what Israel is demanding, there will be no choice but to negotiate with him; if he does not, there be no choice but look to his successors. For Peres to imply that he believes in diplomacy more than Sharon, or is willing to hold Arafat to a lower standard, is unfair, extremely harmful, and a betrayal of his charge to represent the Israeli people to the world at this critical time.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post