The Arafat Era Is Over, and It's Almost Time to Say So

In the eight years since the Oslo peace process flowered and then failed, Israel has had five prime ministers, but the Palestinians have had only Yasir Arafat. Perhaps, then, it was not so surprising that when Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister, came to Washington in October, he talked about Arafat, Arafat, Arafat. In a speech at the National Press Club on October 21, Peres mused: "People are asking, Is Arafat capable? Nobody knows the answer." The next day, in a speech at the Brookings Institution, Peres was peppered with questions about Arafat. Does Arafat really have control of the Palestinian territories? "I don't believe he has full-fledged control over Palestinians," Peres replied, "but he has enough, and he has more than anyone else."

Peres looks youthful for his 78 years. He speaks firmly in a rich baritone and answers questions, in English, with concision and command. It is his hands that show his age. They are wrinkled, withered, papery. If the face speaks of hope, the hands speak of experience. Peres has invested more hope and hard work in Arafat than has any other leading world figure, possibly including Arafat. No doubt, then, it was a bitter moment when, in his Brookings speech, Peres walked right to the edge of saying, in public, that Arafat is history—that he is either intractable or irrelevant or both. "If a leader cannot lead, who needs him?" said Peres. "If he can lead but doesn't, again, what good is he?"

Until now, and including now, American diplomacy has relied on Arafat. In his article in this issue, my colleague Bruce Stokes quotes a State Department official as saying, "Behind closed doors, this is all about getting back to Mitchell." The reference is to the recommendations of an independent advisory group, headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell, that urged the Israelis and Palestinians to stop shooting, cool off, and then get back to negotiations. From the Israelis' point of view, the essential Mitchell requirement is a "100 percent effort" by the Palestinians—meaning Arafat—to crack down on terrorist attacks against Israel.

So everything depends on Arafat. Unless, that is, nothing depends on Arafat.

After terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, Arafat ordered a Palestinian cease-fire. It held for, oh, a few days. On October 1, Islamic Jihad set off a car bomb in West Jerusalem, followed the next day by a Hamas attack on an Israeli settlement. On October 17, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine killed an Israeli Cabinet minister. In reply, Israeli tanks rumbled in and out of Palestinian towns; the attacks on Israelis continued regardless of which way the tanks were going. As the Israeli army withdrew from the town of Qalqilya this week, a Palestinian gunman emptied his semiautomatic rifle into a city bus in Jerusalem, killing two teenagers and wounding dozens of other people.

The militants' operations, including their suicide bombings in Israel, enjoy the support of almost 70 percent of Palestinians, according to recent polls. Arafat has managed to jail some militants, but nothing like enough militants or for long enough. Asked why the Palestinian Authority had released a militia leader who was on Israel's most-wanted list, a spokesman for Arafat explained (according to The New York Times) that the fighter's supporters "threatened to open fire on Israeli neighborhoods if he was not freed." The Palestinian Authority, it seems, is an oxymoron.

It serves everybody's interest to pretend that Arafat is in control. Palestinian and Arab extremists need Arafat because the last thing they want is the responsibility of governing or negotiating, as opposed to bombing and shooting. Palestinian and Arab moderates need Arafat because no one else has the stature to hold off the extremists. Israeli doves and American diplomats need Arafat because they need someone to negotiate with. Israeli hard-liners need Arafat because they need someone to blame. Arafat himself needs Arafat because he is Arafat, whoever that is. Arafat, in short, is held up by more external props than Strom Thurmond.

Objectively speaking, however, the evidence suggests that Arafat's position is much like that of Wile E. Coyote after he has gone over the cliff but before he realizes he has gone over the cliff. If so, wishful thinking will sustain Arafat's authority, but not for much longer.

"Arafat is not a partner," says Shlomo Avineri, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Nothing the Israelis can offer him will put an end to violence." Avineri, a prominent Israeli political scientist and a former director-general of the forei gn ministry, comes hard to that conclusion: He has advocated Palestinian independence since the 1970s. When doves such as Avineri give up on Arafat, that bespeaks not belligerence but realism. David Makovsky, a senior fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says of Arafat: "The whole Oslo process was predicated on Arafat becoming a kind of Mandela. But he has turned out to be more of a Mugabe."

In the Oslo view of the world, the Mitchell plan and the peace process are flawed but better than the alternatives. So there is no choice but to move ahead: Press Arafat yet again to control the violence and press the Israelis yet again to back off, and then start talking. But talk leading—where? In the post-Oslo worldview, Arafat is over. History. Kaput. Neither he nor any other Palestinian can deliver the only thing Israel really needs, which is security. Thus there is no one to negotiate with. In the post-Oslo worldview, Israel's only hope of increased security lies in one form or another of unilateral action.

One such option is for the Israelis to reoccupy the West Bank and settle in for another extended period of direct rule. This, however, might shock the United Nations, inflame the Muslim world, wreck the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, heighten rather than reduce Palestinian violence, and fracture Israel's moral consensus and governing coalition. Another unilateral option is for Israel to continue to slog it out in low-level, constant warfare with Palestinians, for as long as is needed to convince them that violence cannot prevail and is not in their interest. This Sisyphean strategy might work, but only if it does not exhaust Israel first. It would also tax Israel's relations with the rest of the world and offers Israelis no visible hope, no exit.

A third option is unilateral separation from the Palestinians—or "disengagement," as most advocates prefer to call it, because a complete physical separation is impossible. Avineri and Makovsky support this idea, and so do a growing number of Israeli politicians and public figures of both Left and Right—plus, according to a recent Tel Aviv University poll, 55 percent of the Israeli public. (But another recent poll found about the same percentage still supporting the Oslo process, so Israeli minds are hardly made up.) Israel would evacuate its least-defensible settlements, consolidate and annex the rest, withdraw from most of the occupied territories, and shut out Palestinians, at great economic cost to both sides.

As in Cyprus, Avineri says, such a nonsolution might allow an extended period of relative calm across an unofficial but recognized line of demarcation. Without the dozens of points of daily friction created by Israeli checkpoints and settlements, hostilities might simmer down. "You have to keep people apart before you can bring them together," Makovsky says. "America's role is to call a spade a spade and say there's no grand deal in the offing here."

A mirage, retorts Martin Indyk, a former Clinton Administration ambassador to Israel who is now at Brookings. "It's not territory for peace, it's territory for nothing," he says. "The last line of withdrawal becomes the first line of attack." Lobbing mortar shells, or much deadlier weapons, into Israel would be child's play. And where, exactly, should Israel draw its unofficial line? Worst of all, argues Indyk, Israel's retreat under fire, in exchange for nothing, would reinforce extremists' message that violence works and thus would lead to still more violence, just as Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon did in 2000.

All true. Separation is the worst imaginable plan, except for all the others. It is no answer—there is no answer—but it asks the right question, which is: After Arafat, what?

For America, the Mitchell plan might be worth one last all-out effort, if only to say we tried. But the effort should be tied to the implicit promis e that failure this time will be the last time: that if Arafat proves not to be, as Peres put it, "capable," the United States will give a green or at least a yellow light to Israeli unilateralism and will regard the Palestinian Authority as a harborer of international terrorism. The last and best, if slender, hope of getting results from Arafat is to prepare to write him off.