WASHINGTON -- It is now conventional wisdom that the new opening to a Middle East peace is a result of Yasser Arafat's death. This is only half true, and it misses the larger point.
Arafat's death was a necessary condition for hope, but not a sufficient one. It was necessary because Arafat had the power to suppress and literally kill any chances of peace. But his passing would have meant nothing if it had not occurred at a time when the Palestinians finally realized that Arafat's last great gamble, the second intifada, was a disaster.
The reason history does not always repeat itself is that the interval in between often leaves its mark. The Palestinians know that Arafat's war left them a legacy of death, corruption, misery, international isolation and social ruin as the myriad militias he created roam the streets, terrorizing their own people. That is why they elected Mahmoud Abbas, who campaigned against the intifada.
Is Abbas a real peacemaker? We do not know yet. He was disappointing during the election campaign, when he paraded around with terrorists and promised to protect them. He was disappointing again last week (Feb. 5) when the PA arrested three terrorists in Gaza and then released them a few hours later, an alarming repetition of Arafat's revolving door arrest policy: Arrest them at the front door for the cameras, then release them out the back door.
On the other hand, Abbas has deployed PA troops in Gaza, ordered all attacks to stop and resumed security cooperation with Israel. His prime minister ordered the collection of all unlicensed weapons in Palestinian-controlled territories, although, given the chaos Arafat left behind, the order will have about as much effect as a similar order issued in Baltimore.
What we can say about Abbas is that while we (well, some) knew that Arafat was dedicated to perpetual war, Abbas is not. That is a start.
Also encouraging is the behavior of major players Egypt and Jordan. They tired of the intifada. It was a losing proposition for both. Egypt does not want a terrorist Gaza, and Jordan does not want a terrorist West Bank.
In the heavily coded language of Middle East diplomacy, Egypt has made some significant moves. It insisted on hosting the peace summit. It invited Ariel Sharon to Egypt for the first time in 23 years. Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors will return to Tel Aviv. And if you look closely at the pictures, you see Israeli flags flying publicly alongside the Arab flags at the Sharm el-Sheik summit.
There was no Israeli flag flying during the last summit involving Israel's (then) prime minister and pathetic peace mendicant, Ehud Barak, when he came begging Arafat to make peace with him shortly before a disgusted Israeli public could vote him out of office.
Was not Barak the good guy? And Sharon the tough guy? Surprise. Arabs respect toughness. Sharon launched a massive invasion of the Palestinian territories after the Passover massacre of 2002. Western experts and the media were practically unanimous that this would achieve nothing.
Completely wrong. In fact, it is precisely Israel's aggressive counterattack against Palestinian terrorists, coupled with the defensive fence (which has prevented practically all suicide attacks wherever it has been built) that has brought us to this point of hope.
As the fence is extended, the Palestinians see the strategic option of terror gradually disappearing. Moreover, Israel's successful military offensive demonstrated to the Palestinians that the premise of the second intifada -- that a demoralized and terrorized Israel would essentially surrender -- is false.
Will they not try another intifada in the future? They might. But now they know what they did not know four years ago. The cost will be enormous. And the Israelis do not break.
The second intifada was fought under the old land-for-peace slogan: The terrorism would only stop when Israel agreed to full territorial withdrawal to the 1949 lines, a Palestinian state, Jerusalem as the capital, and God knows what else. The Palestinians got none of this. They got death and destruction instead. What do the Palestinians now demand from Israel in return for a cease-fire? That Sharon stop hunting down and killing terrorist leaders. Not land for peace. Peace for peace.
Sharon agreed. And now a tenuous truce has begun. Of course, at some point Hamas and the other terror groups will surely try to destroy the cease-fire. It could happen tomorrow. At that point Abbas -- and the Palestinians as a national community -- will have to decide whether to take them on. If they do, they will have their state. If they don't, they are back on the roadmap to ruin.