WASHINGTON -- Has no one learned anything?
On Sept. 13, 1993, I was on the White House lawn watching the signing of the Oslo accords. I also watched the intellectual collapse of the entire Middle East intelligentsia -- journalists, politicians, ``experts'' -- as they swooned at the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin and refused, that day and for years to come, to recognize what was obvious: that Arafat was embarking not on peace but on the next stage of his perpetual war against Israel, this one to be launched far more advantageously from a base of Palestinian territory that Israel had just suicidally granted him.
Why was this so obvious? Because Arafat said so -- that very night (in an Arabic broadcast to his own people on Jordanian television) and many times afterward. The Middle East experts refused to believe it. They did not want to hear it. Then came the intifada. Thousands of dead later, they now believe it. The more honest ones among them even admit they were wrong.
Now Arafat is dead, Mahmoud Abbas is poised to succeed him, and the world is swooning again. Abbas, we are told, is the great hope, the moderate, the opponent of violence, the man who has said the intifada was counterproductive.
The peacemaker cometh. Once again, euphoria is in the air. Once again, no one wants to listen to what is being said.
Elections for the new Palestinian leader are on Sunday. Conveniently, this being a Palestinian election, we already know the winner. How has President-to-be Abbas been campaigning?
Dec. 30: Abbas, appearing in Jenin, is hoisted on the shoulders of Zakaria Zbeida, a notorious and wanted al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terrorist. Abbas declares that he will protect all terrorists from Israel.
Dec. 31: Abbas reiterates his undying loyalty to Arafat's maximalist demands: complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines, Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, and -- the red-flag deal-breaker -- the ``right of return,'' which would send the millions of Palestinians abroad not to their own country of Palestine but to Israel in order to destroy it demographically.
Jan. 1: Abbas declares that he will never crack down on Palestinian terrorism.
Jan. 4: Abbas calls Israel ``the Zionist enemy.'' That phrase is so odious that only Hezbollah and Iran and others openly dedicated to the extermination of Israel use it.
What of Abbas' vaunted opposition to violence? On Jan. 2 he tells Hamas terrorists firing rockets that maim and kill Jewish villagers within Israel, ``This is not the time for this kind of act.'' This is an interesting ``renunciation'' of terrorism: Not today, boys; perhaps later, when the time is right. Which was exactly Arafat's utilitarian approach to terrorism throughout the Oslo decade.
Some of the American and Israeli responses to Abbas are enough to make you weep. Spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Israel: ``We don't think it is useful to focus on every statement by every official; what's important is the process.'' Official in Prime Minister Sharon's office: ``Words don't count in the Middle East; what counts are actions.''
Have we learned nothing? In the Middle East, words are actions. Never more so than in an election campaign where your words define your platform and establish your mandate. Abbas is running practically unopposed and yet, on the question of both ends and means, he chooses to run as Yasser Arafat.
During the decade of Oslo, Arafat's every statement of hatred, incitement and glorification of violence was similarly waved away. Then bombs began going off in cafes and buses, and the Middle East wise men realized he meant it all along. Now once again they are telling us to ignore the words. Abbas does not really mean it, they assure us. This is just electioneering. We know his true moderate heart. Believe us.
Why? On the basis of their track record? And even more importantly, you do not conduct foreign policy as a branch of psychiatry. Does Abbas mean the things he says about Israel now? I do not know, and no matter what you hear from the experts -- the same people who assured you that Arafat wanted peace -- neither do they.
But we do know this. In Abbas' first moment of real leadership, his long-anticipated emergence from the shadow of Arafat, he chooses to literally hoist the flag of the terrorist al-Aqsa Brigades.
Can Abbas turn into a Sadat, who also emerged from the shadow of a charismatic leader, reversed policy and made peace with Israel? I'll believe it when I see it. And hear it.