The end of Arafat

Posted: Dec 05, 2001 12:00 AM
The Palestine chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said ringingly that the night of Monday, Dec. 3, would signal a permanent end to any prospect of peace in the Mideast. He was reacting to Ariel Sharon's declared war on terrorism. Both men were hyperventilating in rhetoric, we have to assume; so would we, if similarly pressed. And the challenge, of course, is to ask, What's up?

Begin with the grit. The three assaults on Israel by Hamas resulted in 25 deaths. Gen. Sharon did the quick arithmetic and told the world that in U.S. terms, this was the equivalent of 2,000 deaths. In other words, the weekend's terrorist incursion was a calamity, in Israel, corresponding to about one-half what we suffered on Sept. 11. The shock can be said to have been greater for America than for Israel: America has not been enduring a terrorist war for five years. Gen. Sharon spoke a political response when calling for a "war" on terrorism. He wished to associate himself on the Israeli political scene with the very hard wing, but without going so far as to speak words that would lose him his own moderate wing -- without it, he cannot govern.

The counterassault on Arafat was, accordingly, something less than Hiroshima-style. The reports are that Israeli gunners stationed themselves in Ramallah within 200 yards of the quarters from which Arafat from time to time governs. They were not themselves demolished, but satisfaction was had from destroying Arafat's three helicopters and sending in bulldozers to chew up his air strip in Gaza City.

This is a seriously decapitating blow to Arafat, who is said to spend more time in the air, buzzing about from world leader to world leader, than even the pope. Ordinary civilians would need to wake up in the morning to find one's car suddenly gone without replacement in sight to feel the pain of that situation.

What Chairman Arafat then did, having of course publicly regretted the weekend suicide bombs, was to arrest 100 Palestinians. The immediate comment of a well-placed Israeli military observer was that the people arrested were moons removed from the people who should have been arrested, on the order of the FBI's picking up 100 kleptomaniacs on Sept. 12.

We do not know whether this is so. In fact, we do not even know for sure that Arafat is running the terrorist show. We do know that Arafat speaks the language of terrorism, and that if his own rhetoric is less than apocalyptic (Israel must be destroyed) , he is brazenly tolerant of rhetoric that is uncompromising, in newspapers and on radio and in public speeches.

What we have, strange to be seen, is something on the order of democratic pressure at work. In Israel, what we see at work is democratic pressure of the kind one totes up at election boards. About 35 percent of Israeli voters are in favor of the kind of compromise Sharon disdains and campaigned in a democratic contest to reject. He won, but his victory gave him power dependent on coalition support.

Meanwhile, Arafat has a left wing, which is anti-moderate. He may even genuinely regret the weekend terrorist acts, but there is no questioning their popularity, though we cannot measure exactly how comprehensive it is. In Israel, one can calibrate divisions of sentiment. One can't do that in Palestine because there is no democratic machinery to give up the figures.

But we reasonably assume that there is a body of Palestinians who would cheerfully settle for less than the irredentist extremism of Hamas. What we do not know, and this is critical knowledge, is whether in a convincing move toward moderation Arafat would prove showdown-stronger than Hamas. If he arrested 100 known terrorists or terrorism purveyors, would Arafat prevail? Or would Hamas get rid of him? Ushering in -- who? Committed to what?

Zooming back on the situation for a look at the regional picture, we see canny jubilation by the anti-American hard-liners. Taliban-type anti-Americans have only to gain from a prospective Israeli retaliation in cinemascopic blood -- backed, morally, by America, their true enemy. Egyptians and Saudis and Syrians and Iranians who are successfully encouraged to hate America for standing by Israel and for other profanities will raise the temperature of their hostility with every successful reprisal by Gen. Sharon. We can't do more simply than to regret this, but we also can't ignore the possibility of worse governments than we now cohabit with in the Mideast.

So what then happens in Israel? I learned my lessons in strategy at the feet of James Burnham, who once remarked that, in fact, wars do settle some questions. Hitler and Hirohito and Mussolini discovered that. Might Arafat?