WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, its last-ditch cease-fire effort blasted by the suicide bombings in Israel, has all but given up on finding a Palestinian partner for peace.
President Bush addresses Yasser Arafat as he once addressed the Taliban, with a stern demand that he "rise up and fight terror." The "or else" is unspoken. Mr. Bush has ordered the freezing of assets linked to Palestinian militants as he has frozen the assets linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.
No longer do administration officials ritually balance the condemnation of Arab violence with appeals for Israeli restraint. After air strikes on Gaza and the West Bank, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Obviously, Israel has the right to defend herself."
When President Bush met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last Sunday before the air strikes had been launched, he could have counseled restraint. He didn't. Mr. Fleischer said that Mr. Sharon did not ask for a green light - and, presumably, Bush did not flash an amber light.
Frustration with Mr. Arafat is now openly expressed by administration officials.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, recalling Arafat's own days as a terrorist, says, "He is not a particularly strong leader." Secretary of State Colin Powell, usually painfully measured between the contending parties, now says sarcastically that it's time to put Palestinian bombers in "real jails where they are not walking free several days later."
After Sept. 11, the Bush administration worried about antagonizing Islamic supporters of the antiterrorist coalition by not appearing sufficiently sensitive to the Palestinian cause. Now, the administration sounds as though it considers Palestinian violence as part of the global threat of terrorism. White House sources say that President Bush has demanded directly of Arafat that he break up the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations.
It is not likely that Arafat will, and it is far from likely that he can. That means that the grizzled veteran, who has steered his way successfully through all the minefields of talking and fighting through all these years, may finally be reaching the end of his line.
If he turns his back on the intifada, he faces an intra-Palestinian civil war that could test the ability of aging leadership to prevail over youthful rage. If he is brought down, there is no new single leader in sight.
Thus the suicide bombings that almost coincided with the arrival of retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, the president's peace envoy, represent as much a challenge to Arafat as to Sharon or Bush.
The Arab-Israeli conflict could, even before Iraq, become the next battleground in the war against terrorism.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.