SAN BERNARDINO, CALIF. — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's suprise withdrawal of a pledge not to harm Yasser Arafat is wrong despite the compelling case against the Palestinian Authority chairman.
Mr. Arafat has consistently distanced himself in Western media from any connection to the more than 900 Israelis killed in terrorist attacks during the past three years. But despite his Nobel Prize, Arafat is a deceitful man who actively pursues terrorism. Proof is evident in seized papers and receipts, intercepted illegal weaponry from Iran, his own inflammatory speeches given in Arabic, and statements reportedly made by his captured operatives to Israeli authorities.
President Bush acknowledged this reality in calling for new Palestinian leadership "not compromised by terror."
"I can understand the deep anger and anguish of the Israeli people," Mr. Bush said in a 2002 speech. "You've lived too long with fear and funerals, having to avoid markets and public transportation, and forced to put armed guards in kindergarten classrooms. The Palestinian Authority has rejected your offered hand and trafficked with terrorists. You have a right to a normal life. You have a right to security. And I deeply believe that you need a reformed, responsible Palestinian partner to achieve that security."
However, US officials quickly rebuked Mr. Sharon's Friday threat, and Israeli officials subsequently qualified his statement, saying there were no imminent plans to target Arafat. And while the latest threat to kill the Palestinian leader was certainly not the first, the Israeli killings of Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March and his replacement, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, this month, present a freshly ominous dimension to the statement. Previously, under US pressure, however, Sharon has refrained from attacking Arafat, instead confining him to a compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah for more than two years.
We must not forget that, while measured force is sometimes a tragic necessity, the rule of law is essential to the civilized world's response against terrorism.
The Israelis, by experience, understand that adherence to the rule of law is important, even when the events are painful. In 1960-'61, Israel captured and publicly tried Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal. In 1983, an Israeli tribunal found Sharon, then defense minister, negligent in his military supervision of a Christian Lebanese militia that murdered hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Beirut the previous year.
Just last week, an Israeli court held the Palestinian Authority liable for a bombing for the first time. The case involved a young suicide bomber from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist offshoot of Arafat's Fatah organization. In May 2002, the teenage bomber detonated a shrapnel-filled device inside an ice cream parlor near Tel Aviv, killing a toddler and her elderly grandmother, and injuring dozens.
Palestinians certainly deserve peace, dignity, and security as well, but these aspirations will never be achieved through the violent targeting of civilians. The recognition that Arafat embraces terrorism as a political tool must not become a blank check for an unrestrained response against him, when more measured legal responses would better serve the long-term interests of both Israelis and Palestinians. Most Americans understand the legitimacy of a government using armed force to protect its citizenry from organized terrorism. And while there are narrow instances in which the killing of terrorist leaders, like those from Hamas, could possibly be justified on the basis of an imminent violent attack or dangerous fugitive evasion, Sharon has failed to make that case here.
In the absence of a more urgent justification, there are two available choices that can be defended on the basis of morality, legality, diplomacy, and sound long-term strategy. The Israelis can follow America's lead and continue to isolate the elderly Arafat into irrelevance. Or they can present their evidence to a judge, obtain a warrant, and arrest him for a public trial.
To do otherwise would succumb to the swift, yet dangerous, intoxicant of the intemperate use of extrajudicial force. Whatever short-term tactical benefit emerges could be erased over time by an equally violent replacement leader, the growth of enmity among moderate Palestinians, a rift with Israel's most important ally, and a diminution of Israel's stature and character.
• Brian Levin is an associate professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.