Detour Around Arafat

IN his lonely bunker lit by candles, facing the barrels of Israeli tanks and hearing the scolding words of an American president, Yasser Arafat has become the Rorschach test for the future of the Mideast.

People read into him their own intentions for the path to peace.

He's either a terrorist, a partner for peace, a living martyr, a symbol of statehood, a puppet of forces he can't control, or the Wyatt Earp for a wild West Bank seething with would-be suicide bombers.

Even foreign journalists, who have tried to reach him in his bunker, place such a high value on his ability to influence events that they're willing to be shot by Israeli soldiers (who don't mind hurting unarmed civilians for the sake of public relations).

Mr. Arafat has been viewed as the hinge of peace for so long that he's learned how to bend to other's expectations. Even Israel's desire to pull the pin on him and let him fall has rallied other nations to rise up and save him for their own purposes.

Trying to turn this spinning symbol of Palestinian statehood into its deliverer has failed over the past decade of active peacemaking. To rely so much on the personality of one man has been as much a mistake as it was to rely on any one Israeli prime minister.

Creating the conditions for peace will require the United States and others to work directly with the Palestinians, beyond Arafat, and bring them a viable state quickly while persuading Arab leaders to denounce the suicide bombings.

President Bush, in his pivotal Thursday speech, said Israel has the obligation to "show a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people who are and will be their neighbors." He called on Palestinians to allow Israel not to worry about its survival.

Even more, Mr. Bush sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region this week to ask US-friendly Arab leaders to denounce suicide bombing as a tactic – and to do it in Arabic to their own people. Otherwise, the US fears this notion of noble martyrdom among Islamic Arabs may grow and be used against the US – as it was on Sept. 11.

At its meeting last month, the Arab League failed to denounce the bombings while endorsing a Saudi peace plan. Still, the US is pinning its hopes on a new US-Arab partnership.

As Bush said last week: Arafat "has let his people down. And there are others in the region who can lead."

Arafat is truly lonely now.

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