Rip Van Arafat

LIKE waking from a long, fairy-tale sleep, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has emerged, blinking, from his dark Ramallah bunker after a month-long isolation imposed by Israel. The world will stare at him with equal marks of surprise. But for Mr. Arafat, the world is no longer the same.

His former budding kingdom of a Palestinian state has been rent asunder by Israeli tanks and bulldozers, and occupied by soldiers in search of his subjects who might be plotting attacks on Israel. This ruthless occupation, which President Bush once ordered to cease, goes on with impunity. The blinking Arafat can only rub his eyes at the impotence of the American leader.

And yet, much to his surprise, the US has agreed to send security guards into the troubled West Bank for the first time, perhaps as a first step toward placing foreign troops between the warring tribes of Israelis and Palestinians. The American guards will only be prison wardens to ensure a few Palestinians, convicted of killing an Israeli minister, aren't released. But their presence will be a powerful symbol of deeper US involvement.

Arafat also awoke to find himself a minor martyr among Arabs and Europeans, with the United Nations eager to probe the Israeli attack on the Palestinian camp of Jenin. Seen as a noble victim, Arafat will need, ironically, every bit of that reputation to overcome the fact that Israel now sees him as an irrelevant partner for peace. He has lost the goodwill of many peace-seeking Israelis.

His long underground isolation has forced Arafat to realize that Israel has buried the Oslo peace process for good, and along with it the promise of trading land to Palestinians for Israel's security. His Nobel Peace Prize is now just an artifact of another age.

Instead, Arafat has learned, after being let back into this new world, that he must now follow a Saudi peace plan, delivered by a Saudi leader to Mr. Bush in Texas last week. The plan is almost a nonstarter for Israel, but for Arafat it opens new possibilities. He can either let young Palestinians continue to commit suicide bombings on civilians to no good end, or he can start a new peace process, joined by Arab nations and the US.

Like Rip Van Winkle, Arafat must find a new identity in a new world.

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