The Magazine

The Survival of Arafat

He lives to fight another day.

Apr 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 28 • By TOM ROSE
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VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY'S surprise offer to meet with Yasser Arafat on condition that Arafat "showed a 100 percent effort" to stop terror was the biggest news story of March 19. But just 12 hours later, a suicide bombing ripped apart an Israeli bus, murdering seven civilians and wounding dozens. Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres attempted to put the attack in perspective, explaining, "It takes time for the word to get out." Cheney's offer to Arafat had already made headlines in Jakarta but apparently hadn't had time to make it to Jenin.

Sending a deputy out to explain away yet another suicide bombing in downtown Jerusalem the next day, Peres begged livid Israelis to see that the best they could hope for was a "non-hermetic" cease-fire. In essence, Peres was saying, terrorism can never really be beaten, so Israelis are just going to have to lower their expectations and accept terrorism as a fact of life.

Tel Aviv was the final stop of Cheney's seven-day, eleven-nation Middle East tour. Although the vice president's first words upon landing in Israel reiterated America's commitment to the security of the Jewish state, the working message of his visit was that the Bush administration's patience with the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had run out.

On each and every prior stop of his tour, Cheney had been hounded about U.S. support for Israel. In Kuwait, he'd found himself publicly accused of neglecting the Palestinian people--by the same emir who 10 years ago expelled the 300,000 Palestinians then living in the emirate. In Cairo, he'd been "educated" about Arab public opinion and the limits it places on Arab leaders by the unelected president of Egypt. In Saudi Arabia, he'd been greeted with a front page article in the official daily Al-Riyadh "revealing" that to be considered kosher, the traditional pastry for the Jewish festival of Purim must be made with the blood of Muslim adolescents.

But even before Cheney had left Washington, the Bush administration had decided its only choice was to reengage with Arafat. Following the capture in early January of a ship loaded with arms and explosives bound from Iran for the Palestinian Authority, Washington had stepped back, leaving Sharon free to tackle terrorism as he saw fit. But Sharon, more concerned about his own political survival than replacing Arafat, had failed to act decisively.

Cheney, meanwhile, had seen firsthand the dismal level of Israel's leadership. In January, Defense Minister Benjamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer, fresh from surviving a hotly disputed Labor party leadership race by dint of a court-ordered recount, had popped in for his first official White House visit. The not-ready-for-prime-time Ben-Eliezer, emerging from his meeting with Cheney, had boasted to waiting Israeli journalists, "Dick hates Arafat more than we do," then had proceeded to quote "Dick" as saying, "You can hang that son-of-bitch for all I care." Israeli officials, horrified that Ben-Eliezer would repeat a private conversation (assuming that Cheney had even said any such thing), spent the next few days apologizing for the faux pas.

IN EARLY MARCH, Sharon responded to a deadly wave of terrorist attacks that killed 55 Israelis by proclaiming to his cabinet that the only way to defeat Palestinian terror was to "kill enough of them that they come begging for mercy." But while Sharon was talking like Slobodan Milosevic, he was acting like Jimmy Carter. The very next day, Sharon announced that he was dropping his U.S.-supported demand for seven days of quiet before agreeing to political negotiations with the Palestinians and releasing Arafat from his three-month house arrest. The decision to confine Arafat to his Ramallah compound had reportedly been made by Sharon himself. Yet the prime minister, who continually reassured the world that Israel had no intention to undermine Arafat, delivered the Palestinian leader all the benefits of martyrdom without any of the costs.

Sharon's unwillingness to sweep away Arafat and his regime condemns Israelis and Palestinians to continued bloodshed and Sharon to imminent political defeat. Ever since he was unfairly attacked for not having "prevented" the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Christian Phalangist militias at the Lebanese camps of Sabra and Shatila back in 1982, Sharon has desperately sought vindication. But by resolving never again to "lead Israel into war," Sharon only immunizes his enemies while exposing Israelis to ever greater risks at ever higher costs.

Between Shimon Peres with his defining terrorism down, Fuad Ben-Eliezer with his juvenile irresponsibility, and Ariel Sharon with his incomprehensible bungling, the trio currently leading Israel display a marked resemblance to Larry, Curly, and Moe.