The Magazine

Exit Arafat?

From the September 22, 2003 issue: What removing Yasser Arafat would mean.

Sep 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 02 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"We think it would not be helpful to expel him because it would just give him another stage to play on."

--State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, after the Israeli government threatened to exile Yasser Arafat, Sept. 11, 2003

ALL THE WORLD'S NOT A STAGE, the melancholy Jacques of "As You Like It" to the contrary notwithstanding. All the world's real, and too many Israelis' and Palestinians' exits from it have been tragically premature, and horribly violent.

There are of course many, far too many, individuals and groups who bear responsibility for the violence that has afflicted the Holy Land. But in the long Middle Eastern roster of ignominy one name stands out: Yasser Arafat. The virtual embodiment of modern terrorism, the main instigator of its resurgence against Israeli civilians in the last three years, the indirect cause therefore of the deaths of innocent Palestinian bystanders as Israel struck back, Arafat certainly deserves exile--or worse. And the people of Israel, and the Palestinians, deserve better, far better, than to be bedeviled by his presence.

Whether it is prudent to remove him is of course another issue. We are inclined to believe it is. But that is admittedly a complicated question, involving on-the-ground calculations of the risks of harm to Arafat, and how damaging that harm would, or would not, turn out to be. But this is clear: Arafat, in Ramallah, has succeeded in torpedoing one peace process after another. He scorned Secretary of State Colin Powell's rather pathetic August 21 plea to work with Prime Minister Abbas and "make available" to Abbas the security forces Arafat controlled. We believe Arafat's ability to deny peace a chance would decrease if he were far away, especially if he were deprived of control of the Palestinian Authority's treasury, its money-making monopolies, and the security services.

But the State Department disagrees. For them, the world is a stage, and the applause of the "international community"--or rather, of other governments, including ones who do not themselves permit the free expression of their own people's opinions--tends to be everything. Expelling Arafat would undoubtedly cause a raucous few days in the territories and in Arab capitals, and much disapproval elsewhere. European chancelleries would be the stages on which Arafat would cavort for a little while afterwards. But then we would all move on. Indeed, there would be, we suspect, much quiet eagerness to do so--much quiet approval--among the Palestinians who have suffered so much as a result of Arafat's disastrous leadership. And there might well be--we think there would be--less death, and more hope for peace, in the Middle East.

The government of Israel will decide whether and how to follow through on its threat to remove Arafat. The American government can and should give the Israeli government our best counsel in private, and perhaps in public as well. But the administration's professed reasons for opposing the removal of Arafat are unimpressive. And they seem altogether de-linked from any underlying moral and strategic judgment of what the war on terror requires, and what those who support and sponsor terror deserve.

Right now, to take just one example, Mullah Omar is hiding in the wilds of Afghanistan or Pakistan, subject to being killed if and when we find him. In what way is Yasser Arafat morally distinguishable from Mullah Omar? Is he less complicit in terror? For a decade, Israel bent over backwards to try to engage in a peace process with the chief terrorist of Palestine. Arafat has succeeded in sabotaging the hopes of peace. Justice demands that he be removed. Prudence may well concur. America is engaged in a war against terror. Surely the honorable course is to be a sympathetic counselor of, not a supercilious lecturer to, an embattled fellow democracy that has suffered more terror--and, yes, has borne it with more forbearance--than even we have.

We suspect Arafat will be removed, sooner rather than later, by the government of Israel. When that happens, the negative consequences can be minimized, and the positive opportunities maximized, only by unequivocal solidarity between the two terror-opposing democracies.

--William Kristol