THE JERUSALEM POST Editorial

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH

(January 21) - In response to Thursday night's Hadera bat mitzva massacre, the IDF has bombed the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation in Ramallah and Palestinian Authority headquarters in Tulkarm. This is the local equivalent of the old American response to terrorism: lob a few cruise missiles at empty buildings and call it a day. No one was, or is, under the illusion that such actions are more than symbolic - they are more of a substitute for action than action itself. Such symbols and signals are out of sync with the post September 11 world, in which terrorism will not be tolerated.

According to Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, "Everyone is fed up with [Yasser] Arafat." This is certainly a fair statement of the situation, and applies not only to Israelis but to the American administration and perhaps even to much of the Palestinian leadership. Essentially, it seems, Israel is waiting for one of two things to happen: the Palestinians themselves replacing Arafat or the US accepting his removal from leadership by one means or another.

The first possibility, an internal coup against Arafat, cannot be dismissed. One idea reportedly circulating on the Palestinian side is of maintaining Arafat as a symbolic leader who travels the world promoting the Palestinian cause, but of transferring his executive authority to some form of group leadership. Arafat is already reportedly preparing to be forced into exile by selling off assets that would sustain him after being cut off from the PA and its funding sources. But this is not a development anyone can count on, and waiting for it to happen does not constitute a real strategy against terrorism.

The second possibility is that Arafat is increasingly being forced toward a true moment of truth in which he must choose between ending terrorism and losing power. There was much talk of this moment having arrived early last month, following the two major terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa and the watershed in US policy, whereby the US started explicitly supporting Israel's right to self-defense rather than calling for restraint.

This, it turns out, was more of a moment of half-truth. Arafat was under greater pressure than he had ever been since launching the wave of terrorism. But when Israel proclaimed that Arafat was "irrelevant," the world, including the US, begged to differ and said explicitly it would continue to regard Arafat as the only legitimate Palestinian leader.

We are still in this moment of half-truth, because while the government half-heartedly maintains that Arafat is irrelevant, the international community - and indeed our own foreign minister - still seem to regard him as the lesser of all evils and therefore indispensable. So long as Arafat maintains this aura of indispensability, it does not much matter how much he is told he must crackdown on terrorism "or else." The only "or else" that matters to Arafat is the loss of power, and calling him indispensable is the direct opposite of threatening him with such a loss.

Luckily, there are signs in the US of recognition it is impossible to force Arafat to cross the Rubicon against terrorism with a severe finger-wagging. Yesterday, President George W. Bush reportedly sent him a telegram saying if he does not act, the US will reassess its entire relationship with him. If this is a polite way of telling to Arafat he is facing an ultimatum similar to that handed to the late Taliban regime and must choose between power and terror, we may be approaching the true moment of truth.

Approaching the moment of truth, however, is not enough; we must get there. Sharon knows Bush will not shed a tear if Arafat is forced out of power, and therefore does not feel particularly constrained by the US. Sharon does, however, feel constrained by the prospect of losing his coalition partner, Shimon Peres. If Peres were to suddenly come to the conclusion Arafat has become more of a liability than an asset and asked the US to cut off all relations with him, the US would probably oblige. The pivotal person to bringing Arafat to a full moment of truth, then, is neither Bush nor Sharon but Peres.

If Peres still believes Arafat will fight terrorism, he should be the first trying to force him into a position where he must do so. If Peres has come to the conclusion Arafat would rather lose power than confront terror, it is not clear why he or anyone would consider Arafat preferable to the alternatives.

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