- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

For a brief moment, it looked as though President Bush was going to present his Middle East plan this week. There were even murmurs of a September date for the Middle East conference, which is the latest peace process cure-all. Then, the inevitable happened yesterday yet another Palestinian suicide bomber killed 19 Israelis. Meanwhile, the White House shot down Secretary of State Colin Powell's idea of an interim Palestinian state. And the Israelis have started building a grim-looking security fence to keep the bombers out leaving on the other side also the settlements for which Israel has fought so hard to keep in the West Bank. The only thing that is absolutely predictable about the Middle East is its unpredictability.

And, somehow, it seems the search for an alternative Palestinian leadership and a reformed Palestinian Authority continues to be postponed indefinitely. It is an idea that has much to commend it for the Israelis and the Americans, who have only distaste for Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner. In truth, he has not done much for Middle East peace or for the future of his own people. That seems clear to everybody else involved. But does it seem so to the Palestinians? Well, not necessarily.

A recent opinion poll of Palestinians by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center showed that the more radical elements may not be very far from the mainstream. More than half, 51 percent, did not think that Israel as a state had the right to exist. This suggests, of course, that even a Palestinian state in the West Bank might not stop the suicide bombers from going for the big prize or deprive them of their popular appeal.

"The challenge facing Mr. Arafat is that the U.S.-Israeli vision of reform is almost diametrically opposed to that of his grass roots," according to the Financial Times. "The U.S. and Israel want to see a reformed security force that will combat militants; grassroots activists, by contrast, are demanding the creation of a force that will do more to resists Israel."

Last week, I had the opportunity to debate these issues with other panelists on the Arab-language network Al Jazeera English translation was fortunately provided on a call-in talk show hosted by moderator Sami Haddad.

Palestinian researcher Hussein Shaaban, talking in the show's London studio, did not think another leader was desirable. "We should accept that Arafat is the elected leader of the Palestinians," he said. "He is also the only one qualified to lead the Palestinian people at this time. Sharon and Bush want to replace the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people."

Another guest on the show, Mostafa Bakri, editor of the Egyptian newspaper Sheefat Al-Esbou, had this to say: "The Palestinian opposition is the light of hope, the martyrs. They will shake the Israeli military establishment. That is what gives hope to the Arab street." That does not mean removing Mr. Arafat, however: "Egypt cannot go down this American-Zionist road. They cannot remove Arafat or isolate him. This would mean Arab humiliation."

Whatever cosmetic reshuffling Mr. Arafat does to his Cabinet in order to satisfy us assuredly will not satisfy his critics among the Palestinians. What is more, the opposition to Mr. Arafat is clearly more radical than moderate. It is exemplified by, for instance, Hamas, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. All of which may, in fact, make Mr. Arafat the lesser of two evils from a U.S. or Israeli perspective. Now, there is irony for you.

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