- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

When President Bush encountered Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, last year at the United Nations, he refused even to shake his hand. For months, the Bush administration has said that Mr. Arafat's behavior doesn't merit a high-level meeting. The administration has made it clear that the Palestinian leader bears most of the blame for the past 18 months of violence. Vice President Dick Cheney was of the same mind before he was whipped again and again as he made his 12-country trip through Britain and the Middle East. Not only did the administration fail to get Arab support for finally dealing with Saddam Hussein, but the vice president was chastised for Washington's backing of Israel. So Mr. Cheney offered the possibility of meeting with Mr. Arafat if he declares a cease-fire and implements the peace plan brokered by CIA Director George Tenet. This was a gesture to the Arab world.

Yesterday, there were reports that Mr. Cheney might meet with Mr. Arafat Monday in Egypt, with or without a cease-fire. To reward him with a meeting with America's No. 2 without any guarantee that the Palestinian leader will follow through on a cease-fire sends the wrong message to the Arab world. Should the vice president do it, however, he must make irrevocably clear that the Palestinian campaign of violence that Mr. Arafat has allowed to rage on must be stopped immediately and unconditionally.

While the United States has rightly put the onus on the Palestinians to prove they are serious about stopping the terrorist carnage, Mr. Cheney has no room to maneuver if Mr. Arafat does not make good with a cease-fire or the Tenet plan, which stipulates that the Palestinians arrest militants and seize their arms. The suicide bombing of a bus yesterday in northern Israel by Islamic Jihad is ample evidence of the dilemma the Bush administration faces. Israel is expected to hold its retaliatory fire so as not to undermine America's Middle East envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, but the Americans will continue to negotiate with the Palestinians and their leader even if, as the dreary record suggests is likely, they continue to kill Israelis and make a mockery of the "peace process," such as it is.

Mr. Bush and Israel remain committed to implementing a cease-fire even after yesterday's terrorist attack, which killed seven persons and wounded 35. Mr. Arafat busied himself with making a wish list of concessions to reward him for his willingness to implement the "cease-fire." For example, a declaration of cease-fire would depend on whether he would be granted the freedom to travel to the upcoming Arab League summit in Beirut, where his "friends" will doubtless demand more one-sided concessions from Israel.

Israel and the United States have given Yasser Arafat countless opportunities to prove he is serious about peace, and the outrage yesterday is merely the latest evidence of how miserably he has failed to discharge his responsibility under the Oslo accords: to halt Palestinian violence against Israel. It is long past time for Mr. Arafat to follow through on the promises he has made and repeatedly brokento stop encouraging terrorism and move decisively against groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Bush administration has a responsibility to make sure that he suffers serious consequences if he makes a mockery of a new agreement.

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