- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Yasser Arafat bowed to reality yesterday and said he won't attend the Arab summit, which opens today in Beirut to consider the continuing violence in Palestine. He can, perhaps, be excused for saying that he won't, instead of can't.

Mr. Arafat is humiliated, and George W. Bush is embarrassed. An attempt to be nice to the Palestinians at the expense of Israel blew up in his face, sort of like a suicide firecracker.

Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, is not going, either. His spokesman cited "domestic commitments," a diplomatic excuse rather like saying he wants to stay home to trim his mustache.

Mr. Arafat, who has allowed, if not enabled, the suicide bombers to make an abatoir of the neighborhood, deserves his humiliation. Mr. Bush, who leaned hard on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to let the Palestinian leader go to Beirut, does not deserve the embarrassment, but he should not be surprised that he got it.

Mr. Sharon, with a bit of understatement, said conditions were "not yet ripe" for allowing Yasser Arafat to slip the bonds of his quarantine. "President Arafat must declare a ceasefire in his language to his people and seek an end to the violence," he said. He said he would have preferred to have had the backing of the United States in setting these conditions.

The White House, no doubt, does not appreciate this needling tone, but U.S. officials cannot be surprised by that, either. "The president's position is simple and clear," the president's press spokesman said of the day's developments, and his own miffed tone was unmistakable. "We're dealing with a sovereign government. Governments have the right to make determinations. The American position is clear."

And so, too, is the position of Israel, and Washington cannot fault Israel for looking first to its own security. That's what governments do. The reaction of Palestinian negotiators, considering a cease-fire proposal by Gen. Anthony Zinni, the U.S. special envoy to the region, demonstrates starkly what the Israelis are up against. After Israeli negotiators said they were generally satisfied with the Zinni proposal, a Palestinian negotiator said his colleagues were disappointed. "All it does is stop the violence." That's all?

Now, the Arab governments must consider the Saudi "peace proposal," so called, without benefit of Yasser Arafat. As first presented by Crown Prince Abdullah, the initiative seemed to offer promises of "peace" and other good things if Israel retreated to indefensible 1967 borders. But yesterday, there were hints by the Arabs that even this was overstated. The White House looks to have endorsed, more or less, the mushy Saudi proposal because it doesn't know what else to do. This is not leadership, but foolishness.

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