- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

Somewhere in Israel today is a retired army sniper wishing he had pulled the trigger some 21 years ago when he had Yasser Arafat in his sights.

On Aug. 30, 1982, after the Israeli siege and invasion of Beirut, Mr. Arafat and members of his Palestine Liberation Organization were forced to evacuate the Lebanese capital for Tunisia. Mr. Arafat, accompanied by some of his closest aides, boarded a ship in Beirut port that was to carry them into exile. As the Palestinian leader made his way up the gangway, an Israeli soldier positioned in the upper floors of the Lebanese electricity building about 0.3 miles away, reportedly had Mr. Arafat in the crosshairs of his gun-sights.

But a complex agreement negotiated by Philip Habib, President Reagan’s hard-nosed mediator, prevented the sniper’s superiors from giving the sharpshooter the green light to pull the trigger and kill Mr. Arafat.

In the 21 years since, the soldier and his officers must have had ample time to reflect on their actions — or rather, inactions — that fateful summer day that allowed Mr. Arafat to live. One of those officers was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who at the time as defense minister was the architect of the Lebanon invasion, dubbed operation Peace for Galilee. The aim of the war was to distance Mr. Arafat and the PLO from Israel’s borders.

Mr. Sharon, too, must have regretted not issuing the order as he now finds himself grappling over what to do with Mr. Arafat amid rising tensions in the Middle East. The choices available to the Israeli prime minister are not many. They include negotiating with Mr. Arafat, ignoring him, expelling him from the Palestinian territories or killing him.

Given the bad (and abundant) blood and thorny history between the two men, it appears highly unlikely they will sit down at the negotiating table anytime in the near future. In fact, many Middle East observers are adamant that so long as the two dinosaurs remain in power, no peace deal is possible between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Likely, instead, is a widening chasm between the two parties, with radicals such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad becoming more active and prominent despite Israel’s targeted killings of Islamic fundamentalist activists in the Palestinian territories.

Ignoring Mr. Arafat, as both Mr. Sharon and U.S. President George W. Bush have tried, does not appear to be working either. Pushed by the United States, cold-shouldered by the White House and the U.S. State Department, Mr. Arafat reluctantly appointed a prime minister to negotiate with Israel and the United States.

But unwilling to release power, the Palestinian leader withheld control of most of the Palestinian Authority’s security services, without which the territory’s first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, was destined to fail. And fail he did. After only 100 days in office, a frustrated Mr. Abbas quit, placing Mr. Arafat back in the limelight he loves.

Hoping to retain his position, Mr. Arafat formed a National Security Council, which will be under his control and will unite all eight Palestinian Authority security branches. “Arafat is the master of the game,” a senior minister of the outgoing Cabinet told the Jerusalem Post Tuesday.

Expelling Mr. Arafat is also a bad idea, at least as far as Israel is concerned. First, it would prove to be a public relations fiasco. Imagine the repeated television images of Mr. Arafat being forced out of his battered headquarters in Ramallah by armed Israeli soldiers over al-Jazeera and other Arabic satellite channels. Osama bin Laden would not do better even if he hired a top-dollar Madison Avenue advertising group to make Israel and the United States look bad. In fact, expelling Mr. Arafat would allow him to resume his jet-setting around the Arab world to fund-raise for the PLO. Furthermore, the U.N. Security Council said Tuesday that removing Mr. Arafat would be “counterproductive to peace efforts in the region.”

That leaves the last option — that of killing him — which also is a very, very bad idea. Besides, “the United States does not support either the elimination of Arafat or his forced exile,” as Secretary of State Colin Powell stated.

To begin with, much as Israel and the Bush administration may dislike the man, Mr. Arafat remains the only elected Arab leader. What kind of message would killing him send to the rest of the Middle East as the United States struggles to install democracy in Iraq? Yes, you can have elections and vote for the leaders of your choice, so long as they are leaders we accept. That would be ironic, wouldn’t it?

Secondly, it would ignite the Middle East in a way never seen before, again playing right into bin Laden’s hands. What better fodder for the masses than the blatant assassination of an elected leader, one who still commands much popular support? Millions of Arabs and Muslims around the world associate Mr. Arafat with Palestine. For many, Mr. Arafat exemplifies Palestine.

Mr. Arafat may certainly not be the best leader the Palestinian people could choose — and certainly they deserve better — but the choice is ultimately theirs to make. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must wake up to the reality they are not likely to have peace unless they take their future into their own hands. Until then, like Mr. Arafat, they will remain in the cross hairs of conflict.

Israelis likewise need to realize they might be stuck with Mr. Arafat as a reluctant partner in peace, but that remains better than the other options by far. Not an optimistic view, overall.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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