With each act of terrorist violence, the once-optimistic hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians become more problematic. Yet both sides must continue to work for an independent and successful Palestinian state. The alternative is more bloodshed and endless war.
Yasser Arafat, the evasive leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, seems to have finally awakened this week to the truth that attacks on Israelis by zealot fringe groups are a threat to his own survival.In the aftermath of a suicide car bombing that killed seven Israeli soldiers and an American student at an Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip, Arafat acted with unusual quickness. The PLO arrested more than 100 people with ties to terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
To be sure, those arrests are hardly compelling evidence of a new Arafat. Many of those taken into custody were merely the "usual suspects" rather than actual killers. Most will be freed soon.
But Arafat appears to be realizing that he cannot temporize with terrorists and pretend to be tough. Those groups are utterly opposed to the peace process and if peace fails, Arafat's rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank will be among the first casualties.
As a result, the PLO has asked for a United Nations peacekeeping force to be deployed in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. U.N. members have little enthusiasm for more peacekeeping projects. And the Middle East is a potential quagmire. But the U.N. presence may be the only way to save the peace process.
Arafat appears weak. He may lack the administrative skills to govern. Perhaps his only real talent was in being an outsider, a critic, a trouble-maker. Governing is a whole different matter.
However, Israel would not find any solace in Arafat's fall, for it would mean that the peace process had failed. In Arafat's absence, the Palestinians would be even more splintered than they are now, and re-sis-tance and guerrilla warfare would seem to be their only recourse.
That's why it is troubling that Israel seems to be doing everything to make Arafat's success more doubtful. Closing borders, eliminating Palestinian jobs in Israel and freezing aid only impoverishes the Palestinians and creates more instability.
Likewise, the continued - and even growing - presence of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, part of an ideological "Greater Israel," keeps a sore spot open. The settlements require military protection and leave Israelis vulnerable to attack - as the most recent Gaza suicide bombing shows.
A decision on what to do about the settlements is crucial to future peace, but any such decision is currently lacking. The wrenching politics are simply too difficult to deal with, and it is easier to simply do nothing - easier, but not better or safer.
Israel's security concerns are real and urgent. But lashing out at all Palestinians is self-defeating. In the long run, a successful and viable Palestinian state offers the best chance for neighborly peace and security. The extremist groups know that, which is why they keep trying to undermine the process.
Arafat needs to understand that the extremists are not just mortal enemies of Israel but are his enemies as well. They cannot be appeased or ignored or avoided, but must be confronted. The prospects for peace in the Middle East hang in the balance - and so does the fate of Arafat.