It is not necessarily a bad thing for a national leader to remain at the helm for a very long time, provided that he is successful.  Otto von Bismarck’s 28 years as Prussia’s and then the Reich’s chief minister were marked by unification and consolidation internally, nifty diplomacy and overall stability of the European balance-of-power structure externally.  His behavior was beneficial from the standpoint of Germany’s national interest; at the same time, remarkably enough, it helped to prevent that fatal polarization of European alliances into two rigid blocs that occurred under his lesser successors.

Even among second-tier powers, the long political careers of Francisco Franco, Ismet Unenu, or Chiang Kai-Shek—love them or hate them—testify to the ability of talented statesmen to retain the nose for best solutions for decades on end, even within a severely limited range of options and amidst rapidly changing circumstances.

The problem with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is not that he has been around for too long but that he is no good—and probably never was.  To his own long-suffering people, he is not delivering optimal returns.  This, while regrettable, is irrelevant.  What matters from the standpoint of the American interest is Mr. Arafat’s failure to contribute to a new, and long overdue, Middle Eastern architecture that could bring peace and stability to the region.

For the better part of the past decade, Yasser Arafat has played what he assumed was a clever game.  One day he was president of the Palestinian Authority, bringing dissidents to heel and indulging his vanity with kitschy head-of-state decorum.  The next, he was chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, seeking to turn up the heat on Israel and appease the radicals.  By the mid-1990’s, as the popularity of Arafat’s corrupt and undemocratic rule began to wane and the prominence of Hamas and other Islamic radical organizations grew, Arafat sought to bolster himself by taking a harder stand on Jerusalem, particularly on the Temple Mount.

For seven years after the Oslo Accords of 1993, Arafat could get away with it, not because of his intricate skill but because of the weaknesses of the Oslo peace process: It deliberately left the most difficult issues—Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders—on the table until near the end, in the mistaken belief that this would make them easier to resolve.  Other key actors—the United States and Israel—considered Arafat the devil they knew, who, when forced to make a choice, would play along.

Then came Arafat’s greatest blunder, when he rejected the deal Bill Clinton presented at Camp David in the closing months of his inglorious presidency.  Clinton was desperate to score a foreign-policy triumph that would atone for his many domestic scandals, and the peace deal—while far from perfect—accurately reflected the limits of Israeli flexibility at that time.  The American proposal offered Palestinian sovereignty over Arab sectors of Jerusalem, sweeping administrative powers elsewhere, and “formal custodial status” on the sacred Temple Mount, the symbolic core of a conflict that is at once territorial, national, and sectarian.  All this, on top of a recognized Palestinian state and billions of dollars of aid, would have given Arafat a position that seems virtually unattainable today.  Even Palestinians conceded in off-the-record talks with their American hosts that no Israeli leader had ever gone so far toward meeting their demands.  Whether bravely or (as his chief political rival Ariel Sharon alleged) recklessly, Ehud Barak had pushed the limits of the possible—gambling that he could reverse his political fortunes at home by bringing back a comprehensive peace deal and then winning a convincing endorsement of it in a popular referendum.

What Clinton offered and Barak accepted did give Arafat grounds for loudly proclaiming victory and going home in triumph.  Rather than negotiate, however, he stood on his opening position.  Arafat failed to seize the day, paving the way for Barak’s defeat, Sharon’s victory, and the intifada.

In that new equation, Arafat ended up with the worst of both worlds.  Until only a few months ago, he could observe with some satisfaction the steady shift in world opinion, prompted by Sharon’s heavyhanded tactics against the stone-throwing Palestinian teenagers, and the tacit acceptance on both sides of the Atlantic that no enduring solution was possible without meaningful Palestinian statehood.  Even after September 11, the Bush administration acted prudently in resisting the Amen Corner’s demands to extend the war against terrorism to Israel’s many enemies throughout the Middle East and in restraining Sharon’s initial attempts to use Osama bin Laden as a smokescreen behind which he could deal with the Palestinians as he deemed fit.

In the closing months of 2001, however, Arafat’s two-hat approach backfired badly.  A putative head of state should be able to halt violence, the world told him.  In December, the European Union joined the United States in saying that Arafat must dismantle the “terrorist networks” of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, arrest and prosecute all suspects named by Israel, and appeal—in Arabic—for an end to the armed intifada.  They also called upon Israel to end the assassinations and freeze settlement-building in the occupied territories, but everybody knew that the onus was on Arafat to act first.

Many young Palestinians—armed, dangerous, and radicalized by the uprising—no longer accept Arafat’s leadership.  They now control Tanzim, Fatah’s own field organization, and militias within it, such as the al-Aqsa Brigades.  They are willing to cooperate with Muslim fundamentalists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad who openly defy Arafat and whose popularity increases with each of his halfhearted attempts to curtail their attacks on Israeli targets.  They all agree that the intifada will end only with the independence of Palestine, but this entails the destruction of Israel.  They see the Palestinian Authority as part of the problem, not the solution.

Sharon’s policy of hitting Palestinian policemen in retaliation for Islamic suicide bombings has undermined the position of moderates within the Palestinian Authority leadership, led by Arafat’s security chiefs, Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub.  The latter maintain that the preservation of the authority is in the interest of the Palestinian people, even if the price for its survival means eating humble pie by ending the intifada and resuming security cooperation with Sharon’s government.  They are ready to impose order by force, if only Israel would give them some breathing space.  They may not be able to do so, but they are willing to try.

Israel is shortsighted to breed long-term Palestinian radicalism for the sake of short-term diplomatic and security gains, but it may be unrealistic to expect more from Ariel Sharon.  When he declared in December that “Yasser Arafat is no longer relevant to the state of Israel” and that he would seek alternative Palestinian interlocutors, he was being disingenuous.  Sharon likes Arafat just as he is: as powerless to stop terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians by groups outside his control as he is unable to resist Israeli retaliation against the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.  Those “alternative interlocutors” who are potentially more accommodating than Arafat are the real losers.  The radicals do not want to talk to Israel; they want to destroy it.

Yasser Arafat is an old dog that cannot learn new tricks.  He will try to have it both ways yet again, and he will lose.  The dilemma—whether he is unwilling to control terrorists (as Sharon accuses him), or unable to do so (as his apologists contend)—is false: He could no longer stop the violence even if he wanted to, and whether he really wants to is uncertain.  The resulting loss of credibility is detrimental to peace, but it is disastrous to the Palestinian cause.  A credible leader could assert that it is absurd that the Palestinians are now being urged to renounce the internationally recognized right of resistance to an illegal occupation in return for the opportunity to
negotiate with Ariel Sharon.  A credible leader could point out that, if anyone had suggested to the leaders and people of occupied Kuwait that they should renounce resistance and negotiate with Saddam Hussein, such a suggestion would have been branded as absurd and immoral.  Arafat cannot convincingly advance such notions because the world no longer takes him seriously.  He is the Palestinians’ Slobodan Milosevic: Otherwise perfectly valid arguments sound false when they come from his lips.

When the two sides resume their path toward a permanent agreement—and they will, eventually—the Bush administration may invoke the memory of Camp David, with the sobering wisdom of an opportunity that was missed by all.  But it would be wrong for the United States to act forcefully before the time is ripe to facilitate rather than moderate.  This demands patience in the face of a distinctly unpleasant status quo.  For now, each side is hoping to inflict enough pain on the other over a sustained period that the opponent will eventually lose heart and surrender what it never would have in negotiations.

In the short term, Israel will be the winner, with a discredited Arafat on one side and more sympathetic world opinion on the other.  But in the long run, time is clearly on the side of Arafat’s eventual successors.  To put it crudely, an end to Israeli occupation is an infinitely more likely result of the spiral of violence than the Palestinians’ acquiescence in the occupation.  On the other hand, the Arabs would be well advised to remember that Israel will not hesitate to use some or all of its two-dozen nuclear devices.

Courage, skill and imagination are needed to find a quicker, safer, and less painful way to attain the Palestinians’ objectives.  Such can only be provided by Arafat’s eventual successors, and only if they do not come from the ranks of the radicalized Islamic youths.  There is no time to lose: The death of senior Palestinian official Faisal Husseini in June 2001 strengthened the impression that the old guard is fading from the scene.  Arafat is now a frail figure in his early 70’s, and the question of his successor is linked with the state of the Palestinian relationship with Israel.  That the young radicals may kill him if he does not devise a mechanism for transferring his authority to a person or body of his own choice goes almost without saying.  Still, like the rulers of all other Arab countries, Arafat is essentially a dictator who is determined to remain in power for life.

Such determination often reflects insecurity and lack of options rather than single-minded zeal to cling on to power well into one’s dotage.  If the U.S. government would offer Yasser Arafat a safe retirement home somewhere in southern Florida, together with a Secret Service detail and a six-figure annuity for life, this investment would yield the loudest bang for the buck in 54 years of America’s unhappy involvement in the Middle East.  It might not be enough to kick-start a new peace process, but it would be a very useful first step.