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On Point

Arafat's Uncertain Future


by Austin Bay

Louis XIV ran a powerful country. In fact, he may have invented the modern nation state. A few rays from the Sun King still illuminate 21st century France.

Louis Quatorze could lay down the occasional le mot juste. "I am the state," he said, a sound bite ratifying his autocratic centrality. His great-grandson, Louis XV, gets credit for another Gallic wisecrack. Upon assessing his realm's decaying power, Louis XV allegedly mumbled "Apres moi, le deluge." After I split the scene, expect a biblical flood of trouble.

Yasir Arafat doesn't have a state, but he's always wanted one. Arafat didn't invent modern terrorism (nor, for that matter, did former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin), but he did show a generation of political leaders how to run a global media campaign as part of a long-term guerrilla war.

For two Palestinian generations, Arafat embodied the hope for a Palestinian state. Though not quite "L'etat c'est Arafat," it was darn close. Yasir went to Moscow, he addressed the U.N., he danced in a tent with Vanessa Redgrave and an AK-47. Superpower contacts, U.N. presence, lefty celebrity hobnob -- the man had the media corona of a national leader, if not the crown.

When times got tight, Arafat relied on a revised Louis XV riff: "Without me, utter Hell. Fail to deal with me, then Israel and America can expect the worst from every Arab nation."

Originally, the bloody flood Arafat "prevented" consisted of secular revolutionary outfits like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and other groups more radical than Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Over time, however, the cosmopolitan killers like George Habash faded as "threats beyond Arafat," to be replaced by fanatical religious groups like Hizbullah and Hamas, and Islamist sociopaths like Osama bin Laden. Victory over Russia in Afghanistan burnished the reputation of "holy warriors," and bin Laden cleverly hijacked their success to his own ends.

To the Islamists, Arafat was "ancien regime," as dead as any French king. Arafat tried to adapt his politics, but Hamas used Arafat's autocratic corruption against him. Hamas backed health clinics and aided impoverished Palestinians, the domestic state burdens Arafat's PLO leadership cadre neglected in favor of building themselves Mediterranean villas in Gaza. No, a Gaza villa isn't Versailles, but it beats a bunker in Beirut.

The Islamist pitch to the Palestinians said secular revolt failed. Fat cat Arafat chats with Washington, the real source of Muslim misery, while our martyrs (suicide bombers) kill Israelis. Our version of Holy War will is God-driven. We are the future.

Yes, Arafat has a record for surviving his mistakes. He sided with Saddam and beat that goof. However, his biggest strategic error was his rejection of Israel's peace deal in the summer of 2000. Perhaps any deal would have ignited an internecine Palestinian war, but instead of waging that necessary civil war with the support of the United States and Israel, Arafat chose renewed intifada with Israel. Arafat gambled "internationalizing" the issue of Palestinian statehood might result in a "better deal." Intifada, no doubt, appeased the Islamists.

However, intifada brought Ariel Sharon, he of the "blunt instrument school" of politics, to power in Israel.

On Sept. 11, a different kind of deluge struck not just the Middle East, but the rest of the planet's anarchic fiefs that thrive on embedded grievances, reactionary anti-Americanism and violence. That deluge is an aroused and active America angered by terrorist assault -- a dramatically changed geo-strategic environment Arafat did not expect.

Israel and Palestine are now fighting a dirty war, and Israel is winning. Sharon is taking "all the necessary steps" to ensure Israeli security -- an offensive against Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Arafat now indicates he's ready to fight that civil war with Hamas. Yes, the Islamist collapse in Afghanistan could actually give Arafat a chance to whip them. Al Qaeda has suffered utter defeat, diminishing the appeal of Islamist violence.

However, what Arafat does or does not do may no longer matter. Israel and the United States are both on the offensive against the chaos beyond Arafat. After Arafat will come ... someone else. It may be that someone is a chastened Hamas leader who notices bin Laden's "God-driven revelation" has led to defeat and Arafat's lack of decisiveness has led to his irrelevance.

Chastened terrorists can act in the cause of peace. After all, Menachem Begin returned Sinai to Egypt.

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