Israel, along with the United States, is holding Yasser Arafat responsible for the recent violence against Israel. He is the leader of the Palestinians, they say; let him act like one. But others ask, "How much can he lead?" noting his loss of power to extremists.
Time has run out for the durable leader of the Palestinians, says political science professor Steve Yetiv, of Old Dominion University in Virginia. "This is the last chance for Yasser Arafat to decide whether he wants to join with the United States, moderates in the Palestinian movement and in the Arab world, and with Israel to challenge and undermine his own radicals in the Palestinian movement," he said.
So far, says Professor Yetiv, Mr. Arafat has tried to have it both ways. He preaches peace, but uses the militants to gain leverage in negotiations. After the suicide bombings in Israel, says Mr. Yetiv, that ploy no longer works. Mr. Arafat has no choice but to go to war on his own extremists.
And send out the right signal to his people, says Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. "When you listen to Yasser Arafat, he may on the one hand condemn all kinds of violence, but then when the suicide terrorists are being buried on the west bank, they are getting a state funeral with the presidential guard of Yasser Arafat attending the funeral, and the people getting martyrs' pensions," he said.
Mr. Arafat has largely failed, concedes Middle East and International Affairs Professor Fawaz Gerges of Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. But he has had plenty of help in doing so. "The world has shunned him, and in particular, the United States has treated him in a highly disrespectful manner," he said. "The Israelis have been cracking down against the Palestinians. Hamas and Jihad - the militant Islamists - have done considerable damage not only to the legitimate Palestinian cause, but they have also marginalized Arafat's national authority further."
But he is not helpless, says Professor Yetiv, and is capable of taking strong action, if he wants to. "He has control over a not insignificant policing force, and that force has much more capability than Islamic Jihad or Hamas," said Steve Yetiv. "He controls the financial reins of the Palestinian movement. He knows where all the money is, and no one else really does. He also is in control of the bureaucracy."
But if he has to go, says Professor Yetiv, so be it. A successor might not be worse, even an Islamic extremist. That would at least clear the air and give Israel an enemy it can strike without reservation.
Nothing would be more dangerous, replies Professor Gerges. The militants are prepared for a fight to the finish. The end would be a disaster for all. Mr. Arafat is not the only impediment to peace, says Professor Gerges, noting far more Palestinians have been killed by Israelis than Israelis by Palestinians. He wishes the United States would be as concerned about Palestinian lives as Israeli ones.
He adds U.S. policy should be more than threats and warnings. "The United States can be most effective not only by exerting pressure on the Palestinian Authority, on Arafat himself to quell violence and crack down on Hamas and Jihad, but also by offering hope and incentive to the floating middle Palestinian public opinion, which still supports the peace process," he said.
Professor Gerges says with some imagination and statecraft, the United States could point the way out of the current morass.