Give Yasser Arafat credit. The man has always had a genius for destruction. And in the long twilight of his career, he hasn't lost a step. In a stroke, he has derailed progress toward an Israeli-Arab peace, transformed the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, into a powerless puppy, sowed discord between his old enemies, Israel and the US, and made President Bush contradict his own policies. Not bad for a few days' work.
Wily as ever, Arafat understood that the downfall of Saddam Hussein opened a window of opportunity in the Middle East. So Arafat set out to close that window. On Sunday, Hamas, along with Islamic Jihad, launched another attack on Israelis. But on this occasion, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were ostentatiously joined by a third partner: The Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade.
The Al Aksa Marytrs Brigade, of course, is part of Fatah - Arafat's own organization. Theoretically, at least, Abbas also is a Fatah leader. The three-fold message of Sunday's attack: (1) Arafat is still a terrorist master, he has not retired from the business; (2) Arafat agrees with Hamas and Islamic Jihad that the goal is not a Palestinian state alongside Israel but rather a Palestinian state in place of Israel; and (3) Arafat, remains the boss, Abbas is just a pretty face.
Under the so-called Road Map to peace, Abbas should have responded to this attack by moving to arrest those responsible. Arafat made that impossible. The best Abbas could do was to once again perfunctorily denounce violence - without bothering to note that his own organization was among those responsible.
Seeing that Abbas could not do anything, the Israelis retaliated, as Arafat knew they would. Exercising restraint, the Israelis retaliated not against Arafat, and not against the Martyrs Brigade but against Hamas, an organization that openly says it is at war against Israel, and explicitly says that the goal of the war is to destroy Israel - utterly and completely.
As Arafat expected, the White House lashed out - at the Israelis. "The President is concerned that the [Israeli] strike will undermine efforts by the Palestinian authorities and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Consider: When American citizens are slaughtered by terrorists at home and we dispatch troops around the world to eliminate those responsible, that's justice. When Americans soldiers are gunned down in Afghanistan and Iraq and we respond by hunting down the killers, that's justice.
But when Israeli civilians and soldiers are slaughtered on their own soil and Israel responds by acting in self-defense -- that's inconvenient and unhelpful.
Vice President Cheney recently said that the only way to deal with terrorism "ultimately is to destroy it. There's no treaty that can solve this problem, there's no peace agreement, no policy of containment or deterrence that works to deal with this threat. We have to go find the terrorists."
But if that's true for America - and it is - surely it's true for Israel which has been on the front lines of this war longer and more intensively than any other nation.
But, you might say, the Palestinians believe that Israel is occupying their land and that makes everything different. Does it? Aren't there Afghans and Iraqis who think that the US is occupying their land? If the belief that your land is occupied is justification for terrorism, residents of Texas, California and other former Mexican and Indian possessions better start packing.
And don't forget that Israel came into possession of the so-called Palestinian territories because those territories were used to launch a war against Israel in 1967 - a war waged by virtually all Israel's Arab neighbors, a war explicitly aimed at driving the Jews into the sea. Thirty-six years later, those territories are still being used to wage war against Israel, only now the weapon of choice is not tanks but suicide bombers.
The Israelis - including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - have said it over and over again: When the territories are no longer a haven for murderers, the people living in those territories will be left to rule themselves.
But that's not the goal Arafat seeks. At Camp David in 2000, he turned down the offer of an independent Palestinian state in 95% of the West Bank and Gaza. Why? Because Arafat has zero interest in being president of a Middle Eastern mini-state. His lifelong ambition is to be the Conqueror of Jerusalem -- a new Saladin vanquishing the infidels from the Holy Land once and for all.
One year ago, in a landmark speech on June 24th, President Bush told the Palestinians that they had a choice: They could have a state of their own; or they could have terrorism and the dream of destroying Israel. But they could not have both.
The President said that in order to earn US support for statehood, Palestinians must decisively reject terrorism and, what's more, develop a new leadership uncorrupted by terrorism - in other words, they must retire Arafat. And, Bush said, Palestinians must begin to build democratic institutions; it is not in the US interest to support the creation of yet another corrupt, terrorist-sponsoring dictatorship.
Today, the West Bank and Gaza remain terrorist safe-havens. There is no new leadership - just poor, hapless Abbas. There are no new, democratic Palestinian institutions.
But one thing has changed. It appears that Bush is now backing down, abandoning his June 24th vision and returning to the old policies, policies that have always failed in the past, and are bound to fail again.
So give Arafat credit. He has never been much a builder, but as a destroyer, he has no peer.