Time for Palestinian Justice

The Israeli government has declared Yasser Arafat to be "irrelevant," but he remains recognized by the rest of the world, and the Palestinians themselves, as leader of the Palestinian people. I suspect that, even now, Arafat can, in the spirit of the season, pull his chestnuts out of the fire as he has done so many times before. But what can he possibly do to earn the confidence of Israeli leaders who see him as a liar and terrorist? I suggest a simple dose of Palestinian justice.

For months, really years, Israel has demanded that Arafat fulfill his commit to prevent terrorism. Depending on the level of pressure from the international community, he has turned the violence spigot on or off. When necessary he has locked up a few terrorists, occasionally even putting them in real jails, but weeks later, as the pressure subsides, he has released them. After the latest series of suicide attacks, Arafat took his toughest measures yet, arresting larger numbers of terrorists and announcing his intention of dismantling Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Given Arafat's new toughness, many people are asking why Israel chose this moment to undermine his authority. The answer is that Israelis have grown tired of the charade. The pattern is too familiar — just another twist of the spigot. Israelis know that if Arafat were truly serious, he would adopt the same ruthless methods to deal with the terrorists that he uses against those who oppose him, namely, jail, torture, and murder.

It offends Western sensibilities, and no one expects the U.S. Secretary of State to tell Arafat to kill all the members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but Israelis know that is precisely what the PLO chairman would do if he believed they truly threatened his power. Just look at how the Palestinian Authority has treated people accused of collaborating with Israel. They are arrested, summarily tried, and executed over the course of a few days. This isn't just Palestinian justice, it's the typical way Arab leaders handle their opponents. In Syria, for example, Hafez Assad destroyed the entire city of Hama, killing perhaps as many as 20,000 people, to put down a rebellion there. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak wiped out much of the Muslim Brotherhood when it began to threaten the country's stability.

Can Arafat do it? His apologists said that he couldn't crack down on the terrorists before because it would provoke civil war or that it would threaten his legitimacy. Now they say Arafat can't do it because he would be viewed as giving in to pressure from the Israelis and acting against his people even as they were being killed by Israeli forces. Well, the time for excuses has run out. His only way out is to have the 40,000 police under his control arrest the members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, the Tanzim and the rest of the groups responsible for terrorist attacks on Israelis, put on a brief show trial that declares them to be enemies of the state, and then shoot them.

This is the only conceivable way for Arafat to demonstrate that he is committed to peace with Israel. It sends a message to all Palestinians that he really is in charge and that no dissent will be tolerated. It is the equivalent of the psychological leap made by Sadat when he traveled to Jerusalem and thereby proved to Israelis how much he had changed, and how far he was prepared to go for peace. Only after taking such draconian measures can Arafat regain his relevance.

Will he do it? Not likely. He doesn't have the will and is not a strong enough leader to take the last step needed for peace. Had he accepted Ehud Barak's overly generous deal at Camp David, he could have been spared this choice and died the hero who had brought about his people's independence. Now he will be the man who led them to further misery. Israelis can find no satisfaction in this outcome. They hoped for an end to conflict when the Oslo process began. Now they will have to wait for Arafat's successor to impose Palestinian justice, and pray that he will not be worse.