The evolution of Israel's attitudes toward Yasir Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority takes on great meaning as the U.S. considers how it should deal with the Palestinian leader.
Until the Oslo Accords and the meeting on the White House lawn in September 1993, Israel simply refused to have any dealings with Mr. Arafat because of his rejection of Israel's right to exist and his use of terrorism. With the Oslo breakthrough, Israel's new approach was summed up by Prime Minister Rabin's reluctant handshake with Mr. Arafat. Suspicion that Mr. Arafat had not truly abandoned his former goals and methods persisted, but alongside it was the view that Mr. Arafat could be prepared to find peace with Israel, and in any case, he was the best that Israel would get to lead the Palestinians - so let's deal with him.
That view prevailed for about six years. Ups and downs in the Oslo process tended to harden or soften the picture, but essentially it remained the dominant view whether Labor or Likud was in power. Mr. Arafat was the partner with whom to make peace.
Then came Camp David and the intifada. During the year after Camp David II, more and more Israeli leaders and military and intelligence experts were moving to the view that Mr. Arafat may, after all, not be capable or willing to make a real peace with Israel. The rejection of the unprecedented offer made by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the turn to violence and terrorism, and the vicious anti-Israel and anti-Jewish campaigns being waged changed many people's understanding of the Palestinian leader.
Only up to a point, however. The point beyond which Israel seemed unwilling to go was that Israel might be better off without Mr. Arafat and should facilitate his removal from power. As bad as he now was seen to be, the uncertainty and fear about the future still precluded a leap to the next level.
Then came the weekend of suicide bombers in Jerusalem and Haifa. This terrorism was the straw that broke the camel's back; the government of Israel had had it and without necessarily saying so explicitly, was now in the mode of considering relations with the Palestinians without Mr. Arafat.
Clearly, Washington got the message. Whether or not Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said so directly to President Bush in his hastily arranged meeting in Washington, what came to be the new reality was that if Washington did not do something about Mr. Arafat -- pressure him to stop his support for terrorism -- Israel will handle the situation itself.
What followed was a perfect reflection of the idea that it is not so terrible for everyone to think that Israel can take matters into its own hands. Uncertainty of what Israel would do resulted in the remarkable consistency of U.S. criticism of Mr. Arafat and support of Israel that we have seen to this day. So powerful were the concerns of what Israel might do, that even the Europeans found, if briefly, a new willingness to criticize Mr. Arafat.
For Mr. Arafat, the equation is simple: Whom does he fear most, Hamas or Israel? Until this recent Israeli turnaround, the answer to that question clearly was Hamas. Indeed, in some ways over the years, Israel had become Mr. Arafat's protector, based on the notion that he was the best Israel would get.
Now for the first time, Mr.Arafat had to wonder whether Israel might become the greater threat. And if so, would he not have to risk greater strife with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other extremist groups by finally doing something about the terrorist infrastructure. This drama is still being played out. Whether Mr. Arafat will survive or change are still uncertainties.
What should be clear in Washington is that the Arafat of today is the greatest threat to Israel and its hopes for peace. There cannot and will not be a status quo. And Washington has to play its role in managing change. This means moving forward on a step-by-step disassociation from Mr. Arafat -- financially, politically, and diplomatically -- making clear that a total break off can be averted only by real and sustained action by Mr. Arafat against terrorism
The White House seems to be going through the same evolution in thinking about Mr. Arafat that went on Israel. This is good. Only if Mr. Arafat concludes that he will not be saved, is there any chance that he can save himself and the Palestinian people.
Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. This op-ed originally appeared in the Palm Beach Post on February 5, 2002.