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Next U.S. Target: Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat

After the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who’s next? It’s not Syria, North Korea or Iran. America’s next — and most worthy — target is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. [IMGCAP(1)]

He’s not going to be smart-bombed, of course. But the Bush administration intends to see the old terrorist and obstructor of the peace moved out of the way, or else there’ll be no resumption of Middle East talks.

President Bush has repeatedly said he’s personally committed to working toward creation of an independent Palestinian state, but he’s made it clear that such action depends on Arafat being superceded by a Palestinian prime minister with “real authority.”

“The Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful and democratic state that abandons forever the use of terror,” Bush said in a Rose Garden statement March 14.

He said that when a new prime minister is confirmed in office, his administration will unveil a “roadmap” for peace talks that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in three years.

Bush also indicated that if a new Palestinian regime fights violence against Israel, he’d “expect” Israel — and, presumably, apply pressure — to end settlement activity in occupied territories and support the creation of a Palestinian state.

Beginning last week, following America’s swift victory in Iraq, the Bush administration took steps to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process — seeking symbolic preliminary concessions from Israel and putting pressure on neighboring Syria to, among other things, restrain anti-Israeli terrorism.

So, another moment of truth is at hand for Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority. Does he yield power and open up the possibility for his people’s self-government? Or does he once again thwart the process and keep his people under Israeli occupation and punishing security control?

An old Arafat associate, Abu Mazen, has been designated prime minister by the Palestinian parliament. He is in the process of forming a government with independent candidates slated for finance minister and interior minister.

Arafat and Abu Mazen, also known as Mahmoud Abbas, are at odds over the appointments. Salem Fayed, the current PA finance minister, would continue cleaning up the endemic corruption that has fouled Arafat’s regime. Muhammad Dahlan is pledged to crack down on terrorist violence against Israelis, some of it carried out by organizations loyal to Arafat.

Constitutionally, Arafat has the power to veto Abu Mazen’s selections and even fire Abu Mazen himself. The future of the Palestinian people is in the balance, and no one knows what Arafat will do.

One top Israeli diplomat I talked to suggested that the Palestinian public and their politicians were sufficiently fed up with Arafat’s rule and its bitter fruits that they’d pressure him to yield power to Abu Mazen.

That possibility should be all the greater given the stunning allied victory in Iraq. Any prospect that the Arabs somehow could expel U.S. influence — and Israel — from the region now seems remote, indeed.

On the other hand, Arafat’s whole career has consisted of keeping himself in charge of the Palestinian nationalist movement, of using violence as a key strategy and of refusing to accept any peace deal short of total victory.

Last Thursday, Arafat biographer Barry Rubin recalled in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that just-captured Palestinian terrorist Abu Abbas was one of Arafat’s closest allies for 20 years and served as his intermediary with Hussein.

When Abbas was captured in Iraq by U.S. forces, an Arafat aide claimed that he could not be kept in custody or tried for the murder of U.S. citizen Leon Klinghoffer, who was killed aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, because Abbas was covered by an amnesty agreed to as part of the Oslo peace process undertaken in the 1990s by Israel and Arafat.

The United States, of course, was not a party to that agreement and plans to keep Abbas in custody or turn him over to Italy, under whose flag the Achille Lauro sailed.

The Oslo peace process never produced a final peace agreement despite the strenuous efforts of former Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak and former President Bill Clinton — because Arafat refused to accept a deal that would have returned 98 percent of Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, not 100 percent.

There’s no guarantee that Arafat’s yielding authority to Abu Mazen will produce peace, either. “The likely scenario,” said the Israeli diplomat I talked to, “is that Abu Mazen does get authority, visits the White House and starts talking to [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon.

“But then, after two months or so, there’d be a new round of terrorist attacks by Hamas or Islamic Jihad, Sharon would say that the new Palestinian Authority couldn’t or wouldn’t control it and we’d be back to square one. The vicious cycle is the likeliest scenario.”

It’s true. Terrorist groups aided by Syria and Iran are determined to wreck peace prospects. It’s not clear that any Palestinian government could control them. And Israel will not release its security grip or withdraw its forces unless the threat of terrorism is lifted.

Still, the Bush administration has got to try to get a peace process started — if only as a means of quieting critics in Europe and the Arab world. Arafat remains an obstacle, however. And, unfortunately, Bush can’t remove him as effectively as he did Hussein.

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