With the brutal slaying of 25 Israelis in Jerusalem and Haifa by Palestinian terrorists, Yasser Arafat reached the end of his rope. His failure to halt terrorism by Hamas and Islamic Jihad also destroyed, at least for now, a rare opportunity offered him by the Bush administration to gain U.S. support for a process leading to establishment of a viable state of Palestine.
After Sept. 11, without hesitating, Mr. Arafat condemned Osama bin Laden and categorically rejected the notion advanced in the Arab world that Qaida terrorist outrages were connected to the Palestinian national cause. He placed himself and the Palestinian Authority clearly on America's side. In so doing, he confounded Ariel Sharon, whose first reaction to Sept. 11 was that President George W. Bush would now hand him an unrestricted hunting license to go after the Palestinian Authority. Instead, Mr. Bush welcomed Mr. Arafat to the ranks of "those who are with us," thus granting a measure of U.S. friendship and protection that Palestinians had forfeited with the violent excesses of the intifada. This turnaround in Mr. Arafat's fortune was short-lived, for he failed to act on the obvious logic of the post-Sept. 11 situation by shutting down Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He limited himself to verbal exhortations. Mr. Bush reverted to his earlier inclination not to trust him not to get too deeply involved in efforts to restrain Mr. Sharon's disposition to deal with the Palestinian problem in military rather than political terms. Mr. Arafat now faces a moment of truth. If he fails to act decisively against Hamas and Jihad, he will be left by the United States to the not so tender mercies of a right-wing Israeli government that would like nothing better than to shut down the Palestinian Authority and expel Mr. Arafat from the territories.
If he does take on Hamas and Jihad, he risks a Palestinian civil war whose outcome is not predictable. It is a risk he now must take, for it is the only course that can put Palestinians back on the road to eventual statehood.
Mr. Bush has rightly declared that no grievance can justify the deliberate slaughter of innocents.
It must also be said, however, that an Israeli strategy of countering terrorism that relies solely on counterterrorism and greater repression (which also targets innocents) will not produce greater security for Israel's citizens. To the contrary, such a limited strategy will predictably produce only greater losses of Israeli lives.
To state this truth is not to condone terrorism but to note the obvious fact that this government, with its focus on violent retaliation entirely unrelated to a political process which offers a viable alternative to violence, is putting its citizens at vastly increased risk.
It is to argue the political and moral bankruptcy of policies pursued in the name of greater security which in fact achieve the very opposite.
And it is to argue that policies which reinforce the despair of Palestinians by killing their hope for an end to the occupation will inevitably fuel escalating violence.
No doubt, the counterviolence intended to punish the terrorists is justified. But to what purpose? Will this sense of justification provide solace to the parents whose children will be murdered by terrorists who will seek revenge for Israeli retaliations?
The responsibility of a government to its citizens' security supersedes its obligation to pursue abstract justice; the latter is God's work. If terrorism can be countered better by granting Palestinians their state, is it really preferable to keep them under occupation and feed Israeli lives to Palestinian rage for the sake of the sacred principle of "not rewarding terrorism"? The argument that terrorism will not abate even if Palestinians achieve a state of their own is neither self-evident nor reasonable. For even if it were true, Israel is able to deal with violence from a neighboring enemy state far better than from a population under occupation.
If there has been no cross-border violence from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or Egypt, it is because Israel's armed forces have a track record of dealing effectively with that kind of aggression. But they have been entirely ineffective in dealing with a population resisting forceful occupation. There is no reason to believe that Palestinians will treasure their freedom and independence any less than Israelis do. So there is no reason to believe that they will not prevent terrorism that puts their newly won independence at risk.
Henry Siegman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.