Boosting Arafat's image

September 24, 2002

A LITTLE MORE than a week ago, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's political profile read like that of a political has-been. His Cabinet resigned rather than face a vote of no confidence from the elected Palestinian Legislative Council. His attempts at reform -- a prerequisite to U.S. support for an independent state -- were revealed as a sham.

Then came the Israeli invasion of Mr. Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, a spectacle of cannon blasts, clouds of fiery smoke and buildings bulldozed into rubble. It was the Israeli government's response to back-to-back suicide bombings last week that killed six Israelis and wounded dozens of others. The siege rehabilitated Mr. Arafat's tired image and reinvigorated the political persona he adores -- that of the besieged freedom fighter.

With enemies like that, who needs an image consultant?

There was Mr. Arafat, holed up in his compound, refusing to surrender the loyalists at his side whom the Israelis have branded as "wanted men." There was Mr. Arafat, in a telephone call to Palestinian supporters in Lebanon, vowing to defend their rights to a free homeland with Jerusalem as its capital. Thousands of Palestinians put aside their personal disgust with Mr. Arafat's corrupt regime to rally in support of their beleaguered leader.

Israel's pounding of Mr. Arafat's headquarters is yet another example of the folly of the government's strategy to force out the Palestinian leader. Mr. Arafat, who has made a career as a defender of the Palestinian people, is not going to succumb to Israel's demands with tanks, bulldozers and armored personnel carriers at his door. He couldn't pay for that kind of publicity. Why should he flee when international leaders, including the president of the United States, are condemning Israel's actions?

The attack also doesn't serve Israel's legitimate aim of ferreting out the militants responsible for the terrorist attacks on its civilians. The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, claimed responsibility for Thursday's bus bombing in Tel Aviv in which five people died. There's no indication that the planners of that attack are holed up in Mr. Arafat's headquarters.

The double suicide bombings last week broke a six-week halt in the violence that has devastated Israel and the Palestinian territories in the past two years and resulted in the deaths of about 2,000 people, including 500 Israelis. The Israeli government felt compelled to respond to the latest attack to defend its people.

But it has become clear over these many months that a political resolution of this conflict won't take place until Palestinians have a leadership team in place that commands the respect of its people and Middle East peace brokers. Targeting Mr. Arafat's headquarters in a punishing assault won't bring that change about any sooner.

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