So it has come to this. The once and future president of Palestine, father of his people, so-called architect of their national rebirth, is hunkered down around a sputtering candle as his enemies' jets pound the walls of his compound and grenades explode in his courtyard.
The scene is eerily reminiscent of another that took place exactly 20 years ago in Arafat's headquarters in Beirut. There the Israelis relentlessly shelled him in his lair before American intervention allowed him a face-saving departure to Tunis. Perhaps others will remember Chilean President Salvadore Allende's defiance of his own troops as they attacked the Presidential Palace in Santiago in 1973. There, too, the besieged president vowed to die a martyr's death and fulfilled his promise.
But this new round of events, which has been accompanied by the gravest toll of civilian casualties in Israel's history, offers to close a door on a situation Israelis have endured for far too long. Burdened with the intrigues of this murderer and terrorist for 40 years, it must now make a crucial final accounting: Is Arafat worth more to them dead or alive?
Killing the leader of any people is certainly not a matter to take lightly. But in Arafat's case, the balance sheet should make the answer quite clear. By not condemning Palestinian terror atrocities and failing to crack down on the terrorist activities of his own brigades, Arafat gives those groups his sanction. His tepid denunciations aside, it is clear that his implicit avowals of support for 'martyrs' have led to an escalation that he no longer can control. His relevance in stemming the violence is therefore minimal, but his continued operation, as a symbol of revolt and a figurehead to incendiaries, threatens Israeli life and thereby imperils the stability of the region.
It is argued, conversely, that only Arafat has the ability to rein in terror. But anyone watching interviews of the Palestinian leader in recent months could comfortably conclude that Arafat refuses to rein in terror, not because it threatens his political leverage, but because he is temperamentally incapable of making the psychological shift in order to do so. This has been starkly demonstrated in recent days by a profound display of self-delusion, wherein he and his cohorts appear convinced that the campaign of suicide terror has given them an advantage over the Israelis, whose surrender may be just days away. The same kind of delusion gripped the Palestinian leader in Beirut when he faced catastrophe. His tack then was simply to declare victory, then flee to fight another day. The same latitude should never be given him again.
Another argument is that Arafat's death risks the outbreak of a regional war. Such speculation has no basis in reality. As the Arab League Summit in Beirut convincingly demonstrated, Arafat is completely isolated. Prevented from addressing the Summit by even the Arabs themselves, he has, in reality, few sympathetic ears in that milieu. No Arab leader will shed tears for the end of this chronic schemer. Singed by his treachery and duplicity over the decades, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are loath to aid the Palestinian leader, nor are they in any condition, either diplomatically or militarily, to receive the brunt of an Israeli assault -- an event that would certainly occur to Syria if it allows Hezbollah to resume an assault on Israel from southern Lebanon.
Finally, there will be no international operation against Israel mimicking the one in Kosovo in 1999. This has been Yasser Arafat's final card, a desperate gamble on international sanction and concerted military invasion to prevent what he has preposterously labeled a genocide. But even with the Europeans' fierce denunciations there is no indication of a willingness of any nation to go to battle for Arafat or his corrupt regime. If the world is at war with the terrorist networks, which Western country will risk the ire of the United States to defend a man for whom terrorism is a raison d'etre?
No one in either Israel or the United States, the only two countries who now really count in this conflict, should be fooled into believing that a surviving Arafat will suddenly see the light and seek a peaceful accommodation with Israel. His death may well turn him into a martyr, but isn't a dead martyr more acceptable than a live terrorist from whom proponents of civil violence worldwide gain inspiration and moral support?
Given these circumstances, the appropriate analogy is therefore not to Allende in 1973 or Beirut in 1982. Instead, its parallel is Berlin of 1945, when another menace to world peace and an inveterate slaughterer of Jews faced annihilation. With this in mind, the true question is not whether Israel can afford to eliminate Arafat. It is whether it can afford not to.