By turning the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur into bloody Days of Rage, Yasser Arafat may have sounded the death knell for the peace process.
But was it intentional?
That question is being asked increasingly in Washington and Jerusalem. Did he play his violence card as part of the end-game negotiations and the game got out of hand, or is that what he wanted all along? President Clinton and Ehud Barak were puzzled when the Israeli prime minister made an unexpectedly generous offer at Camp David this summer and Arafat walked out instead of countering it. He boarded his private jet in search of international support for his maximalist position and warned of violence if Israel didn't surrender all of East Jerusalem. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who's been more of the problem than the solution in the entire peace process, echoed Arafat.
And sure enough, when the first excuse arose in the portly form of Ariel Sharon, Arafat pulled the trigger. It is possible that he started out trying to wrest a better deal out of Barak and incite a harsh Israeli response that would win him back the underdog status and sympathy he lost at Camp David.
America's failure to quickly and publicly condemn Arafat's tactics - for several days, the dominant U.S. response was to blame Sharon - may have encouraged further Palestinian violence and convinced Arafat his dangerous gambit could succeed. The problem was exacerbated by U.S. surrender to threats of anti-American rioting in Arab capitals if it vetoed an unbalanced U.N. resolution condemning Israel.
Some have suggested that Arafat began losing control of what he had started. Maybe. But the continuing outburst of violence, coming after the most generous Israeli offer ever, makes it just as plausible that he wanted to see the peace process collapse and put the blame on Barak.
Arafat reluctantly joined the peace process to end his isolation following his decision to side with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. He was out to get as much as he could from Israel during the past seven years and give up as little as possible in return. He has said he made all the concessions necessary by agreeing to let Israel live on 78 percent of "historic Palestine."
Over the years he has sought to get the Europeans and the Americans to force Israel to accept his terms without direct negotiations, but that consistently failed because the first couldn't and the other wouldn't. As the tough final-status issues were raised at Camp David, Arafat grew increasingly intransigent, and the summit collapsed. He couldn't bring himself to complete an agreement that required declaring an end to the conflict with Israel and relinquishing future claims.
For Arafat, when the going gets tough, he gets going - on his private jet. That's what he did after Camp David, jetting around the globe on another kvetching tour, complaining about those terrible Zionists rather than trying to complete a deal with Israel.
He enjoys the life of a peripatetic revolutionary, getting international fawning and sympathy, strutting in review before military honor guards and being treated like a head of state. Who can blame him? It sure beats sitting in a Gaza office running an impoverished, corrupt sub-third-world government and worrying about the problems of millions of irate Palestinians who want a better life, human rights and democracy. If ending the peace process is what Arafat was looking for, Sharon, who also wanted it scuttled, presented him with the opportunity he needed, and Barak blundered into Arafat's hands.
Palestinians had honed their PR rioting skills in the intifada, putting children and TV crews on the front lines, keeping the guys with the guns out of sight. Barak took the bait; he used anti-tank missiles and helicopter gunships and then delivered an ultimatum that he would consider the peace process ended if Arafat didn't back down. When Arafat refused, Barak backed down, adding to the impression of weakness. If Arafat had ever actually wanted to sign an agreement with Israel, even a partial one, his actions of the past two weeks seriously damaged the support he needs from two powerful sectors. Israeli public opinion would be unlikely to approve a deal that looked like a surrender to the rioters, and the American Jewish community is not about to rush to Capitol Hill to lobby for the financial rewards Arafat expects from Washington.
Even ardent Israeli and American doves are questioning whether peace is possible so long as Arafat is around and persists on playing his violence card as the whim moves him. Inside the White House and on Capitol Hill, there are serious doubts about whether their massive political and financial investment in the Palestinian Authority can pay off as long as Arafat pulls the strings.
Worsening the situation is Palestinian insistence that no Jewish Temple ever existed on the Temple Mount and Jews have no legitimate claims not only to that site but to Israel. That is aggravated by their persistent Holocaust denial and a penchant for likening Israelis to Nazis.
By choosing the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, a Holocaust denier who often invoked the Nazi analogy, as his role model instead of Anwar Sadat, Arafat has demonstrated he has neither the courage nor the vision to deliver a better life for his followers. That will be left to his successors.
Arafat reportedly told Clinton at Camp David that if he makes the compromises asked of him, he'll soon "have coffee with [the late Yitzhak] Rabin." Assad for sure, but there's no chance he'll wind up in the same place as Rabin, who took enormous personal risks to advance peace - and paid the ultimate price.
Hafez al-Arafat has tragically miscalculated. It is increasingly unlikely he will realize his dream to preside over a viable Palestinian state. He may go ahead and declare statehood unilaterally, but it won't succeed. Israel can seal it off, bar Palestinians from going to jobs in Israel, block delivery of fuel and needed goods, withhold the transfer of taxes and revenues, discourage foreign investment, limit travel from one enclave to the other, impede international access and block passage to Jerusalem and the mosques.
Such a situation could easily deteriorate to violence far worse than anything witnessed in the past week, and while Israelis would suffer, the brunt of the pain would be borne by the Palestinians. But not Arafat, who will probably be jetting off to the other side of the globe looking for shoulders to sob on about those terrible Israelis.
Douglas M. Bloomfield, a former staff member of AIPAC, writes about the Mideast and politics of Jewish life in America.