Yasser Arafat faces what may be his final chance to draw back from the brink of all-out war. After two days of heavy bombardment in retaliation for a series of bloody terror attacks, Israel paused airstrikes Wednesday to give Arafat a few hours to prove that he is serious about cracking down on Palestinian terror.
Israel's Cabinet, in a stormy late-night meeting Monday, designated the Palestinian Authority as a terror-supporting entity that "must be dealt with accordingly."
The Israeli government also declared that two groups affiliated with Arafat -- the Tanzim militia and the Force 17 presidential guard -- are terrorist organizations.
The Cabinet decisions came after a weekend of terror bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that left 25 Israelis dead and nearly 300 injured. The Cabinet members demand unspecified "actions more wide-ranging than those taken against Palestinian terrorism until now."
But the Cabinet deliberately left Arafat a loophole.
"This determination is subject to change -- by Cabinet decision -- if the Palestinian Authority fulfills its commitments, according to the agreements, to prevent and foil terrorism, punish terrorists and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure," the communique read.
The Cabinet placed the onus on Arafat. Forceful and credible action on his part against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups still could prompt Israel to revoke what is almost a declaration of war against the Palestinian Authority.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had demanded that the decision be deferred for a week to give the Palestinian Authority a chance to show that this time it is serious about fighting terror.
When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected this idea, Peres and his Labor Party colleagues walked out of the Cabinet meeting before the vote. An angry Peres said the decision adopted by the Cabinet majority meant Israel would seek to overthrow the Palestinian Authority by force.
Though it has no illusions about Arafat's responsibility for Palestinian terror, Labor does not want to discredit him as a potential negotiating partner, believing that the lack of a legitimate Palestinian leader would be even worse.
During a visit Tuesday to Romania, where he met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other world leaders to discuss the crisis, Peres sought to portray the Cabinet decision as relatively restrained, arguing that the Cabinet had ordered the army to hit Palestinian Authority buildings and property -- not people.
Israeli airstrikes on Monday and Tuesday targeted empty Palestinian installations, including Palestinian security targets in the West Bank and Gaza, several of Arafat's helicopters and the runway of the Palestinian airport in Gaza.
The strikes were halted Wednesday, when Sharon and Peres, decided to give Arafat the breathing spell he'd requested.
In a series of telephone calls Wednesday between Arafat and Peres, the Palestinian leader complained that Israeli airstrikes were preventing him from arresting terrorists.
Peres later told Israel Radio that he'd said to Arafat, "We are giving you a list of 36 people who, as we know, are terrorist leaders. I strongly recommend that you put them in jail."
There was added urgency for Arafat to take action after a suicide bomber struck Wednesday in Jerusalem.
The terrorist, who was wearing a nail- and metal-studded bomb, succeeded only in killing himself in what appeared to be a botched attack after the bomb went off prematurely. Eight people were slightly wounded.&'9;
But political observers in Israel still believe Sharon has not been given a green light by the United States -- assuming he needs one -- to topple the Palestinian Authority.
Bush and other top U.S. officials supported Israel's right to act in its own self-defense this week, statements that gave implicit support for the Israeli air strikes.
Bush and Sharon met in the White House on Sunday, before Sharon cut short his U.S. trip to deal with the escalating situation in Israel. In addition, the Bush administration greatly increased its pressure on Arafat to clamp down on terror.
In an interview aired Wednesday on ABC, Bush said, "It's now time for Mr. Arafat to prove whether or not he is for peace."
Despite such comments, there is no evidence that the Bush administration has written off Arafat.
Just two weeks ago, the administration offered its vision for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. If Arafat is seen to be making a real effort against Palestinian terror, the United States could resume its pressure on Sharon to respond with concessions that ease Arafat's political predicament.
That, indeed, has been Peres' prescription all along.