The acid test for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat came last week when he made his fateful visit to the White House to discuss Bill Clinton's framework agreement -- a roadmap designed to set the parameters for negotiating the tough issues that separate Israel and the Palestinians. Arafat failed the test.
Clinton's proposals, which were accepted by Israel, would have handed Arafat control over some 95 percent of the West Bank, 100 percent of Gaza, predominantly Arab areas of Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount and most of the Old City) and the Muslim holy sites, and it offered the limited return to Israel of at least some of the Palestinian refugees.
That's not all: The Palestinians would have been compensated for the missing 5 percent of West Bank territory with an equivalent area inside pre-1967 Israel, presumably in the Negev Desert, contiguous with the Gaza Strip.
In addition, the United States and the 15-member European Union had been privately putting together an enormous international aid package, estimated at more than $30 billion, to help rehabilitate those refugees who would not have qualified to return under the proposed humanitarian and family reunification criteria. Not least, the Clinton proposals would have offered the Palestinians what no previous rulers of the area -- Roman, Arab, Turkish or British -- ever had permitted: An independent, sovereign Palestinian state. It was an offer that many in the West believed Arafat could not refuse. To the surprise and chagrin of Western leaders, Arafat did just that. His angry "no" was accompanied by threats of still more violence. Moreover, he was emboldened in his rejection by Arab leaders throughout the Middle East.
The writing on the wall came with the sudden switch in Palestinian public rhetoric from the issue of Jerusalem to that of refugees, which both the Americans and Europeans thought had been settled, give or take a few billion dollars.
After Arafat had been handed what he had demanded in Jerusalem, he declared that no agreement was possible without an explicit declaration by Israel that all the refugees would have "the right of return" to their former homes inside Israel, fixing on the one issue guaranteed to sticking in the craw of all Israelis and explode the negotiations.
For Israelis of all political complexions, there is a fundamental consensus on the issue of the refugees: their "right of return" is simply not on the agenda.
Clinton himself explicitly recognized this reality when he addressed the Israel Policy Forum in New York on Sunday and urged the Palestinians not to hold out "for the impossible more."
"You cannot expect Israel," he said, "to acknowledge an unlimited right of return to present-day Israel." Arafat could and did. Moreover, he stuck to his demand knowing that if there were a "right of return" for the estimated 4 million Palestinian refugees -- mostly the children and grandchildren of the original 650,000 refugees -- the Jewish population would very quickly cease to constitute a majority and Israel would, quite simply, cease to exist as a Jewish state. The Israelis have declined the invitation to commit national suicide.
According to some Israeli analysts, Arafat is incapable, psychologically or politically, of bringing himself to declare an end to the conflict with Israel.
The analysts say he cannot make the transition from war to peace, from terrorist to politician; he is unable to establish the industrial infrastructure and the appropriate instruments of government which are essential to the project of nation-building -- and which he knows will dilute his personal power, rendering him vulnerable to change.
According to others, he has no intention of allowing himself to be limited by the responsibility that sovereignty and statehood imply. He does not plan, they say, to settle for a rump state, but has ambitions that extend far beyond the West Bank and Gaza and include not only the shaky Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, which already contains a Palestinian majority, but also Israel itself.
As long as he is able to use violence to galvanize international support -- for the Jerusalem mosques, for the refugees' return, for more territory -- what incentive is there to risk the wrath of his large rejectionist constituency and consign himself to oblivion by limiting his vision? Judging by his performance during the past seven years, he appears to have little appetite for the unglamorous business of creating the sort of secular, democratic ideal to which he had once earnestly aspired.
Surprisingly, some of the most scathing critiques of Arafat come not from Israelis but from the Arab intelligentsia-in-exile, who make no attempt to hide their contempt for a man whom they consider to be inveterately duplicitous.
As Arafat traveled to Washington to discuss the abortive Clinton proposals, some members of the Arab elite in London were astonished at the continuing optimism of Israelis who apparently saw what they want to see and heard what they wanted to hear.
A Palestinian academic at one of Britain's most prestigious universities noted that Arafat appeared to be "most at ease operating in circumstances of chaos."
"When he was in Jordan, he provoked a civil war. And when he was in Lebanon, he provoked a civil war," said the academic. "In both cases he not only survived but emerged strengthened. Don't be surprised if that is his strategy now."
Did the academic believe that Arafat really expects Israel and Jordan to drop into his lap? "Of course, he expects that Jordan will become part of Palestine," he said matter-of factly. "He probably calculates Israel will take a little longer."
A senior Syrian journalist took a more simplistic, brutal view of what he ironically mocked as "Israel's peace partner."
"How come you Israelis ever believed you could make a deal with Arafat?" he asked with genuine surprise.
"The man is a gangster, plain and simple, and he uses his organization like a mafia. How can you clever Israelis seriously believe that such man would agree to make compromises?"
But the specter of an Israeli-Palestinian deal is more complex when viewed from the perspective of the Arab world, a specter that contains both risks and opportunities.
The opportunities, according to a senior Israeli political source, apply mainly to the smaller, weaker Arab states which believe that contacts with Israel will bring them tangible technological and economic benefits. The risks, however, are felt mostly by the powerful Arab states, particularly Egypt and Syria, which fear that the absence of the Palestinian issue, which has provided the glue for holding the Arab world together, will deprive them of their power and influence within the region.
"An end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would carry a heavy price tag for them," said the Israeli source. "The conflict represents the beating heart of pan-Arabism, and an end to the conflict would be the final nail in the coffin of this powerful and emotive ideology."
While the disappearance of the Palestinian issue would dramatically reduce the influence of Egypt, which would no longer be perceived as the unchallenged regional leader, Syria would likely be deprived of aid from the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, which has lubricated the creaky economy in Damascus as a reward for its "steadfastness" in support of the pan-Arab cause.
Such are the realities which are now compelling a large segment of Israeli society to conclude that peace is not, as they had so fervently believed, at hand. Nor, it seems with hindsight, was it ever more than a mirage in the vast Arabian desert.