Washington — Taking power from Yasser Arafat is necessary to improve the lives of Palestinians and make peace with Israel. But neutralizing Arafat will not be sufficient. Reform of the Palestinian Authority can succeed only if Americans, Europeans, other Arabs and Israel recognize their own complicity in the dispiriting failure they now condemn with passion and instant wisdom.
Consensus has quickly grown around the idea captured in a phrase uttered to me in private recently by a European senior official: "We cannot leave the construction of a Palestinian government to the Palestinians this time."
But the rush to focus all blame on Arafat and all hope for progress on shoving him aside and finding new, pliable leadership is simplistic and self-defeating.
Think about this: The Bush administration now expects the CIA, the Saudi royal family, the authoritarian and corrupt government of Egypt and Israel's Ariel Sharon to be the midwives of a newly democratic, peace-loving, efficient and honest Palestinian regime. Is it impolite to ask what they are smoking in this White House and down at Colin Powell's Foggy Bottom policy shop?
Arafat himself joined a swelling parade of diplomats, politicians and aid donors last week by calling for "reform" of his own administration. He threw in praise for President Bush, who praised him right back. That has to be a clear sign that this Houdini of Arab politics believes he can out-manipulate those who would manipulate him.
But Yasser Houdini may be wrong this time. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak have directly told Arafat he has to go, Arab and American sources report. The two rulers, concerned about their own survival, then warned Syria's Bashar Assad at a recent three-way summit not to interfere with a new peace effort.
Arafat's internal standing has also quickly dropped as Palestinians have emerged from their improvised bomb shelters and surveyed the damage that his leadership has brought to their society.
So this is indeed the time for a push to sideline Arafat, and the time to link reconstruction and rehabilitation aid to the formation of a new, effective Palestinian government. But Washington, Israel, the European Union and the Arab rulers must not once again put their own immediate needs before the Palestinians' chances to develop a healthy and democratic society.
Arafat's intifada and Sharon's Operation Defensive Shield have driven the final nails into the coffin of the Oslo accord and the Clinton peace effort that it fostered. Under Oslo, Arafat, with all his corruption and abuse of authority, suited Israeli and American leaders just fine. He seemed to be doing what they wanted. Democracy and efficiency were not issues then.
"As long as Yasser Arafat agreed to collaborate with Israel and ignore the expansion of settlements, he was a partner," Tom Segev wrote this month in Haaretz, the leading Israeli daily. "Israel let him do whatever he pleased with the tens of millions of dollars that he received." Only when Arafat's CIA-trained security services refused to rein in terror attacks did the party end.
Arafat's failures were rationalized away in the Oslo era. The Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said and a few others years ago bravely pointed out the flaws in Arafat's regime that are now being voiced with tones of fresh outrage by Bush and European foreign ministers.
Bush can fairly say that he was not president then. But he risks repeating the mistakes of the Clinton era by relying on U.S. intelligence operatives and on Arab regimes that are at least as undemocratic and corrupt as Arafat's team to identify and promote new Palestinian leadership. He should not be surprised if they settle on an Arafat Jr.
The Bush administration has endorsed a Palestinian state as essential to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington needs to work harder and focus more clearly on the need for that state to be democratic and responsible, not simply subservient or subdued. Such an American commitment to Arabs at large is the key to long-term stability throughout the region.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.