In its official statement about its vague decision to ?remove? Yasser Arafat, the Israeli government referred to him as a political problem, an ?obstacle? to peace, and did not emphasize the thousand dead Israelis, the thousands of bereaved, maimed and traumatized ones. Jerusalem apparently did not think mentioning the latter aspect would impress anyone much, whereas the notion of Arafat as a diplomatic snag might at least have some exculpatory value for the dark measures Israel was hinting at.

But ?the world? jumped to Arafat?s defense anyway. Everyone ? the Arabs, the Europeans, the U.S., the Israeli Labor Party ? concurred that there is something necessary and desirable about having Arafat sitting and functioning in his compound a few miles north of Jerusalem, and that anything done to disrupt that state of affairs would be both unwise and reprehensible.

It?s nothing new. Someday historians will look back at our era and wonder how this baleful figure was able to pursue a career for four decades as an arch-terrorist, dictator, liar and thief without ever being stopped or punished. The reason, they may discover, is that he meant too many things to too many people, that he fulfilled certain needs in the ?civilized? world that made his presence too precious to dispense with.

For Europe, the place where he is most genuinely (as opposed to the Arab world) popular, Arafat?s rise to prominence in the early 1970s relieved the discomfort of a quarter-century in which Europeans felt they had to behave well toward Jews and recognize their right to life. This was, after all, a period in which Britain and France joined Israel in a military campaign against Egypt, and France for a time was Israel?s main ally and military supplier ? things that would be unthinkable today. But then, in the early 1970s, came Arafat with his headdress, stubble and gun, proclaiming that if one was a victim of Jews, then it was right to kill them. He quickly became the toast of Europe. Jew-murder was no longer a base act perpetrated by brownshirts, fascists; it was now a noble, revolutionary deed performed by the downtrodden and desperate. One could now fete and honor a Jew-murderer and at the same time feel virtuous, a friend of the oppressed. No wonder most of Western Europe hasn?t gotten over its fondness or, at best, ambivalence toward Arafat to this day, as dignitaries continue to go on pilgrimage to his Ramallah compound and still proclaim him a requirement of peace. No amount of documentary evidence of Arafat?s responsibility for the terror seems to impress such people, and why should it? The whole point in the first place was that Arafat redeemed Jew-killing and made it admirable again.

For the Left in general, Arafat provided a vivid avatar of the revolutionary hero in a time when the species was getting scarce. Joe was gone and the Soviet Union had lost most of its chic; Ho, too, was gone, and it was hard to work up much enthusiasm for his successors in liberated South Vietnam; Mao died and his luster quickly dimmed. But Castro was still there ? and Arafat. Here was a self-declared leader of a dark-skinned, Third World people that laid claim to being expelled, oppressed and poverty-stricken all at once ? and the victims of a Jewish colonial outpost backed up by the Great Satan himself! Marx must have held wild parties in his grave. And the more Arafat sent his righteous minions to shoot, stab, bomb, and generally butcher the colonialist-capitalist usurpers of his land, the more he became the darling of the international Left, which to this day idolizes him and sends human shields to defend his forces against the ?evil depredations? of the Israeli army.

For U.S. administrations, Arafat gradually became an ideal means of propitiating the Arab world by demonstrating evenhandedness and concern for the ?plight of the Palestinians.? It was George Shultz, known as a principled conservative, who formally gave U.S. recognition to Arafat and his PLO in December 1988 as one of his last acts as secretary of state. Although the PLO briefly fell from grace again after an abortive attempt at slaughtering Israelis on a Tel Aviv beach in May 1990, by the time of the Clinton administration, Arafat was back in full glory, the most frequently honored guest of the White House. Large numbers of Israelis and, for that matter, Palestinians had to die, Palestinian society had to be thrown into dire poverty, billions of dollars in aid had to be embezzled, and a whole slew of diplomatic initiatives had to be scuttled before President George W. Bush finally distanced the U.S. from Arafat ? but not from the PLO ? in 2002.

But the group that was salvaged by Arafat probably more than any other was the Israeli Labor Party. After 1977, when conservative prime ministers began winning Israeli elections, Labor faced a dilemma like those that beset the left wing in all democratic countries: how does one relate to a society in which one?s status as the enlightened elite is no longer automatically recognized, in which leaders who openly voice nationalistic and even religious themes get elected instead, in which people whom one regards as the essence of vulgarity now run the country and are admired by masses of people like them? One well-known solution is to turn the perceptions of those unwashed masses and their leaders on their heads, to step further ahead of the pack, distinguish oneself more clearly, and proclaim that the country?s enemies are actually friends and it is the country?s own loathsome leaders who are the cause of war and suffering. For Labor, Arafat and the PLO were waiting and beckoning, the ideal egress from the dilemma. Today, in Israel, you can?t go to the grocery store or the shopping mall without literally fearing for your life ? or, for that matter, send your kids to the grocery store or the shopping mall without fearing for their lives ? and the one person basically responsible for it is Yasser Arafat. Yet, when an Israeli government makes vague noises about finally doing something to end, or reduce, the Arafat menace, Labor lines up behind him to a man.


As I write this in Jerusalem, the terror-master Yasser Arafat still sits a few miles north of me in his compound, still waging his terror war, his life and freedom of action still considered sacred by world opinion. I think ahead to next year?s Holocaust Day in April. What will Arafat?s fate be by then ? still the Ramallah terror master? Wining and dining in Paris and Berlin? Standing trial in Jerusalem? Dead? In a sense, it won?t matter; morally speaking, it will be too late.

Again, on that Holocaust Day, we Israelis will scare our children in their classrooms with horrific pictures and stories, teach them that the mass murder of Jews, and of human beings generally, is a terrible and unpardonable crime. As for the story of Arafat, that will be a tougher one to tell them. I can think of a title: Exposed: The Western World?s Weakness, Cowardice, and Moral Bankruptcy; or, Why Your Lives Were in Danger for Ten Years and Nobody Did Anything About It.