From The Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2002

Arafat's War


The Arab summiteers in Beirut were on their way to dinner, it turned out, when a young man from the West Bank town of Tulkarm struck at Netanya for that terrible "Passover massacre." In a land soaked with blood, this was a deed whose memory will endure for years to come.

The man of Tulkarm struck within "Israel proper," behind the "green line," away from the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the fault lines of Jerusalem. But then in this war with no clear front lines, all of the land is contested land: Those were Zionist "usurpers" that the terrorist from Tulkarm had come to slay. He had chosen "martyrdom," and the ethos of his world, the culture of his national movement, had given him a writ for this most terrible of deeds.

The man of Tulkarm did not descend from the sky: He walked straight out of the culture of incitement let loose on the land, a menace hovering over Israel, a great Palestinian and Arab refusal to let that country be, to cede it a place among the nations. He partook of the culture all around him -- the glee that greets those brutal deeds of terror, the cult that rises around the martyrs and their families.

Umm al-shahid (the mother of the martyr), his mother will henceforth be known. Abu al-shahid shall be the appellation of his father. Honest men and women will proclaim him and take him as their own, more sly types will equivocate but then say that the good boy of Tulkarm had been led there, all the way to Netanya, by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The leaders of the Palestinian Authority, most notably Yasser Arafat, the figure at the center of this cruel whirlwind, would issue a tepid condemnation and then let the world know that the "armed struggle" and the shahids, the martyrs, are writing glorious chapters in the annals of the history of that national movement. Blood is a terrible affliction, and a national movement that succumbs to its intoxication will drown in its own radicalism.

By omission and commission, Mr. Arafat feeds this cult of terror, this affliction. In this season of killing, there is an odd, unsettling quality to Yasser Arafat: He is in his elements, he loves the "siege of Ramallah," he glories in the celebrities and the people of media and diplomacy who call on him, he sees this war, which he lit up back in September 2000, as his finest hour.

He had not sought to govern or to build; that quality was never in him. He loves the arsonist's work, it is a skill he perfected in Jordan and Lebanon years ago, an attitude he brought with him to Israel and the Palestinian territories when the Israelis plucked him from bankruptcy and disgrace back in 1993 and granted him a turf, a "partnership" in capping the troubles.

The first intifada of December 1987 had been an eruption on the land. He had been in Tunisia then, written off as a figure of the past and of exile. This second war is his own: He claims it. And through all the terrible deeds, through Mr. Arafat's subterfuge, his method and intent could be discerned: He had built, right alongside Israel, a fairly efficient instrument of war. Mr. Arafat wages a brutal war; he aims for Israel's soul, to wear it down.

He had brought down Ehud Barak, an exemplary soldier who had offered Mr. Arafat back in September 2000 all the Israeli body politic could yield and then some. Mr. Arafat now wages a similar war against Ariel Sharon. An odd satisfaction comes to him that he has emerged as the arbiter of Israeli political life, granted a power over the great political choices of Israel.

"If I go to Beirut I will be king, if I stay among my people I shall be emperor," the megalomaniacal Mr. Arafat proclaimed as the crowd hung on his utterances. He shows no mercy for his own, he offers them an old, failed history, a harvest of sorrow, but in a peculiar demonstration of the limits of reason in human history, his people rally to him. "With our blood and our souls, we redeem you, oh Arafat," the crowd chants, granting him an exemption from any calculus of gains and ruin.

He was offered statehood some 18 months ago. He walked away from it and unleashed a phantom of incalculable power: the Right of Return, a claim not on the West Bank and Gaza, but on Jaffa and Haifa and Galilee, a way, insinuating and understood by his people and by Arabs beyond, of contesting Israel's very existence and statehood.

An old hard-liner of Mr. Arafat's entourage, Farouk Kaddoumi, a man who in the nature of such titles and honorifics, passes himself off as the foreign minister of Mr. Arafat, cut to the heart of the matter in recent days: "The Right of Return of the refugees to Haifa and Jaffa," he said on the eve of the Arab summit as he met with the leader of Hezbollah (the Party of God) in Lebanon, "is more important than statehood." With this, the logic of things is laid bare: Whatever the summiteers wish and say, a foul wind blows through Arab lands, a conviction has taken root in the popular Arab imagination that Israel is on the run, that perhaps the verdict of the war of 1948 (not the verdict of the Six-Day War of 1967) could be undone.

It is hard to know when this logic took hold. There is a consensus of sorts that this new conviction emerged after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. There is some truth in that: Israel had given up on that Lebanon venture, for she had had no territorial claims on Lebanon. But the "Arab street" had seen that as the beginning of a broader withdrawal, perhaps a millennial fulfillment of the idea that the Jewish state was not destined to last.

Modern-day Arabs remember the history of the Crusader Kingdom that had risen in the Levant, lasted for almost 200 years (1099-1291), then pulled up stakes, and left on the soil its castles and bridges and ruins. For countless Arabs, Israel replays that historical drama -- the local furies, the weight of numbers, the waves of assaults, the religio-political cult of martyrdom and holy vigilance, overwhelming the outsider. It is a peculiarity of the Arab political order that many of the rulers and the dynasties are more moderate than the populace. The rulers may know the logic of things, but the people are left to their darkest instincts.

The week that the summiteers thought would be their own was claimed by the Tulkarm man, Abdel-Basset Odeh, a member, it is said in the way of such pronouncements, of the "military wing of Hamas." He knew the way to Netanya, it would appear; he had worked in its hotels. He came back to repay those who had employed him, and their neighbors, in the currency of blood and ingratitude.

Mr. Ajami, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of "The Dream Palace of The Arabs" (Vintage 1999).