Yasser Arafat has a dilemma. He can't decide whether he wants to be the father of his country or the godfather of terrorism.
President Bush gave Arafat a chance to answer that question before the whole world last weekend at the United Nations, and the Palestinian leader blew it.
Bush became the first American president to endorse creating a state of "Palestine" and was prepared to launch a major push to make that a reality, but Arafat refused to meet Bush's basic demand: a genuine and sustained effort to stop the violence against Israel.
Bush and his aides have made it clear that in the U.S.-led war against terror, Arafat is on the wrong side. The words were there but not the actions, so Bush refused to meet with Arafat while both attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
It was a humiliating setback for Arafat, despite the Palestinian leader's efforts to put a good face on things by praising Bush's reference to Palestine. It was also a slap in the face for his principal benefactors, the Saudis, who had taken the uncharacteristic step of publicly declaring they were "angrily frustrated" with Bush's policy and urging him to see Arafat.
The President also rejected protests by Arab leaders that attacks on Israelis by Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups are legitimate acts of "resistance."
He warned them "there is no such thing as a good terrorist." Bush put regimes like the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Iran on notice when he declared, "The allies of terror are equally guilty of murder and equally accountable to justice."
Most Arab leaders have denounced the Sept. 11 terror attacks while simultaneously endorsing a major element of Osama bin Laden's rationale — pro-Israel U.S. policies.
While Arafat stood before the United Nations to denounce "the terrorist, horrific, criminal and ugly acts of Sept. 11," back home his official Palestine News Agency, WAFA, agreed with bin Laden that U.S. Mideast policy was "the reason that caused the disaster."
It was typical Arafat, trying to have it both ways. The Europeans may lap it up, but he didn't impress many in Washington.
Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice publicly let Arafat know, "You cannot help us with Al Qaida and hug Hezbollah — that's not acceptable — or Hamas." The Palestinian leader, she chided, must do "everything you can to root out terrorists," and that's a job Arafat doesn't "take seriously."
More damning was a State Department official who said that throughout the intifada Arafat has conducted "an ongoing process of calculated terror and escalation."
Arafat has lost credibility because he offers "good words, excellent rhetoric, nice instructions sent but very little in terms of confronting" the sources of violence, he added.
Frustration with Arafat is nothing new at the White House. Bush is the fourth president to try to persuade Arafat to clean up his act. Ronald Reagan, as a favor to the incoming Bush I administration, formally recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization at the end of 1988 and authorized the opening of a dialogue following a heavily coached statement by Arafat renouncing terrorism.
Bush I had no luck weaning Arafat off terrorism, nor did Bill Clinton, despite making the Palestinian leader the White House's most frequent foreign visitor. Now 13 years and four presidents later, Arafat still can't bring himself to give more than lip service to combating terrorism.
Dennis Ross, the envoy who has probably spent more time with Arafat than any American official, said, "I have come to the conclusion that he is not capable of negotiating an end to the conflict because what is required of him is something he is not able to do."
Ross told an interviewer that may be because "he wants to be the last revolutionary on the Palestinian side." Evidence of that, he added, is Arafat's failure to prepare his people for peace, but instead to resort to anti-Israel incitement.
That was evident Sunday from the U.N. podium when he accused Israel of "state terror," "ethnic cleansing" and desecrating Christian and Islamic holy sites.
Prior to Sept. 11, Bush was prepared to meet with Arafat, at the urging of Arab and European leaders who have been pressing for greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but since the attacks on America the White House has measured Arafat by what he's done to combat terror.
Initially, Arafat promised to curb the violence but, once again, the only thing he sustained was the rhetoric; the terrorism quickly resumed. The administration let Arafat and the world know it was not fooled.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is preparing to announce a U.S. peace proposal in the next few weeks. It is expected to go farther toward meeting Arafat's demands than the present Israeli government is ready for, and that could create more problems for Bush than it will solve.
Unveiling it before Arafat meets Bush's demands for decisive and sustained moves to combat terror will be a major mistake.
Arafat continues to honor suicide bombers as heroes and martyrs. His persistent refusal to stand up to terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad has only strengthened them and weakened his own hold on a restive population.
He has reportedly declared Jewish settlers to be combatants and therefore exempt from his public orders against targeting "innocent civilians."
Arafat's roots in terrorism go back over decades of Palestinian skyjackings, cross-border raids on nursery schools, and airport and synagogue attacks around the world. Black September, Munich, Achille Lauro, Maalot are familiar names in his pantheon of terror.
What the world hoped was a turning point at Oslo — with Arafat making the transition from terrorist to statesman and peacemaker — turned out to be a bad joke as Arafat continued operating as a terror chieftain, despite frequent visits to the White House and a Nobel Peace Prize.
Arafat missed his opportunity to create a Palestinian state when he fled in terror from Israel's offer at Camp David last summer, and he has only reinforced his reputation as the godfather of terror in the 15 months since then.
Arafat has survived numerous missteps; the future may not be as generous to the aging Palestinian leader.
Bush is learning, like his predecessors, that Arafat is part of the problem, not the solution, and any meaningful moves toward a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace may have to await a leader with the courage and vision to become the father of his country.