WASHINGTON - Yasser Arafat is a dead man walking.
Few American, Israeli or Arab leaders, not to mention Palestinians, really believe anymore that he will ever lead his people into a peace deal with Israel. The only thing keeping Mr. Arafat afloat today is that no one wants to own his demise - neither Israel nor America nor the Arabs nor his own aides wants responsibility for finishing him off. That's why this conflict has left the realm of diplomacy and entered the realm of biology - everyone is just waiting for Mr. Arafat to pass away. Too bad he eats yogurt and takes regular naps.
Mr. Arafat is a dead man walking because he shot himself - three times.
First he spurned Bill Clinton's peace offer, which would have given the Palestinians a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. And he spurned it primarily because he not only wanted a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank but he also wanted the right of return of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to pre-1967 Israel.
"It turns out Arafat wanted two Palestinian states," notes Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen. "He wanted a Palestinian state for the West Bank and Gaza to be negotiated with Israel today. And he wanted a Palestinian state inside Israel that would be brought about by a return of Palestinian refugees and their soaring birth rate tomorrow. Israel was ready to give him one Palestinian state, but not two. And Arafat didn't have the courage to tell his people that."
Second, when Mr. Arafat couldn't get his two states at Camp David, he decided to give up the monopoly of force within the Palestinian areas. A monopoly of force is the definition of a state, or a "Palestinian Authority." Mr. Arafat gave up that monopoly so Hamas and Islamic Jihad could carry out suicide attacks against Israel to pressure Israel into accepting his terms - but in a way for which he wouldn't have to take responsibility. In doing so, Mr. Arafat undercut any notion that he could be a responsible sovereign for a Palestinian state. Who would trust a leader who gives up his authority whenever it suits him?
And finally, by importing the Ship of Fools - a boatload of advanced weapons from Iran - while he was insisting that he was abiding by a cease-fire, Mr. Arafat destroyed a central argument of Israeli doves: that Israel could accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza because it would be "demilitarized" and unable to threaten either Israel or Jordan. Says writer David Makovsky, "Everyone hoped Arafat would be Nelson Mandela, but he turns out to be Robert Mugabe."
This leaves us with five options.
Option one: The Arab leaders will get together and try to replace Mr. Arafat as the relevant negotiating partner with Israel and offer Israelis a pan-Arab comprehensive peace in return for total withdrawal.
Option two: Palestine is Jordan - Israel will invite Jordan to replace Mr. Arafat and re-assume its sovereignty in the West Bank as the only Arab party Israel could trust there.
Option three: Jordan is Palestine - Ariel Sharon will reoccupy the West Bank and drive Palestinians into Jordan.
Option four: The Palestinians will oust Mr. Arafat and replace him with new leadership that will restore Palestinian credibility with Israel as a responsible peace partner and authority.
Option five: NATO takes over the West Bank and Gaza.
In the meantime, Israeli and American Jews would be well advised not to get too smug. Yes, Mr. Arafat is now discredited and isolated. But let that not obscure the fact that he isn't the only one who wanted more than one state. Because what Mr. Sharon and the Jewish right have been doing by building so many settlements in the territories is saying to the Arabs: We also want two states - a Jewish state in Israel and a Jewish state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Right now there is no Palestinian partner to call this bluff. But be advised: These settlements are a cancer for the Jewish people; they threaten the entire Zionist enterprise. If Israel tries to retain them, it will end up either as a non-Jewish state, because it will be absorbing so many Palestinians, or a non-democratic apartheid state, because the only way to rule so many Palestinians will be M-' la the old South African model.
So let us root for the rapid emergence of a real Palestinian peace partner. It is not only the Palestinians' future that rides on that, but also the Israelis'.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.