TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — TEL AVIV, Israel - During secret negotiations three years ago between the Palestinians and Israel, Ahmed Qureia, leader of the Palestinian delegation, impressed Israeli counterparts and U.S. observers with his desire to achieve peace and readiness to make some necessary compromises.
It was largely Mr. Qureia's attitude that helped persuade President Bill Clinton to organize the Camp David summit. Yet when it became clear that Yasser Arafat was not ready to give any ground or make a deal, Mr. Qureia always retreated into supporting his leader's position.
As U.S. Ambassador Dennis B. Ross later told us, whenever Mr. Qureia knew Mr. Arafat wasn't ready to make a deal, he, too, always "stepped back."
Now Mr. Arafat has tapped Mr. Qureia, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), to be the new prime minister following Mahmoud Abbas' resignation from that post last week, and Mr. Qureia has accepted the position. In choosing Mr. Qureia, whose name the United States had raised earlier as an acceptable candidate, Mr. Arafat wanted to soften the international fallout from his own sabotage of Mr. Abbas, the cease-fire, and the "road map" peace plan.
As Mr. Arafat proved during Mr. Abbas' tenure, the newly created position of Palestinian prime minister means little because Mr. Arafat remains the only real leader.
Mr. Arafat subverted Mr. Abbas in just about every possible way. He encouraged Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, kept control of the security forces so that Mr. Abbas could not stop the attacks, kept Mr. Abbas out of the Palestinian media so the prime minister could not explain his program or defend himself, and circumvented Mr. Abbas by giving direct orders to government departments.
Of course, Mr. Arafat's real problem with Mr. Abbas was that he viewed himself as Mr. Arafat's equal and refused to be his puppet. It will be much easier, though, for Mr. Arafat to pull the strings on Mr. Qureia. While he has some popularity among Palestinians, Mr. Qureia has no organized base of support. As PLC speaker, he has proved to be a weak leader. And while Mr. Qureia, 65, is younger than the 74-year-old Mr. Arafat, he is not in good health, having been hospitalized this year.
During Mr. Abbas' three months in office, Mr. Qureia refused to lift a finger to help the embattled reformer, whose ideas he supposedly endorsed. After all, Mr. Abbas was elected prime minister by the Palestinian Authority, with Mr. Qureia playing a key part. Now that he has destroyed the alternative leadership, Mr. Qureia will be totally dependent on Arafat loyalists who will no doubt fill his Cabinet and continue to run security forces that participate in terrorism more often than they try to stop it.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Oslo agreement, launched with so much hope on the White House lawn a decade ago. When the experience of that time is added to a quarter-century of Mr. Arafat's previous leadership over the Palestinians, two principles are quite clear: Mr. Arafat will never make peace, and he will remain the leader of his people as long as he lives.
To make matters worse, Mr. Arafat does not even try to implement any deal he makes; it makes no sense to deal with him.
Using one of Mr. Arafat's most typical strategies, Mr. Qureia's approach has been to demand unilateral concessions from Israel and the United States that go beyond the road map as a condition for his taking office. Yet there is no reason to believe he has any intention or capability of even trying, much less succeeding, to stop the terrorist attacks and anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media, which have continued daily during the supposed cease-fire. Only Mr. Arafat could reject generous peace offers, launch a war of terrorism, lose miserably on the battlefield, make still another agreement that he violates and then demand that the other side make even more concessions.
Yet while this attempt to replace him failed, Mr. Arafat's political future is limited by his mortality. The battle to succeed Mr. Arafat is beginning. The United States and Israel should continue to ignore Mr. Arafat until he dies a natural death or illness incapacitates him. This policy will show that terrorism doesn't pay and that his successor must pursue a more moderate course that will benefit everyone and make possible a Palestinian state.
During the heady days of the Oslo agreement, when an Israeli-Palestinian peace seemed likely, Mr. Qureia once showed his joy by performing a Zorba-the-Greek-style dance during a negotiating session. But by slavishly following a leader who destroyed that peace process, Mr. Qureia will now only be dancing to Mr. Arafat's hard-line tune.
Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin are the authors of Yasser Arafat: A Political Biography, published this week by Oxford University Press.