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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

April 17, 2003

Abbas May Be Straw That Breaks Arafat

The capture of Abul Abbas, leader of the Palestine Liberation Front, in Baghdad may turn into one of the biggest stories to come out of the Iraq war -- and it will serve as powerful proof of the operation's value for the war against terrorism.

What's more, if he is brought back to the United States and prosecuted, it could make for the most spectacular international terrorist trial ever held in America.

By now, most people know that Abbas was wanted in the United States for his involvement in the murder of a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound U.S. citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. Many also know that as a longtime client of the Iraqi regime, he knows more about Saddam Hussein's involvement in international terrorism than any other non-Iraqi.

But fewer people know that Abbas is in a position to implicate Yasser Arafat in detail on the Palestinian leader's involvement in terrorism. The PLF hijackers told hostages on the Achille Lauro, "We came on behalf of Yasser Arafat." For at least 20 years, Abbas was one of Arafat's most important allies in the Palestine Liberation Organization and a frequent go-between for Arafat and Hussein. In Tunis, Abbas' office was a few feet from that of the PLO chief, who paid the PLF's bills.

When Abbas launched a 1990 attack on Israel in boats, the terrorists were killed or captured just before they landed on the beach. I have vivid memories of that day because I was standing at the place where they would have landed if soldiers had not arrived minutes before to evacuate everyone. One of those captured by Israel that day, the operation's deputy commander, told journalists that the attack's target was Tel Aviv's beachfront hotel district and that his orders were: "Don't leave anyone alive. Kill them all ... children, women and elderly people."

Arafat protected Abbas at that time. Breaking his own promise to the United States, Arafat refused to denounce the attack as terrorism and thus lost his chance -- for the moment -- to open a dialogue with Washington. At the time, Arafat had an added incentive to support Abbas: He was jumping on the bandwagon of the PLF leader's master, Hussein, who was mobilizing for his invasion of Kuwait.

Today, at a time when Arafat is under unprecedented pressure from Palestinian reformers and the U.S., Abbas could be the one to break Arafat's hold on power if he turns state's evidence with what he knows about terrorism, corruption and deals with Hussein.

So how would the Palestinian leadership react if there were to be a trial? Would it denounce the United States? Would Arafat remain silent when one of his colleagues -- whom he refused to extradite -- was being prosecuted in the United States? Would some Palestinians threaten terrorist acts to free him? Would others, perhaps with European help, suggest that putting Abbas on trial would hurt efforts to restart peace negotiations with Israel?

The last time I saw Abbas in person was in 1988 when we physically collided in Tunis while scrambling for copies of the resolutions just passed by the PLO parliament. A few minutes earlier, it had passed a resolution declaring an independent Palestinian state.

Fifteen years later -- as a result of the terrorist actions of Abbas and the terrorism-supporting policies of his mentor, Arafat -- no such state exists and thousands more people are dead. Perhaps Abbas involuntarily will do more to bring peace and Palestinian independence in paying for his crimes than he ever did committing them.