Yasser Arafat's decision to place six Palestinians under the control of American and British jailers in return for his personal release from captivity is getting mixed reviews on the Palestinian "street."
But the Palestinian Authority's main mistake reaches deeper than tactical missteps of this sort. Far more serious, it is pursuing a failed strategy against Israel. Nor does it seem to realize the damage it is doing to its goals. This strategic error eventually will cost the Palestinians their fight against Israel.
The current round of fighting--what I call the Palestinian-Israeli war - began in September 2000, four months after Arafat and his colleagues witnessed how steady violence against Israeli troops in Lebanon had demoralized the Israeli body politic and led to a sudden and total evacuation of Israeli forces from Lebanon. Impressed by what the Lebanese had achieved, Arafat began a copycat effort aimed at destroying Israel by demoralizing its population, causing the Jews to flee the country, plead for terms and eventually capitulate.
This strategy initially worked. On Oct. 7, 2000, the Israelis retreated from Joseph's Tomb, a Jewish holy site in Nablus, after their forces came under fire from a street rabble. On capturing the site, Palestinians desecrated Hebrew texts. They felt understandably exultant, for they had defeated the mighty Israel Defense Forces.
Although it certainly looked like Israel was sliding into defeat, a remarkable thing happened: a profound change in mood. Israelis came to realize that they were fighting for their survival. Lebanon was just a means to defend Israel and could be given up, but Israel itself had to be fought for.
A people who just months before had insisted on ending the conflict now accepted the need to fight on. A divided people became united. A dispirited population became mobilized. They overwhelmingly voted for a new and tougher government led by Ariel Sharon.
Palestinians, however, did not see this change. Unaware of the effect of their hammering away at Israelis, they kept up an assault of suicide bombers and snipers. In a mood of exuberance, the Palestinians barely noticed what damage they were doing to their cause. The killing of Israel's tourism minister last October, for example, caused Sharon to harden his position against Arafat and not accept him as a negotiating partner.
Likewise, the "Passover massacre" - the March suicide murder of 29 Israelis as they celebrated the Jewish holiday - did not benefit the Palestinians but led to the virtual dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, the death of many of its combatants and the arrest of thousands.
Although the Palestinians have not recognized that continued violence against Israel is not working, their many steps backward in recent weeks seem to have waked at least some of them to the magnitude of their mistake.
I predict that this round of the Palestinian war on Israel, now 19 months long, will collapse fairly soon - probably well before the end of this year. I also predict that the Palestinians will at that time find themselves adrift, with a strategy proven wrong, an economy near collapse and a sundered leadership.
Ironically, this time of darkness and misery, if understood properly by a new Palestinian leadership and handled correctly by the outside world, could have very positive implications.
Ultimately, only Palestinian acceptance of the existence of Israel will resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. This means that if the Palestinians can learn the right lesson from their failure, they will give up on their half-century dream of eliminating Israel and instead deploy their considerable talents at building a better life for themselves. They will realize that liberating themselves from their obsession with destroying Israel must precede any progress on their own.
If they do, then this terrible moment will one day be seen as having within it the seeds of a better future.