JERUSALEM As is becoming increasingly clear, the Americans did themselves a great disfavor by ostracizing Yasser Arafat, because in doing so they bolstered his support among the Palestinians. Since the United States and Israel attacked him, people have been rallying around him.
By trying to isolate Arafat, the Americans also mistakenly distanced themselves from a source of legitimate power and decision-making in Palestine. So now they have to get to Arafat indirectly, through intermediaries, whereas before they could influence him directly.
The United States and Israel need to talk to Arafat in order to address any serious issue. There is no reason for their boycott of him. It is childish and manipulative. If the United States is serious about peace, it has to deal with Palestinian realities, not realities manufactured in someone's mind.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, cannot do anything on his own without the cooperation of Arafat, just as he needs the help of Fatah and the Palestinian Legislative Council. Everybody has been trying to help Abbas, but he also has to help himself and understand he gains his legitimacy from the people and not just from the Americans or the Israelis.
There is such a thing as killing with kindness, and this is what the United States is doing to Abbas. Washington needs to understand the sensitivities and the balances and the intricate relationships within Palestinian domestic politics.
The State Department seems to understand this dynamic of domestic politics, and I have tried to explain it to the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who is beginning to understand that meddling in Palestinian politics could backfire. The Americans have to understand that when they attack Arafat, he gets more support; when they embrace Abbas, he gets less.
The problem is that within the White House and Pentagon, people don't have any connections with Palestinians. They still don't know the full Palestinian narrative and the Arab point of view that makes our politics tick. They tend to make simplistic decisions on the basis of the Israeli version, to which they are exposed daily.
I have been asked lately if all of this might deteriorate into civil war. There is an awareness among Palestinians that civil war would be fatal for everybody, but at the same time being aware of it does not mean being able to avert it. The only way to do that is to remove the pressures that are leading the Palestinians in that direction. The No. 1 source of pressure is the Israeli assassinations, followed by the siege, the destruction, the abductions and the prisoners.
There is also, of course, pressure on Arafat and Abbas to destroy the infrastructure of terrorism - even though Israel, which has been an occupying power all these years, has not been able to stop the violence. To call on the Palestinian Authority to stop what Israel couldn't stop is to set the authority up for a fall.
The writer is secretary general of the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, which she founded in 1998, and represents the Jerusalem district on the Palestinian Legislative Council. This comment was adapted from an interview with Stanley Sheinbaum and distributed by Global Viewpoint for Tribune Media Services International.