This morning the new self-governing Palestinian areas begin their first week of life in a free and independent state. Upon the success of this exercise depends the redemption of the whole of the West Bank from Israeli occupation. But the rewards and risks are greater than this local resolution of boundaries would suggest. At issue is the contest in all Middle East societies between fundamentalists and those who would rule through secular authority. A successful peace between Israel and its neighbours would drain vitality from the cause of religious extremists, whether the insurgents of Gaza and Algiers or the pitiless theocracy in power in Tehran.
Mr Arafat was therefore foolish to lapse into his familiar bombast last week, when he addressed South African Muslims and used the emotive word 'jihad' to express his aspirations towards the land of Palestine and Jerusalem.
It has been rightly pointed out that the word is capable of a host of interpretations. But the brighter, politically aware Palestinians who have pushed Mr Arafat this far know that only one interpretation matters. The effect upon Israeli opinion - moderate and intransigent alike - is what counts for the Palestinian people now. If Gaza and Jericho are governed peacefully and well, then the day draws nearer when the towns of Nablus and Hebron, their villages and hinterland, may too return to Palestinian control.
The challenge for Mr Arafat is to ensure security without resorting to the secret police methods that repress most Arab societies. It is to bring hope through jobs and prosperity, not to indulge in facile calls for futile martyrdom. It is, in short, to show that the nascent state of Palestine can liberate its own people and run its own affairs. After years as the world's number one travelling guerrilla superstar, it is a transformation that, as yet, eludes Yasser Arafat.
It is time for the dust to settle on speeches once drafted to delight the Polish politburo or the fraternal delegation from Hanoi. The Palestinians are about to regain their first fragment of self-respect since 1948. Yasser Arafat needs to live up to their future, not relive his own past.Reuse content