ANOTHER CRISIS in the Palestinian Authority has ended with another reassertion of authority by Yasser Arafat, the 74-year-old icon of his would-be nation -- and the millstone around its neck. On Tuesday the authority's prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, withdrew his resignation after Mr. Arafat promised to yield some of his authority over the multiple Palestinian armed forces. The promise is likely to mean nothing in practice, but Mr. Qureia lacks the clout to wrest more than cosmetic concessions from his boss. He had resigned this month after militants in the Gaza Strip openly rebelled against Mr. Arafat's forces and the corrupt cronies who command them. But that revolt, too, appears to have subsided for now, after equally meager gains.
The resistance, though feckless, is a sign that growing numbers of Palestinians understand that Mr. Arafat's continued leadership is only weakening their national movement and eroding its chances of ever obtaining a viable state alongside Israel. Young militants in Mr. Arafat's Fatah organization are fed up with the gross corruption of the aging circle around him and its failure to achieve any gains in a four-year uprising against Israel that has cost thousands of Palestinian lives. Mr. Arafat's last reserves of international support are also weakening: This month United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, the Norwegian who helped broker the agreement under which Mr. Arafat returned to his homeland in triumph a decade ago, harshly condemned his administration in a report to the U.N. Security Council. He said it had "made no progress on its core obligation to take immediate action on the ground to end violence and combat terror, and to reform and reorganize."
There is little prospect that such progress will be made while Mr. Arafat remains in power. In its absence, Israel will be relatively free to continue with its plans to impose a unilateral settlement -- which will leave the Palestinians with considerably less territory and resources than they could have obtained had Mr. Arafat agreed to a peace accord at Camp David four years ago this month. The Bush administration has effectively delegated management of the situation to Egypt, which is making an ineffectual effort to promote Palestinian reforms.
Rather than relying on the intervention of another corrupt Arab regime, the Bush administration would be better off promoting the solution it says it has embraced for the Middle East: democracy. Mr. Qureia and other, more genuine Palestinian reformers have called for a new round of elections, which would be the first since 1996. These would probably propel Mr. Arafat's opponents from the streets into the Palestinian legislature, where they would have a mandate to demand real change. A new Palestinian government chosen by voters, rather than Mr. Arafat, would have a chance to become a credible partner for renewed negotiations with Israel -- and undermine the hard-liners who insist Israel's only options are unilateral. Yes, Mr. Arafat would probably be reelected as well, but as the events of the past week demonstrated, he is likely to hang on, in any case.