You owe me. Pay up. Or else.

That was the underlying message in Yasser Arafat's many speeches to the United Nations, interviews with Western and Arab journalists and official meetings with international civil servants at the height of his career as a money-grubbing revolutionary.

That essential message was usually cloaked in verbal camouflage. But at times, the man the Palestinians call Abu Ammar said it aloud, according to several foreign officials who described their experiences in detail in return for anonymity.

"He asked me if I had brought the money in cash when I came to discuss several million dollars of technical aid promised to the Palestinian Authority," one international banker said. "He said he needed the money, right now, for his own needs. I said it did not work that way for us."

It is bad enough that a shakedown artist came to be the recognized leader of a people abused by history and subjugated over the centuries by Arab, Turkish, British and Israeli occupiers. That in the grief and fury of dispossession the Palestinians internalized the Arafatist "pay up" view of world politics is even more tragic and self-defeating.

The demise of Arafat, 75, will force the Palestinians to decide not just on a new leader but also on their identity. His decade of misrule in the West Bank and Gaza was built on manipulating and perpetuating the divisions of Palestinian society rather than resolving them. He blocked all exits from a hell that benefited him.

The loyalty that the Palestinian Authority leader commanded from Palestinians even as strength and power ebbed from him in a suburban Paris hospital was touching as a social artifact -- and devastating as an indictment of the absence of accountability in Arab politics today. Arafat long ago should have been removed from political life support by the Palestinians, who could not bring themselves to let go of someone so hated by their Israeli occupiers.

The Israeli politicians who brought Arafat in from exile and then turned a blind eye to his corruption and authoritarianism when it suited their purposes also aided and abetted this failure in accountability. For Israelis who shared Arafat's fear of the painful compromises that a lasting peace settlement would require -- such as prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon -- Arafat was the perfect foil.

Arafat was unwilling or unable to break the habits of a lifetime spent in precarious exile, when he had to be ready to placate, run or fight according to his Arab host's whims or the threat of Israeli attack.

Even when the Oslo peace accords gave him international legitimacy, a position of power and entree to the White House, Arafat preferred to show that he could still leap from burning deck to burning deck rather than steer the ship of state -- even if he had to set the fires himself.

He deadlocked the Camp David peace conference held by President Clinton in July 2000 and then stoked an insurrection at home. Blacklisted by the Bush administration and kept bottled up by Sharon in Ramallah for 21/2 years, Arafat resolutely refused to let aide Mahmoud Abbas take on real powers and seek a way out of the impasse. Sharon would not toss Abbas a lifeline either.

Arafat no longer is able to block others. The question now becomes whether his departure will move Bush and Sharon to engage the next Palestinian leader in a serious negotiating effort. They should answer in the affirmative, by word and deed.

Bush should name a high-level envoy for the Middle East to spotlight and shepherd a new peace effort. He will need someone of the stature and talents of former secretary of state James A. Baker or former senator Sam Nunn -- that is, someone who can talk tough and credibly to Sharon, whose proposed Gaza withdrawal should be both encouraged and greatly expanded.

The withdrawal plan and Arafat's illness create a new and promising situation, says Yossi Beilin, Israel's most dovish political leader: "Sharon's plan of withdrawing from Gaza is still better than the alternative of staying there. And once Sharon pulls out of Gaza, we can push a political dynamic that would lead both sides to the negotiating table."

Bush has amassed political capital with his support for Sharon and his boycott of Arafat. He should spend it -- now -- to show the Palestinians that through their own efforts they can forge a peaceful destiny built on diplomacy and compromise, not on extortion and violence.