Ever since he was confined to his Ramallah headquarters, Yasser Arafat - the world's most exalted political prisoner - has been making it clear that he is prepared to die for his cause. Several weeks ago he reportedly ordered his guards to resist Israeli assault "up to and including the death of the president". And now, from the windowless basement where he has taken refuge from Israeli troops already within his compound, a pistol on his desk and a mobile phone to his ear, he proclaims to the world that "the Palestinians will never kneel" and that the only form in which his historic adversary, General Ariel Sharon, will ever lay hands on him is "as the corpse of a martyr".
His demise would certainly have as dire a posthumous impact as any one man's could have. For he is now, in what could be his last hours, the supreme, heroic embodiment of his people's will. At the same time, this is an Israeli assault on the whole quest for Middle East peace, both in its Palestinian and its wider Arab dimension, which he has come to embody as never before. It comes just after the most convincing olive branch ever to come from the Arab world. At their summit conference in Beirut, the Arab kings and presidents unanimously offered that full acceptance, and integration into, the region for which Israel has been striving since it came into being.
It is not, apparently, Sharon's intention to kill him, for he is doubtless aware of the drastic repercussions. He has only declared Arafat an "enemy" to be "isolated". It is not spelt out what that actually means. But ever since Sharon has been at war with Arafat - and that takes us back to the invasion of Lebanon 20 years ago - he has argued that it is Arafat and the institutions he controls, first the PLO and now the Palestinian Authority, which instigate the terror. Destroy them and you destroy the terror with them. Sharon has forever been obsessed by the idea that an alternative leadership would be properly accommodating.
Arafat has doubtless done much to bring this extremity on himself. His leadership is wayward and erratic. He has often appeared to tolerate, or even surreptitiously encourage, the terrorism which he formally condemns. He has thereby given that other man of violence, Sharon himself, all the ammunition he needed. For Sharon, this is just a drastic but legitimate escalation of his war on terror.
But this is not the principal criterion by which the two men should be judged. For there is a world of difference between them when it comes to the supreme objective, peace, to which both officially subscribe.
Throughout the steadily escalating intifada, Arafat has remained convincingly wedded to the historic compromise, enshrined in the Oslo agreement, whereby the Palestinians would set up their state on that 22% of original Palestine constituted by the West Bank and Gaza, and leave the remaining 78% to Israel. He has grown even more conciliatory, in fact, softening his position on such crucial issues as the refugees' "right of return".
There is no doubt, either, that in holding to this aim he reflects the will of the bulk of his people, including those, such as the Fatah "young guard", who were chiefly behind the intifada. The Palestinian mainstream continues to say "an end to the occupation and no more". And so, through the latest summit, does the whole Arab world.
Sharon, by contrast, continues to espouse a conception of peace entirely at odds with solemn commitments Israel has already entered into, not to mention the broad Arab and international consensus. He and the Israeli right have no interest in a historic compromise that detracts from their maximalist aim, which is to secure and perpetuate control over the whole "Land of Israel". It has long been clear that he is engaged not simply in the suppression of Palestinian violence, but of the whole notion of Palestinian self- determination on any portion of Palestinian territory, of any representative Palestinian institution capable of bringing it about.
Given this higher political objective, as well as the deeply personal animosity that drives Sharon - he said again this week that he regrets not having killed his "enemy" in the past - it was inevitable that sooner or later Arafat would face the reckoning he now does. This stepped-up siege of the Palestinian leader, his possibly banishment or death - accidental or deliberate - is drastic enough, but it can only lead to the much more drastic still.
It will completely strip Sharon of his alibi for his failure so far, exposing the fallacy of his argument that only one man and his "terrorist infrastructure" are behind the Palestinian resistance. This will be shown to be a movement that belongs to the whole people, which the assault on Arafat can only intensify, not end.
Making him a martyr would only breed a thousand martyrs more. And in response, he himself will be driven to ever more drastic forms of warfare against the Palestinians. At some point it could drag the whole Arab world into the fray, in very serious if not necessarily military ways.
For Arafat is not just the Palestinians' man, he is the Arabs' too, both at official and "street" level. He is the sole, chosen instrument of the peace plan which the kings and presidents have adopted. But they face growing pressure from a public opinion already inflamed at the spectacle of Palestinians at war, combined with their inaction. The leaders' unanimous adoption of the plan saved them from ignominy, but that is a respite that won't last long if they remain helpless in the face of this renewed Sharon onslaught. Their reaction so far is, as usual, verbal only. The Egyptian foreign minister called it "an aggression against the whole Arab world".
The Americans should be deeply worried on Arafat's behalf too. Despite his very low standing in their eyes, they have always insisted, behind the scenes, that deporting or killing him is a "red line" that Sharon could not cross. And after the summit it should be even more of one. But in Arab and Palestinian eyes Sharon's rampage is pretty much America's too. And only America can stop it.
Will it? Or will the Arabs, at last, do something to oblige it to do so? Crown Prince Abdullah, the architect of the Arab peace offering, is also the Arab leader who has most persistently warned the US that, if it does not finally bring its Israeli ally to its senses, its interests in the Arab world will be in grave jeopardy.
·David Hirst reported from the Middle East for the Guardian from 1963 to 2001.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002