Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's escalating verbal barrages against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may be serving as opening shots in what could become a major military campaign against the Palestinian Authority, analysts say.
Mr. Sharon last week compared Mr. Arafat with the exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, wanted by the US for bombings of two US Embassies in Africa in 1998. "Look, everyone's got their own bin Laden," Sharon told reporters. "For instance, the US regards Osama bin Laden to be a great danger. So that's their bin Laden. He's the one that causes them security problems. Arafat causes our security problems, therefore I compared them." Recently, Sharon repeatedly characterized Arafat as "a pathological liar and murderer."
Sharon's diatribes, Israeli press speculation about Arafat's future, and ever-increasing public hostility to Arafat are not a mere question of verbiage. Analysts agree that Sharon, and much of the Israeli security establishment, would like to remove Arafat, and that intensifying discussion of ousting him is also a form of advocating, or at the least entertaining, the eradication of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
But the analysts differ over whether Sharon believes that such an assault is prudent, at least at the moment, given domestic and international constraints.
The Sharon pronouncements coincide with reports that the Shin Bet intelligence agency has concluded, in the words of the Maariv newspaper, that Arafat is "more of a liability than an asset," and that "the damage from his disappearance is relatively less than the damage of his existence."
The Israeli left, with the exception of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, has also become increasingly adamant that Arafat should not be considered a negotiating partner. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak - who had engaged in failed negotiations with Arafat prior to the intifada - criticized Mr. Peres Monday for holding a meeting early this month with the Palestinian leader. Sharon relies on Peres' dovish reputation to accord international respectability to his government, and to hold together a coalition that keeps at bay his Likud party rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Some believe his relations with Peres are a source of constraint on the prime minister in his handling of Arafat and the PA.
In the view of Yossi Alpher, former deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, the epithets can be viewed as a bid to pressure Arafat to halt Palestinian attacks, or they might "aim to prepare the way for a military offensive that would be forgiven by the world."
"Those things are on Sharon's mind, but he wouldn't do it any time soon without at least an amber light from the US," adds Ephraim Inbar, head of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv.
The Israeli discussion has touched off alarm bells in the Arab world. "They might say that they do not trust Arafat, but talking about getting rid of him is very dangerous," said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday.
"I think Sharon wants to remove not only Yasser Arafat but to demolish the independent status of the Palestinians. He is beginning with the most important pillar, our president," says Palestinian legislator Dalal Salameh, from Arafat's Fatah movement.
In the prevalent Israeli view, Arafat continues proving himself an impossible peace partner by failing to halt Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets following a US-brokered cease-fire a month ago.
"The cease-fire from the Palestinian side is not at all respected," says Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz. The PA failed to act on Israeli information that could have thwarted a car bombing Monday in the Gaza Strip, he says, pointing out that mortar attacks and roadside shootings were continuing. The Palestinians counter that Israel has failed to respect the cease-fire by resuming a policy of assassinations, continuing to inflict civilian fatalities, and engaging in large-scale home demolitions, the most recent of which destroyed 19 houses in the Gaza Strip's Rafah refugee camp Tuesday.
The question of Arafat's fate - and that of the PA - flared at an Israeli cabinet meeting Monday, during which ministers from the ultra-orthodox Shas party and from Sharon's Likud demanded a military campaign. Sharon reportedly insisted he has no intention of allowing a regional war to break out.
But Gideon Samet, a columnist for the daily Haaretz, believes Palestinian attacks will enable Sharon to argue that he was forced to order a military campaign. "Just like at the outset of the  Lebanon war, Sharon is assured of firm political and public backing for a military adventure," Samet wrote.
Inbar argues that Sharon has learned from Israel's failure to rearrange Lebanese politics to its advantage through the 1982 invasion, which resulted in a costly eighteen year occupation. He predicts that Sharon will undertake "phased" military actions against the Palestinian Authority, rather than one all-out campaign to eradicate it.
"We all need to recognize the fact that you reach an age where everyone has a replacement," Sharon was quoted by Haaretz as telling US Sen. Charles Schumer on Monday. "The assumption that an agreement can be reached only with Arafat is wrong. But he is their leader, and we do not engage in choosing him. If he stops terrorism, I will meet him and negotiate with him, but if he does not adhere to his commitments, he is not a partner."
Arafat's demise would well serve Israeli interests, according to Inbar, by dealing a "terrible blow" to the Palestinian national movement, which he believes is not ripe for a compromise with Israel. It could encourage Palestinians to "develop a new identity, maybe to decide that being part of a Jordanian entity is more conducive to goals like daily living. Sometimes a national movement needs a setback. They established a failed state, now they can try something else."
Inbar believes it would be a mistake for Israel to exile or assassinate Arafat, since that would turn him into a hero or martyr.
Menachem Klein, of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, says the depiction of Arafat answering generous Israeli concessions last year with a campaign of violence has paved the way for a military campaign.
"[The intifada] was not pre-planned by Arafat, and the reality is more complicated than the myth of a generous offer that was met by fire," Klein says. "But if this is the perception about the current history, it leads to the conclusion that Israel has no partner, so that we have to react."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor