Yasser Arafat has always been the bane of Israel's existence. But more than ever before, Israelis are wondering out loud what would happen if Mr. Arafat ceased to exist, or at least existed someplace farther away.
In settings ranging from the inner offices of Israel's government and military to the pages and screens of its news media, Israelis are contemplating the most extreme measures in dealing with the Palestinian leader.
Should Israel give him one last chance as a peace partner? Or is he to be toppled, even killed? And if Israel were to dismantle Arafat's Palestinian Authority - and, say, send him into exile - then what?
The short answer to the last question, according to Israeli political scientist Shmuel Sandler, is: "Nobody knows. There are those who argue one of his lieutenants would take over.... And others argue that [the Palestinian territories] might disintegrate into chaos."
Judging from its actions, the government seems intent on coming very close to eliminating Arafat, without actually coming too close. On Tuesday, Israeli missiles struck a building less than 100 yards from where the Palestinian leader was holding a meeting; an Israeli military spokesman said the munitions were on target.
And the Israelis seem to want to disable the PA but not destroy it. On Tuesday, Israel's military certainly could have turned Gaza International Airport - a much-heralded milestone in the Palestinian march toward statehood - into a heap of sandy rubble. Instead, bulldozers and tanks destroyed the runway.
As Bar Ilan University political scientist Gerald Steinberg puts it: "Under the current circumstances, Israel should not be seen as determining or dictating the leadership of the PA." But Professor Steinberg acknowledges that Israel may want to create the conditions in which Arafat departs, or is rendered irrelevant, or is toppled - without the blame being laid directly at Israel's feet.
The government says its intention is to force Arafat to act against Palestinian militants by demonstrating that Israel has the power to remove him from power and destroy his nascent state. The Israelis are offering a choice: Guarantee our security, or we'll guarantee your collapse.
This arrangement has long been at the core of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, but never have the alternatives been presented so starkly.
On Monday evening, as the Israeli Cabinet deliberated a statement that would later declare the PA "an entity that supports terrorism," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres demanded consideration of the possible outcome of this shift toward a more militant Israeli policy, according to a report in yesterday's Yediot Ahronoth newspaper. "We have to discuss what will happen the day after Arafat," the paper quotes Mr. Peres as saying.
Peres - who favors continued attempts to negotiate a peace settlement with Arafat - and ministers from his Labor Party declined to support the Cabinet measure. The party convened yesterday to decide whether to remain part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government of national unity, but delayed a decision.
Mr. Sharon has benefited from Peres's presence in his Cabinet, but the prime minister may feel that rising Israeli frustration with the Palestinians gives him the authority to pursue a harder, more militant line.
Despite the government's insistence that it does not intend to do away with Arafat or the PA, Sharon made no entreaties to the Palestinian leader in a televised address Monday night. There were no appeals to Arafat to prevent attacks on Israel in order to preserve the capacity to talk peace. Sharon identified Arafat as the man responsible for a "war of terror" being waged on Israel.
But the pressure on Arafat does not come only from Israel and its main backer, the US. More than 14 months of open conflict between Israelis and Palestinians have eroded Arafat's popular support. Even members of his own political faction openly defy his orders to arrest militant Palestinians. Arafat's leadership also has come under increasing criticism because of the corruption it has engendered and because its commitment to democracy is faltering.
This pressure from underneath makes conceivable the prospect that Arafat could somehow be sidelined by other Palestinians. But this outcome still begs the question, what next? Professor Steinberg sees three possible outcomes:
The emergence of a "guns and suits" team of security chiefs and politicians, all Arafat protégés, who "understand the reality of Israel and who have a potential for pragmatism" in dealing with the Jewish state.
A "worst-case alternative" in which the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, leads the Palestinians and deepens the conflict with Israel.
A phase in which local commanders take control of their regions. Steinberg says this period would last only briefly until a more cohesive leadership appears.
Tel Aviv University historian Meir Litvak disparages all the talk of the "end of the Arafat era," to quote one headline in yesterday's Jerusalem Post. The most likely scenario: "More of the same." Although Mr. Litvak agrees that a sidelined Arafat is more likely than a toppled Arafat, he says neither prospect is as convincing as a continuation of the status quo.
To be sure, the two sides have spent years in the same tussle, with the Israelis demanding that Arafat do more to guarantee security and Arafat insisting that he cannot do that unless the Israelis do more to meet Palestinian demands for sovereignty and statehood.
Mr. Sandler, who also teaches at Bar Ilan University, says that Israeli proponents of the elimination of Arafat - whether in political or personal terms - have long been stymied by uncertainty. "The question is always: Would that be better than what we have now?"