Israeli sword hangs over Arafat

A series of threats of exile has fanned the Palestinian leader's popular appeal.

Despite a weekend of international outcry, Israel appears committed to its decision to "remove" Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, although the meaning of the term remains unclear.

Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, indicated Sunday that Israeli resolve hasn't been dimmed by the opposition to Mr. Arafat's removal, which most observers interpret to mean sending him into exile. Not Mr. Olmert, a prominent Israeli hawk. "Killing [Arafat] is definitely one of the options," he told Israel Radio.

Arab, European, and US officials have denounced Israel's plan to remove Arafat. Even so, says a Western diplomat who closely tracks Israeli-Palestinian affairs, "We're getting indications [the Israelis] are serious. It's not a rational thing, but it's the move they're going to make."

The diplomat and other observers suggest that a major terrorist strike against Israelis will give the government all the reason it needs to return Arafat to exile.

Palestinian politicians seem unwilling to believe that Israel will actually act against their leader, apparently certain that warnings of postremoval chaos will dissuade the Israelis. The Palestinians' disbelief is tinged with a touch of complacency, which appears to derive from the impression that the Israelis have made a misstep that has brought international condemnation and served to unite Palestinians.

Arafat, his associates say, now feels he has gained new leverage to counter Israeli and US efforts to encourage the emergence of an alternative Palestinian leadership.

At a closed-door session with Palestinian legislators week ago, Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned as Palestinian Authority prime minister on Sept. 6, criticized Arafat for failing to cede authority. Today, says Telecommunications Minister Azzam al-Ahmad, Arafat "feels his people are standing with him and that it's been confirmed that he can't be ignored," a reference to Israel's longstanding insistence that Arafat is irrelevant.

On Friday, when crowds gathered at Arafat's much-battered compound, "I saw many Palestinians who oppose Arafat's policies; they came to show solidarity and to defend him," says Mr. Azzam. The idea - promoted by Israel and the US - that Palestinian moderates can and should emerge to provide an alternative to Arafat's leadership "is finished," the minister adds.

Sakher Habash, a longtime colleague of Arafat's, points to the creation of a new Palestinian National Security Council, which held its first meeting over the weekend, as an example of Arafat reasserting his prerogative.

Mr. Abbas, the former prime minister, had wanted Arafat to grant him control of Palestinian security forces, in part so he would be better placed to arrest Palestinian militants in accordance with US and Israeli demands. Arafat's refusal was one reason Abbas quit.

Arafat instead offered cede control of the security forces to a committee - the National Security Council - which he would head. "There is only person who will decide everything," says Mr. Habash says of this committee. "Yasser Arafat."

Hatem Abdel Khader, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and Arafat's Fatah movement, says the Israeli-Palestinian peace process - such as it is - will disappear if Arafat does. "There's no peace, no quiet, no security, no national security for Israel with out Arafat," he says. Among Palestinians, he adds, "nobody can talk with Israel if Arafat is removed - nobody."

Mr. Abdel Khader and other Palestinians say that Arafat's removal will mean the end of the Palestinian Authority, which will turn back the clock a decade, when Israel - as an occupying power - administered the Palestinian territories. "In such a situation," he says, "maybe Hamas is the alternative," referring to the Islamic Resistance Movement, which has carried out dozens of terrorist attacks against Israelis over the past three years.

If Israel's plan is to expel Arafat after the next terrorist strike, it means that Hamas has an unusual degree of leverage over the Palestinian leader.

The group has always been able to make life difficult for Arafat's peace efforts - although the Israelis insist that Arafat hasn't convincingly worked to contain Hamas since the mid-1990s. Now Hamas seems to hold the key to Arafat's future.

Habash argues that the Israelis and the US will have to deal with Arafat, or face the consequences: chaos and instability if they Israelis use force against Arafat or Arafat's intransigence if Israeli and US officials do not treat him in a manner befitting his stature as the Palestinians' elected leader and most popular figure. On the other hand, Habash says, "If they respect - and give him a chance to die peacefully - a new leadership will be created."

But the Israelis may not want to wait that long. The eviction of Arafat - perhaps first to Egypt and then to Syria - is "doable," says Israeli political scientist Hillel Frisch. "It'll get Israel into some hot water, but nothing major. People will probably even breathe a sigh of relief after two or three weeks."

A specialist on Palestinian and Arab politics, Mr. Frisch says even the regional reaction will be more muted than some Palestinians predict. "I don't think it's going to be cataclysmic," he says, arguing that over the years the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has lost its power to provoke broader conflict.

In the estimation of many Arabs, Frisch says, "Now it's basically a tribal fight - its still has the rhetorical but it doesn't have the political significance it used to have."

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