Since the intifada began, Israeli officials have declared Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat "irrelevant," a "terrorist," an "enemy" and a "pathological liar."
Now, after more than 20 months of relentless Palestinian terror, Prime Minster Ariel Sharon is said to have made up his mind to expel Arafat from the Palestinian territories.
Sources close to Sharon say the prime minister is just waiting for an opportune moment, perhaps a "megaterror" attack of the kind Israeli security officials warn the Palestinians are preparing.
"One more big suicide bombing and" Arafat "is out of here," an Israeli official close to Sharon declared after a massive bus bombing that killed 17 Israelis in early June.
For months, Sharon has been encouraged to expel Arafat by Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff. During Operation Protective Wall in April, Mofaz was caught on camera whispering to the prime minister, "We must throw him out."
Labor Party leaders and some top intelligence officials are staunchly opposed to the move. The heads of the Mossad, military intelligence and the General Security Service all have warned the government of dangerous local, regional and international repercussions if Arafat is exiled.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the Labor Party leader who was one of the first to suggest circumventing the Palestinian leader, maintains that expelling him would do more harm than good.
Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh, a close associate of Ben-Eliezer's and one of the more hawkish Labor leaders, also says exiling Arafat "would solve nothing."
Sharon, however, is convinced that as long as Arafat is around, the violence will continue, reform of the Palestinian Authority will be a sham and there will be no chance for the long-term process of accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians that prime minister envisages.
Close aides concede that Sharon is particularly worried about Arafat abusing two essentially positive developments to rehabilitate himself internationally: the demand for reforms in the Palestinian Authority and the renewed peace process the United States is trying to launch.
Sharon fears that Arafat will pretend to carry out reforms, fool those members of the international community who want to be fooled and then enter a U.S.-sponsored peace process as a seemingly legitimate partner. According to Sharon aides, it was partly to preempt such a scenario that he made the decision to expel Arafat.
President Bush, who declared after his June 10 White House meeting with Sharon that real and deep reform must precede a peace process, may have allayed some of prime minister's concern on the issue. In addition, Bush was noncommittal when asked directly whether he was for or against Arafat's expulsion. Sharon might have taken Bush's silence as tacit acquiescence.
However, shortly after Bush spoke, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer repeated the official U.S. position that reform and peacemaking should proceed in parallel. That could reopen the door for the kind of Palestinian duplicity, stage-managed by Arafat, that Sharon fears and seeks to prevent.
In what appears to be a calculated attempt to prepare public opinion, the prime minister's office has been leaking information since early June on Sharon's intentions regarding Arafat. Unqualified support for the prime minister's position came in an editorial in the Ma'ariv newspaper, which argued that Israel has nothing to fear from expelling Arafat.
"We have long been warned that his absence would create a dangerous anarchy in the territories, with Israel the prime loser. But what's happening there now, under his leadership?" the paper asked. "We must not panic at the idea of expelling Arafat. The sky won't fall on us, and it will teach the Palestinians, the world and ourselves that an archterrorist like him cannot be let off the hook."
The IDF's June 7 strike at Arafat's Muqata'a headquarters, in which a shell penetrated the Palestinian leader's bathroom, was meant to show Arafat how vulnerable he is and to prepare world opinion for the next step. As one Western diplomat put it, by going further each time, Sharon is "making the unthinkable banal."
Backing Sharon's expulsion plan, Mofaz argues that Arafat is the driving force behind Palestinian terror. If Arafat were removed from the scene, the chief of staff says, the level of violence probably would drop.
Likud Party legislators such as Yuval Steinitz contend that Arafat's international standing limits Israel's capacity to respond to Palestinian terror. If Arafat were expelled, Steinitz says, the army would have an easier job.
On the far right, politicians like Benjamin Elon from the Moledet Party and Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Our Home actually welcome the chaos that might ensue, because it would give Israel a chance to "really crack down on Palestinian terror." Israel also would be freer to advance political plans like Lieberman's proposed cantonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip or Elon's transfer of Palestinians to neighboring Arab states.
Among Labor politicians, however, there is consensus that expelling Arafat would be a huge blunder. They argue that it is simplistic to personalize the conflict as if the only problem were Arafat and to claim that if only he would go away, the rest of the Palestinians would fall into line. Moreover, it is seen that Arafat wandering the world would be free to stir up trouble against Israel, while still pulling the strings in the Palestinian territories.
The Laborites also make another, more subtle argument: Part of the struggle with the Palestinians is over images and perceptions. Expelling Arafat and allowing him to play the victim would be a public relations coup for the Palestinians.
Finally, they say, even if Arafat is the problem, the only way he can effectively be replaced is through an authentic internal Palestinian process, in which Israel is plainly not involved.
Expelling Arafat would defeat the purpose of the exercise: No Palestinian would dare claim the exiled president's mantle, at least while Arafat is still alive.
Several months ago, in an unusually candid interview, Sharon said he regretted not having killed Arafat 20 years ago when the PLO was expelled from Beirut. He also said that he regretted having promised Bush last year that he would not harm the Palestinian leader physically. Realistically, that leaves Sharon only with the option of expulsion.
However, as the internal debate in Israel shows, the prime minister is in a Catch-22 situation. What he wants to get rid of is not so much Arafat as Arafat's influence, but any action he takes against Arafat could well backfire and increase the Palestinian leader's sway.
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