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Latest Israeli raid signals drive to push Arafat aside

Israeli leader Sharon is unlikely to bend on his demand that the Palestinian be sidelined before a peace conference.

©Los Angeles Times
June 7, 2002

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli attack on Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters Thursday delivered a message not only to the Palestinian leader but also to President Bush: This Israeli government will not bend in its refusal to have anything to do with Arafat.

With the rubble of Arafat's headquarters still smoking, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepared to head for Washington for a Monday meeting with Bush. The Israeli leader intends to make the case that the convening of an international peace conference on the Middle East is impossible unless Arafat is at least sidelined, if not expelled from Palestinian territory.

"The prime minister's message will be that Yasser Arafat must be removed from power because he is an obstacle to reform," Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said. "If there is a wish to move ahead with a political process, a solution to Arafat must be found."

Gissin insisted, however, that the government was not contemplating Arafat's expulsion.

Sharon requested the meeting with Bush as reports circulated here that the U.S. administration might adopt a plan calling for a Palestinian state to be established in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and parts of East Jerusalem within three years. The State Department reportedly is arguing that the plan should be the basis for the peace conference that the administration hopes to convene next month.

Arab leaders have told Bush that they and the Palestinians can attend a conference only if the agenda includes a vision for the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a timetable for achieving it.

However, any talk of an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders or a timetable for establishing a Palestinian state is anathema to Sharon, who has vowed to preserve every Jewish settlement and retain large areas of the West Bank as security buffers for Israel.

The Sharon government's signal that it would not deal with Arafat did not seem to immediately have the desired effect in Washington.

One day after the White House questioned Arafat's trustworthiness, U.S. officials insisted that they considered Arafat the top Palestinian leader and intended to continue to treat him as such.

"Chairman Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people," said Richard Boucher, the chief State Department spokesman.

Sean McCormack, a White House spokesman, said exiling Arafat would not solve anything.

"The issue is building Palestinian institutions and ... bringing the Palestinian people into the building of these institutions," he said.

At the same time, U.S. leaders continued to try to prod Arafat to do more to end the terror attacks and bring peace.

"I think the Palestinian people expect Mr. Arafat to do more for them, to perform," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "They have now been in the intifada for a year and a half, and it hasn't brought them anything except grief."

Sharon has said repeatedly that he is willing to negotiate only a "long-term interim agreement" with the Palestinians. Those arrangements would give them control over many areas of their daily lives in about 42 percent of the West Bank and much of Gaza, but would leave the question of borders, sovereignty, the status of Palestinian refugees and of disputed Jerusalem unresolved for years.

The resurgence of Palestinian suicide attacks on Israelis since Sharon ended a large-scale military sweep through the West Bank last month has only strengthened the prime minister's conviction that diplomatic progress must be gradual, said Dore Gold, a foreign policy adviser.

"Clearly, there has been a lot of talk about reform (in the Palestinian Authority), but what we're seeing is more of the same when it comes to how their security services are performing," Gold said. "That really means we have not seen any change on the part of Yasser Arafat in regards to stopping attacks on Israel."

Sharon and his aides have watched with consternation as Bush has consulted with Arab leaders on the framework for a conference. They are pleased that the prime minister will have the final word before the president decides on the U.S. position.

It is hard to see how the two leaders will be able to bridge the chasm between Sharon's notions of the basis for a peace conference and those of the Arab leaders.

"What sort of conference this will be and whether it can conceivably be successful, given the gap between the parties and the lack of concerted energy by the administration so far, I don't know," said Joseph Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst. "It will be quite a feat of constructive ambiguity if the president succeeds in getting both the Arabs and the Israelis there."

Sharon travels to Washington armed with near-consensus among his generals and the Israeli public that Arafat should be expelled. Despite that Islamic Jihad, a militant group, claimed responsibility for killing 17 Israelis in a suicide attack on a bus Wednesday, many Israelis agree with their government that Arafat is the inspiration, if not the mastermind, of all attacks.

"A terrorist infrastructure which was built over a period of seven years does not crash in a single month," analyst Ron Leshem wrote Thursday in Yediot Aharonot. "But when the public is crying out and demanding immediate results, drastic moves are unavoidable."

Sooner or later, Leshem wrote, Israel will be forced to reoccupy the Palestinian cities it raids almost daily and to expel Arafat. The only question is whether these steps will occur "following a two-digit (number of casualties) terror attack, an ultra-terror attack or a mega-terror attack."

Analysts agree that the devastating attack on Arafat's headquarters was meant to underscore to Palestinians that Arafat is powerless in the face of Israel's mounting anger, and to drive home to Arafat how close he is to losing everything -- perhaps even his life.

Sharon hopes the shelling will convince the administration that the Palestinian leader must be pushed aside if there is any hope of ending this conflict.

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