JERUSALEM — Israel issued an ultimatum to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat today after Palestinian gunmen assassinated a far-right member of the Israeli Cabinet: Turn over the shooters and those who sent them, or face a military onslaught.
Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, 75, was gunned down Wednesday at an East Jerusalem hotel in the first Palestinian assassination of an Israeli government official. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, claimed responsibility, and a spokesman said the killing was only the first in a series of planned attacks on Israelis.
Zeevi, a former general, gained political notoriety more than a decade ago by advocating the mass expulsion of Arabs from Israeli-controlled territory. His assassination plunged U.S. peacemaking efforts into crisis as Israel all but declared war on the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat condemned the killing and promised that the perpetrators would be punished. But Israeli political leaders scornfully dismissed his condemnation.
The Israeli Cabinet issued its ultimatum to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority after midnight, warning, "If they do not meet these demands, Israel will have no choice but to view the Palestinian Authority as a terrorist-supporting entity and act against it accordingly."
The statement said that the government will "wage a war to the quick" against the PFLP.
The Bush administration condemned the assassination but urged Israel to continue negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
"This despicable act is further evidence of the need to fight terrorism," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in a written statement as President Bush landed at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento on his way to a summit in China.
Zeevi's death shocked a nation that thought it had seen it all.
"It is another one of those mornings that makes you crazy and breaks your heart," said Yossi Sarid, leader of the left-wing opposition in the Knesset, as the Israeli parliament is known. He and Zeevi could not have been further apart politically, Sarid said, but "I am utterly devastated by this murder."
Although Zeevi's political beliefs were anathema to much of the Israeli political spectrum, he was a hero of Israel's 1948 War of Independence, a respected general and a well-liked lawmaker. Even those who despised his calls to "voluntarily transfer" Arabs from Israeli-controlled territory acknowledged his passionate love for the land of Israel.
His assassination had the effect of at least temporarily pulling together the fractious Knesset.
Politicians of the left and right alike demanded that Arafat immediately apprehend Zeevi's killers and crack down on other militants. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly advised the government to declare war on the Palestinian Authority unless it handed over Zeevi's killers within 48 hours.
Avigdor Lieberman, who with Zeevi had led their seven-member National Union bloc out of the government Monday because they feared that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had chosen to pursue a diplomatic solution with the Palestinians, rejoined the government.
Grim-faced, Sharon told a special session of the Knesset that he held Arafat accountable for Zeevi's death.
"The full responsibility falls squarely on Arafat, as someone who has controlled, and continues to control, terrorism, and as someone who has not--to this day--taken even one serious step to prevent terrorism," Sharon said.
In the Gaza Strip, special U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen read Arafat's terse condemnation of the assassination after meeting with the Palestinian leader. Calling the situation extraordinarily grave, Roed-Larsen said that the time had come to put an end to a conflict "characterized by the logic of a vendetta and the attempts to wash blood with blood. It has to stop."
But in a statement issued shortly after Zeevi was shot at least twice outside his East Jerusalem hotel room, a defiant PFLP said it had killed him to avenge the death of its leader, Mustafa Zibri, and promised more to come. Zibri, more commonly called Abu Ali Mustafa, was killed Aug. 27 in an Israeli rocket attack on his office in the West Bank.
"The Israeli government, by killing Abu Ali Mustafa, has opened the gates of hell on itself, and now the fire is approaching it," PFLP spokesman Ali Jaradat said Wednesday. Jaradat reportedly was later arrested by the Palestinian Authority in connection with Zeevi's assassination.
Israel has targeted dozens of Palestinian militants since fighting erupted here in September 2000, calling the attacks acts of self-defense. Much of the international community condemns the attacks as extrajudicial killings, and the United States has urged Israel to stop them.