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Israel Asks: Is It Time for Arafat to Leave?

Mideast: Sharon reportedly believes that some in the U.S. would support an expulsion.

April 25, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Fresh from what it sees as an overwhelming military victory in the West Bank, the Israeli government is openly debating whether the time has come to expel Yasser Arafat from this land.

Doing so would mark another step in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to relegate the Palestinian Authority to history and promote a more cooperative leadership in its place, following a three-week military campaign that left much of Palestinian society and infrastructure a shambles. It is a strategy he has pursued in the past, with problematic consequences.

Sharon has already come close to expelling his longtime nemesis.

Only a 2 a.m. telephone call last month from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell--just hours after a Palestinian suicide bomber wiped out entire families at a Passover Seder--stopped Sharon from snatching Arafat out of the West Bank city of Ramallah and casting him into exile, according to sources.

Instead, Sharon on March 29 sent tanks and infantry smashing through Arafat's compound walls, where they stopped outside his front door and have remained since.

And when Powell came calling again this month, this time in person, and asked Sharon for a promise to keep his hands off Arafat, the Israeli leader demurred. He would not invade Arafat's inner sanctum during or immediately after Powell's visit. But beyond that, all bets were off. Powell left the region last week.

Sharon, aides said, is increasingly convinced that others in the Bush administration would back--at least tacitly--a decision to expel Arafat, and he also believes that support for such a move among Israelis is growing.

There are risks and reasons not to do it.

As recently as January, Sharon argued to his right-wing followers that it was better to leave Arafat where he was: trapped inside his compound, surrounded by Israeli tanks and virtually cut off from the outside world.

In exile, by contrast, he might become a living martyr free to roam the Arab world and Europe, ginning up support, money, weapons and followers. He could call the shots for whatever was left of a Palestinian resistance or uprising from a relatively safe distance.

Expelling Arafat also would shatter the already strained relations that Israel maintains with its only relatively friendly Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, and stir trouble inside Sharon's ruling coalition with the more moderate members from the Labor Party.

But Sharon's advisors say the balance has begun to tip the other way: Sharon's calculation is that the world would be less likely to welcome Arafat with open arms and might treat him like a pariah.

"The main downside is that he would use his victimization as a cynical instrument to continue terror and incitement abroad, and we could certainly envision a scenario where he is given the red-carpet treatment by world leaders," senior Sharon advisor Danny Ayalon said.

"We believe this risk is somewhat mitigated now by the fact that after this operation we have hard evidence linking [Arafat] not just to the inspiration of terror but to involvement in the instruction and financing of terror."

Ayalon was alluding to papers seized from Arafat's headquarters and other Palestinian Authority offices that Israel believes substantiate a closer link between Arafat and the more militant armed Palestinian groups.

The other benefit, as Sharon sees it, is that Arafat's absence from the Palestinian territories would allow an alternative leadership to flourish, Ayalon said.

"If he's not here, and not here in a way that everyone knows it's for good, then there is a better chance for a new leadership to emerge," he said.

The strategy is one that Sharon employed in the past without good results, analysts here note. In 1982, Sharon, as defense minister, launched Israel's invasion of Lebanon, reaching Beirut and laying siege to Arafat. After 88 days and with U.S. intervention, the Palestinian leader was allowed to escape to Tunisia. Sharon, seeking a malleable ally, helped shepherd in Bashir Gemayel as the new president of Lebanon. Gemayel was assassinated before he could take office.

In 1981, Sharon established Palestinian Village Leagues in the West Bank to promote local leaders opposed to Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Most either had to resign or were assassinated.

If Arafat is ousted by the Israelis, it would be next to impossible for any self-respecting Palestinian to take his place. Anyone who did so would have no following and little credibility--or would have to take extremist positions to earn legitimacy.

"You cannot get someone more moderate [than Arafat] who is also able to govern," said Joseph Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst. "It is an illusion to think that just because he is in exile, people will not be taking their cues from him."

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