JERUSALEM — Calling Yasser Arafat the biggest obstacle to Mideast peace, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Tuesday that his government might expel the Palestinian leader by the end of the year.
Mofaz has called several times for Arafat to be deported from the Palestinian territories, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has overruled him, fearing an international backlash.
"I think Israel made a historic mistake by not expelling [Arafat] about two years ago.... We will need to address this matter in a relatively short space of time, very possibly even this year," Mofaz told Army Radio. "Arafat never wanted to reach an agreement with us, and all he wants is to continue the conflict.... I believe that he has to disappear from the stage of history."
Israeli forces have largely confined Arafat to his half-demolished compound in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah for 18 months after the government accused him of stoking violence. Arafat denies the charge and says he supports the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
Mofaz issued the warning as Arafat and his prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, remained locked in a power struggle.
Abbas, backed by the United States and Israel, is increasingly unpopular at home and could be ousted in a Palestinian parliament vote next week. Arafat and Abbas have clashed on control of security forces and key appointments, threatening a rift that could hinder peace efforts.
Palestinian Authority Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib said Mofaz's threat of expelling Arafat only raised tensions, "but is consistent with the spirit of escalation of the Israeli leadership."
Fearful that the Arafat-Abbas conflict could lead to more serious internal strife, Palestinian mediators continued Tuesday to shuttle between the two leaders -- who are not on speaking terms -- in an attempt to resolve their dispute over Palestinian security forces.
Nearly 200 Palestinian legislators, academics and writers appealed to both men in newspaper ads Tuesday to resolve their differences, saying the deadlock was hurting Palestinian interests. "We call on you to stop all actions that may open the door to foreign interference," the ad read.
Meanwhile Tuesday, violence continued as Israeli soldiers killed an Islamic Jihad militant who drew a pistol on troops at a roadblock near the West Bank city of Jenin, military sources said. An Islamic Jihad leader who spoke on condition of anonymity identified the dead man as Abdel Kader Dali, a wanted militant. The leader called the shooting an assassination and vowed revenge.
In the Gaza Strip, a 29-year-old bystander injured in a helicopter missile strike Monday died of his wounds, hospital officials said. And an 11-year-old girl died of injuries sustained in a missile strike last week.