With Yasser Arafat out of Sight, Israeli Leaders Glimpse Some Hope

Yasser Arafat’s illness has done what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for all of his attempts, could not: create a sense of hope in the possibilities of a future without the grizzled Palestinian Authority president. There was an unusual hush when the matter of Arafat was raised at Sunday’s meeting of the Israeli Cabinet.

Previously, ministers of all political stripes had railed against him, belying Jerusalem’s official line that Arafat was “irrelevant” to peacemaking. This time, with Arafat undergoing urgent and secretive tests at a French hospital, a sense of genuine hope dawned.

Israel plans to press ahead with its unilateral withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and West Bank despite Arafat’s illness, Sharon told his Cabinet on Sunday, but he left open the possibility for further peace talks should new Palestinian leaders take over.

“If a leadership arises that acts to dismantle the terror infrastructure, we will be prepared to resume negotiations on the basis of the ‘road map,’ ” Sharon told his ministers, referring to the U.S.-backed peace plan, rendered all-but defunct by persistent violence.

The chief of Israeli military intelligence, which had made clear in media leaks that it knew well in advance of Arafat’s airlift to Paris last Friday that his condition was grave, sounded even more optimistic.

“I think we have an opportunity here to end the current round of conflict that began in 2000,” Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash told the Cabinet in a briefing.

But Ze’evi-Farkash agreed with Sharon’s assessment that the Palestinians must be left to their own devices in choosing a potential successor for Arafat. Any Israeli overtures toward this-or-that candidate would risk marking him as a stooge in the eyes of his countrymen — a death sentence politically, and perhaps even literally.

Arafat was reported to be in critical condition late last week, but by Sunday his condition apparently had improved, according to Leila Shahid, the Palestinian Authority’s general delegate to France. Arafat does not have leukemia, she said, speaking to reporters Saturday outside the hospital near Paris where the 75-year-old Palestinian leader is undergoing medical tests.

Meanwhile, Israeli military chiefs boosted forces around the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Arafat had been confined to his compound before leaving for Paris.

According to security sources, army commanders were instructed to review a plan of action, written up last year, in anticipation of Arafat’s death.

Israel fears Arafat, who always refused to groom a successor, will leave a power vacuum in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, triggering Palestinian factional fighting.

Given the confusion over the degree to which Arafat was incapacitated, his colleagues in Ramallah were playing it safe.

On Sunday, they held the first-ever PLO meeting without him. Arafat’s empty chair was flanked by the current and former prime ministers of the Palestinian Authority, Ahmed Qurei and Mahmoud Abbas, who for now have divided Arafat’s responsibilities between them.

Sharon had long said that were Arafat to leave the West Bank he would not be allowed to return, but last week the prime minister reversed this position in letting the Palestinian leader be flown out for treatment.

“We have made this commitment and we shall stick with it,” Sharon told a Cabinet minister who suggested that Arafat be made to stay abroad.

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