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Is It New Policy or Politics? Israel Moves to Expel Arafat

September 12, 2003
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Israel’s decision to expel Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat intensifies the diplomatic war between Israel and the Palestinian leader.

The question is whether the decision to expel Arafat in principle will translate into a new policy to forcibly change the Palestinian leadership.

For the time being, Israel’s government has reserved the right to remove Arafat from power “in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing.” Israel knows that it if it did expel the Palestinian leader, it almost certainly would be without U.S. approval.

“We’re in a situation in which we know that such approval, were we even to ask for it, would be impossible to get,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said on Israel Army Radio.

Nonetheless, Shalom said, the day could come when Israel’s security needs could override Israel-U.S. sensitivities.

“There are certain situations when you must make decisions cut off from external considerations, and it is understood that there are certain quarters that will be unhappy,” Shalom said.

Shalom was speaking just before he entered the Security Cabinet meeting in which ministers voted Thursday to make the decision regarding Arafat.

“Recent days’ events have proven again that Yasser Arafat is a complete obstacle to any process of reconciliation,” a Cabinet statement said Thursday. “Israel will act to remove this obstacle in the manner, at the time and in the ways that will be decided on separately.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher responded to the decision by saying, “We think it would not be helpful to expel him because it would just give him another stage to play on.”

Israel’s main opposition Labor Party shared that view.

“Arafat abroad will be in my judgment more dangerous and more hostile than where he is tonight — today,” Labor leader Shimon Peres told the syndicated “One on One” program on Thursday in Washington, where he was meeting Bush administration officials. “I object to it completely. I think it will be a mistake.”

As the Security Cabinet convened to make its decision, Arafat had a defiant message for Israel: “This is my homeland. This is terra sancta. No one can kick me out,” he told reporters at his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “They can kill me. They have bombs.”

An Israeli English-language daily, the Jerusalem Post, called for killing Arafat in an editorial this week.

After the Cabinet’s announcement Thursday night, hundreds of Palestinians flocked to Arafat’s compound in Ramallah to express support for the Palestinian leader.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is known to be wary of making a martyr of the man seen by Palestinians — and much of the world — as a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. Any decision to actually go forth and expel the Palestinian leader would require another Cabinet decision.

At the very least, the delay buys some time for incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Karia time to prove his independence from Arafat. If he can prove that independence by controlling terrorists and effectively rendering Arafat irrelevant, perhaps Israel will abandon its plans to exile the longtime PLO leader.

Reserving the right to expel Arafat without taking measures to do so shifts the blame for the failure of the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan to Arafat, said Max Abrahms, an analyst with the Washington institute for Near East Policy.

“I think this is more politics than policy,” he said. “Highlighting Arafat underscores the degree to which he stopped the road map from being carried out.”

Israel believes Arafat encourages terrorist attacks, like the ones on Tuesday that killed 15 Israelis, to leverage concessions from Israel. Israeli and American leaders are frustrated with Arafat for refusing to cede security control to the Palestinian Authority prime minister, leading to continued terrorism and last week’s resignation of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who lost a power struggle with the P.A. president.

The new prime minister, Karia, called Israel’s Cabinet decision “destructive” and said its only effect would be to frustrate attempts by moderate Palestinians to end terror attacks.

Most ministers in the Israeli Cabinet and key defense officials favor expulsion.

“As soon as he’s gone, there are more moderate — not Zionist exactly, but more moderate — elements who favor dialogue,” Shalom said.

One of the most ardent advocates of expulsion, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, is going to Washington next week to convince the Bush administration of the need to expel Arafat sooner rather than later.

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