by Ben Lynfield
(IPS) JERUSALEM --
Israel's security and political establishments consider the desirability of Yasser Arafat being ousted, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is stepping up a campaign to vilify the Palestinian leader.
Sharon last week compared Arafat with the exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, wanted by the U.S. for bombings of two embassies in Africa in 1998. This marked an escalation of previous rhetoric denouncing Arafat as "a pathological liar and murderer."
"Look, everyone has got their own bin Laden," Sharon told reporters. "For instance, the U.S. regards Osama bin Laden to be a great danger. So that is their bin Laden. He is the one that causes them security problems. Arafat causes our security problems, therefore I compared them."
The Sharon pronouncements coincide with reports that the Shin Bet intelligence agency has concluded, in the words of Ma'ariv newspaper, that Arafat is "more of a liability than an asset" and that "the damage from his disappearance is relatively less than the damage of his existence."
The verbiage and the press leaks by security officials are not merely academic. Analysts believe that Sharon would like to remove Arafat and destroy the Palestinian Authority, and that such a view is prevalent in the military. But there are doubts over whether Sharon believes such action is feasible now.
"Those things are on Sharon's mind but he wouldn't do it any time soon without at least an amber light from the U.S.," says Ephraim Inbar, head of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
Yossi Alpher, another leading analyst, believes Sharon's statements are "part of his campaign to bring pressure against Arafat to stop the violence or to prepare the way for a military offensive that would be forgiven by the world."
The question of Arafat's fate and that of the Palestinian Authority flared at a cabinet meeting on July 9, during which ministers from the ultra-orthodox Shas party and some from Sharon's Likud called for a military onslaught against the Palestinian Authority. Sharon is reported to have replied that he has no intention of allowing a regional war to break out.
One major domestic constraint on Sharon is that his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, of the Labor Party, has argued against military action and continues to view Arafat as a negotiating partner. He met with him early this month in Lisbon, Portugal.
However, defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, also a Labor leader, has sought to undermine Arafat's standing by saying he "has fulfilled his historic role."
Sharon said on July 8 of the Palestinian leader: "We all need to recognize the fact that you reach an age where everyone has a replacement. The assumption that an agreement can be reached only with Arafat is wrong. But he is their leader and we do not engage in choosing him. If he stops terrorism, I will meet him and negotiate with him, but if he does not adhere to his commitments, he is not a partner."
Inbar argues that Arafat's demise would serve Israeli interests. "I think he is bad news, part of the problem, not a (Israeli founding father) David Ben-Gurion, that he does a great disservice to the Palestinian cause and has exhausted his usefulness."
"Some chaos may serve Israeli interests well, but I don't think we will do anything to bring it about." He believes Sharon would be loathe to break up the national unity coalition over the matter, since that could help pave the way for a comeback bid by his Likud party rival Benjamin Netanyahu.
The demise of Arafat, would, in Inbar's view, deal a "terrible blow" to Palestinian nationalism, which he believes is not ripe for a compromise with Israel. It could encourage Palestinians to "develop a new identity, maybe to decide that being part of a Jordanian entity is more conducive to goals like daily living. Sometimes a national movement needs a setback. They established a failed state, now they can try something else."
Inbar, who heads the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, adds however that he believes it would be a mistake for Israel to exile or assassinate Arafat, since that would turn him into a hero or martyr. "It is better to wait until he gets a heart attack or some lieutenant gets rid of him," he says.
Menachem Klein, a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, believes there is "a good likelihood" of a major military campaign aimed at ending the Palestinian Authority as a ruling authority. He says that the rise in Israeli casualties since Sharon took office in February, his apparent lack of any political plan and sensitivity to pressures from Jewish settlers all point in this direction.
Moreover, Klein adds, most of the Israeli left also has placed all of the blame for the confrontation on Arafat, on the grounds that he refused "generous" Israeli negotiating concessions at the Camp David summit last year. "The myth of the generous offer that was met with fire is simplistic and totally wrong, but this perception leads to the conclusion that Israel has no partner and we have to react (against Arafat)."
"In my view, the Palestinian Authority's current leadership is interested in making a deal with Israel," Klein adds. "Perhaps there are differences on the price, and there is no confidence or trust."
He says, "Most of the Palestinian elite members do not want to destroy the state of Israel. They want their own independent state in the (occupied) territories of 1967 and in this sense they are our partners. There is no alternative but to come to terms with this Palestinian leadership."
July 16, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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