Sharon unwavering in his determination to oust Arafat, Israeli army practices for expelling Arafat
Ariel Sharon's troops are practicing bundling Yasser Arafat into a helicopter and whisking him into exile, a drill that underscores the Israeli leader's determination to get rid of his longtime nemesis.
Thus far, Sharon has been restrained by opposition from his own security advisers and political pressure from the United States. Still, Sharon's systematic campaign to sideline the Palestinian leader is unlikely to abate even though such moves boost Arafat's popularity.
Sharon's latest assault on Arafat -- a tank siege of his compound, abandoned this week under U.S. pressure -- is widely viewed in Israel as a fiasco. Critics note that the siege restored some of Arafat's luster by again making him the symbol of Palestinian suffering and aborted efforts by Palestinians to get Arafat to cede some powers.
In a recurring scenario, Palestinian suicide bombings have prompted Sharon to blame Arafat for failing to stop the attacks, and the Israeli leader has sent troops to the doorsteps of Arafat's sandbagged office building three times in six months.
In heated Cabinet debates, Sharon has favored expelling Arafat, or in lieu of that, making his presence in the region as uncomfortable as possible.
Israeli security sources, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said troops who would carry out an order to expel Arafat have been placed on standby three times in recent months, including after a Passover suicide attack that killed 29 people in March and triggered a major Israeli offensive against Palestinian militants.
The Maariv newspaper said that as part of the preparations, commandos scouted locations where Arafat could be dumped. It did not name the country, but Israeli television said several weeks ago that Libya was chosen as the place of exile.
Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin declined to comment on the report.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and security officials -- including the heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet spy agencies -- have argued against Arafat's expulsion, saying he is confined and isolated at present, and would cause greater problems for Israel if he were abroad, jetting among capitals to promote the Palestinian quest for statehood.
The United States, while strongly backing Israel in the 2-year-old conflict, has criticized Israel's chokehold on Arafat and stepped in at key moments to demand that Sharon ease up.
About a week into the most recent siege, Sharon's top aide Dov Weisglass was in Washington, where he received an earful about the Bush administration's displeasure, according to Infrastructure Minister Effie Eitam. U.S. officials complained it was interfering with the campaign to get Arab backing for a U.S. move on Iraq.
Israeli troops pulled back the next day.
"It's true that Israel miscalculated. We were doing what we thought the United States had given us permission to do, but it wasn't the case," said Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a Sharon supporter.
With the United States preparing for possible military action against Iraq, Washington doesn't want to be distracted by new eruptions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that is likely to keep on hold any Israeli plans to expel Arafat.
Since coming to power 20 months ago, Sharon has greatly eroded Arafat's power, though each time the Palestinian leader emerges from his shell-scorched office to flash the victory sign, he enjoys a brief surge in his otherwise flagging popularity.
Any Israeli move against Arafat is seen by Palestinians as an attack on the man who symbolizes their quest for statehood, and even Palestinians who are critical of Arafat tend to rally around him when he is besieged by the Israelis.
The latest siege appears to have sidelined a serious effort by Arafat's Fatah Party to persuade him to share some powers by appointing his longtime No. 2, Mahmoud Abbas, as prime minister to handle day-to-day affairs. In a sign of how badly Arafat's authority had eroded, the Palestinian Parliament forced the resignation of his entire Cabinet about a week before the siege.
But the crisis put the internal Palestinian debate on hold. If the Palestinians go ahead with elections in January as planned, Arafat will be the overwhelming favorite, bolstered in part because the Israelis have tried so hard to oust him.
But Inbar said the upswing in Arafat's popularity is likely to be temporary, and Sharon was taking a longer-term view.
"The endgame is to try to get a new Palestinian leadership that can tackle the extremists," said Inbar. "We are afraid of a backlash if we expel Arafat now. But it's a cautious game, and it hasn't ended."
Sharon's personal battle with Arafat goes back to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when Sharon was defense minister and Arafat was using Lebanon as a base for his PLO. Sharon's army drove Arafat and his guerrillas from Lebanon and scattered them in the Mideast.
Sharon opposed the Israel-PLO accords of 1993, and Palestinians are convinced his goal today is to reverse their results by destroying the Palestinian Authority and perpetuating a heavy Israeli military presence in the Palestinian areas.
They say Sharon has called on the Palestinian government to reform, but has smashed institutions capable of carrying out such changes.
Sharon "couldn't care less about reform, or anything that goes on in Palestinian society," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
Referring to the latest siege, Erekat said, "Sharon thought he could get away with it, and he could not. It was a misjudgment of the international reaction. He couldn't care less if the Palestinians are ruled by the Boy Scouts or Atilla the Hun."
[ZB- Reporter forgot to give the Israeli's equal time on this point. Normally the reporter would at least quote a left wing self-hating Israeli like Yossi Sarid agreeing with Erakat's lies. The reporter also forgot to mention that Sharon has not repudiated Oslo and has repeatedly and publicly supported the eventual creation of a Palestinian and stated that he is willing to make painful compromises for peace]
Sharon's approach has been to steadily turn up the heat on Arafat, occasionally pulling back when he encounters too much resistance from the United States or the international community.
Sharon himself noted that when Israeli troops first advanced several hundred yards into Palestinian-controlled fields in the Gaza Strip in April 2001, there was an international outcry. Now, after dozens of Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities and towns, they have become routine.
"Therefore, this gradual approach in my view is the proper one," Sharon told the Jerusalem Post