Posted by D from 126.96.36.199.cfl.rr.com (188.8.131.52) on Wednesday, May 28, 2003 at 10:54PM :
Yasser Arafat faced a group of journalists and TV cameras at his Ramallah HQ on Monday, just three hours after a 19-year-old Palestinian student blew herself up, killing three Israelis and injuring dozens more outside a shopping mall in northern Israel.
The PLO chairman pushed aside a huge pile of documents, took off his reading glasses, made sure his headdress was in place and then issued his standard condemnation of "all acts of terror", blamed the Israeli government for the current wave of violence and then answered questions about Israeli threats to deport him.
"Don't forget I am the Palestinian president who has been elected by the Palestinian people under international supervision headed by the president of Portugal, Mario Soares, [former US] President Carter and more than 2,000 international observers," said Arafat.
Arafat does not take seriously the threat of some members of the Israeli cabinet to snatch him and bundle him off on a helicopter to a neighboring country. After six terror attacks in two days and 12 Israelis killed, speculation was rife in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday that the Israelis might pounce.
At a briefing for foreign journalists before the previous day's cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon advisor Raanan Gissin stated, on the record, that the topic of Arafat's expulsion would be on the agenda.
"There are elements in the [Israeli] government – there are members of various parties - who have been advocating that. I would say that there's no reason why that would not be raised and put on the table," Gissin said. "If I will need to explain any of the difficult decisions that will be taken, if they will be taken, I will have no problems," he added.
After showing foreign journalists gruesome video footage of the carnage wrought by a suicide bomber on an Israeli bus that morning, another senior government official said Israel would need to exact "a real tariff" from those responsible. Was this a hint?
That same afternoon, the Israelis placed Ramallah under curfew. Reports reached Jerusalem that 15 Palestinians on Israel's wanted list, who were taking refuge in Arafat's HQ building, had been asked by the local governor to leave.
Arafat has been cooped up in his presidential office for more than two years, a virtual prisoner with just two brief excursions into Ramallah and a helicopter flight to Nablus and Jenin last May.
Journalists sounded each other out on the likelihood of Arafat taking a trip with the Israeli Air Force. There have been previous demands for Arafat's expulsion during cabinet sessions, they reasoned, and all had been voted down. Recently, however, two things have changed.
First, the present government contains far more hard-liners than ever before and lacks the moderating presence of Labor or the Shas religious faction. One can imagine a unanimous show of hands.
Secondly, with the recent appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister, the problem of who will follow Arafat as the head of the Palestinian Authority is solved.
Despite Israeli anger – government minister and former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert said, "As long as Arafat lives, Jews will be killed," - reasons for leaving him exactly where he is far outweigh those for his expulsion. Primarily, there is a general consensus that the US will not allow it. In fact, Egyptian security chief Omar Suleyman is reported to have relayed just such a guarantee from Washington when he met with Arafat last month.
The odds of an Israeli commando raid going wrong and harming Arafat are probably unacceptable to Sharon and defense chief Shaul Mofaz, both former generals who know how operations get bungled. A dead or wounded Arafat would do untold damage to Israel and the US, throwing the region into turmoil.
Some Israeli officials believe Arafat could do far more damage to Israel if he were freed from his exile in Ramallah. He would then jet about the globe renewing old alliances, gathering fresh support and making mischief.
After postponing a trip to Washington where he was scheduled to discuss American peace proposals with US President George W. Bush, Sharon convened his cabinet for two hours on Sunday evening. After the meeting, a short statement from government spokesman Arnon Perlman was interpreted as meaning the government had failed to take any far-reaching decisions.
So, for now, Arafat is safe.
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