Once Removed?

So which is it?




Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom announced on Sunday that Israel has no formal plans to assassinate Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

This came shortly after Ehud Olmert, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister told Israeli radio that “killing [Arafat] is definitely one of the options” his government is considering. Which came on the heels of last week’s Israeli government decision in principle to “remove” Arafat. Bottom line: it’s unclear what Israel intends to do.

Olmert followed up his mafia-style threat with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

“The latest round of failed diplomacy has shown that an enduring peace agreement cannot be built on the rotten foundation that is the current regime. Palestinian leaders will neither dismantle the terrorist infrastructure nor allow anyone else to do it. The alleged line that separated the Fatah forces from Hamas and Islamic Jihad can no longer be claimed to exist. Arafat is the CEO of a full-fledged terrorist organization and no less a danger than the Islamic extremist leaders whom Israel has finally targeted.”

(As always, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Palestinian Authority, even if it wanted to, might not have the power to knock out Hamas and Islamic Jihad.)

There’s no shortage of reasons why going after Arafat is a very bad idea. Luckily, it’s doubtful Ariel Sharon’s government would go ahead without first clearing it with the White House, and Colin Powell was quick to warn Israel to lay off Arafat. Speaking from Baghdad, the Secretary of State told Fox News Sunday that “[t]he consequences [of killing Arafat] would not be good ones. I think you can anticipate that there would be rage throughout the Arab world, the Muslim world and in many other parts of the world.”

But perhaps the most chilling predictions of mayhem came from within Israel. The leading Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, came out against targeting Arafat. And former Knesset member and longtime peace activist, Uri Avnery, considered the consequences of assassinating Arafat so great that he volunteered to act as Arafat’s bodyguard. In a recent editorial, Avnery warns of what Arafat’s murder could bring to the region.

“Anyone familiar with Ariel Sharon can see how things will develop from now on. He will wait for his opportunity. It may come any minute, or after a week, a month, a year. He is patient. When he decides to do something, he is ready to wait, but he won’t deviate from his goal.

So when will the planned assassination be carried out? When some big suicide attack will take place in Israel, one so big that an extreme reaction will be understood by the Americans, too. Or when something happens somewhere to divert world attention from our country. Or when some dramatic event, something comparable to the destruction of the Twin Towers, makes Bush furious.

The murder of Arafat will bring about an historic change in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people. Since the 1973 war, both peoples have been accepting the idea of a compromise between the two great national movements. In the Oslo agreement, after a process initiated by Yasser Arafat practically alone, the Palestinians gave up 78 percent of the country that was called Palestine before 1948. They agreed to set up their state in the remaining 22 percent. Only Arafat had the moral and political standing necessary to carry the people with him, much as Ben-Gurion was able to convince our people to accept the partition plan.

The assassination of Arafat will put an end to this, perhaps forever. We shall return to the stage of “all or nothing”: Greater Israel or Greater Palestine, throwing the Jews into the sea or pushing the Palestinians out into the desert.”

Ten years more or less to the day since the signing of the Oslo Accords, Avnery’s view is hardly unusual. Lebanon’s Daily Star says if Arafat were expelled or killed there’d be no going back to the peace process. The Star notes that while the Bush administration might not always make the smartest moves in mediating between the Palestinian and Israeli governments, Colin Powell does seem to grasp the larger (read: catastrophic) significance of killing or exiling Arafat.

“Powell seems to understand what is at stake. The Oslo process may be dead, but its effect was to alter profoundly the manner in which Arabs and Israelis view the possibilities for a negotiated solution to their long and costly struggle. Considerations of mutual recognition, visions of burgeoning economic opportunities, dreams of an end to needless bloodshed: All these would go out the window if Arafat – dead or alive – were muscled out of the West Bank. No one would speak of the “road map” anymore, only of a dead-end from which few would escape unscathed.”

Palestinians, to put it mildly, oppose the “removal” of their Nobel-prize winning, democratically-elected leader. Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian Minister of Labor, writes in Bitterlemons, a joint Palestinian and Israeli online publication, that Israel’s recent attempts to alter the face of the Palestinian leadership, comes after years of similar failed efforts.

“This seems a good time to remind Israel of the many strategic mistakes it has made during the decades that it has occupied the Palestinian people and their land.

The attempt to deport or otherwise ‘remove’ President Arafat, the latest unabashed Israeli interference in the composition of the Palestinian leadership, is set to become Israel’s next strategic mistake. The political position held by Arafat is the political position held by all Palestinian politicians and groups of significance today. In a sense, all components of the Palestinian political leadership are Arafat.

Ariel Sharon’s administration is clearly not making any friends in this latest flap. On Friday, a group of Arab states asked the United Nations Security Council to protect Arafat. With no assurance by Monday, Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinian representative to the U.N. stormed out of an Security Council debate on a proposed resolution condemning Israel (which the United States would likely veto).

Yossi Alpher, a former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak says assassination is a typical sign that the Israeli government has run out of policy options, and is desperate to show the public that in fact they are doing something. But with last week’s rash of bloody suicide bombings in Israel, the question remains whether the Israeli public will support action against Arafat. With no hard poll numbers, it’s hard to gauge Israeli public opinion, but some Israelis argue that targeting militants — let alone the symbolic father-figure of the Palestinian people — will only bring more terrorism to Israeli cities.

But while the recent death threat may have the analysts agreeing that Arafat’s murder would be a political nightmare, Ha’aretz argues that the threats might just be another of Sharon’s slick political manuevers.

“Ministers and senior officials are competing with each other over who can issue more unbridled comments about the need to “liquidate” Arafat, and not merely “remove” him. Even if it is only arrogant boasting, the resulting damage is considerable. And if the talk is genuine, the results could be much worse.

It is possible Sharon’s considerations were only domestic. He wanted to appear as eager as the most extreme of his ministers to expel Arafat, while at the same time appear unwillingly forced to refrain from it because of American opposition, making sure of that opposition with inaccurate leaks abut Bush’s agreement to an Arafat expulsion.

If so, Sharon is still the skilled political manipulator, a characteristic required of anyone who reaches the Prime Minister’s Office, and his ministers fell into his trap. But it is worrisome to think of the high price the state of Israel has to pay for the political survival of one man, who heads a failure of a government that insists on hunkering down in its own stupidity.”