For the first time, Israeli political debate is focusing openly on the prospect of life after Yasser Arafat.
This follows a marked drop in the Palestinian Authority president’s international standing — in the eyes not just of the United States but also among other key members of the international community.
While the world is not yet writing off Arafat, Israelis on all points of the political spectrum seem to feel it is both legitimate and practical to debate the prospect of Arafat’s possible — and perhaps imminent — removal from power.
If such a scenario does come about, it is not likely to be as a result of direct Israeli intervention.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who returned from a visit to the United States in early December, has told his aides that he was asked for, and gave, a firm commitment to President Bush that Israel would not kill Arafat or otherwise harm him personally.
The prime minister’s vow apparently extends to the idea — floated by some Israeli hawks — of deporting Arafat or barring him from returning to the country when he goes off on one of his many jaunts abroad.
Israeli missiles destroyed two of Arafat’s helicopters in an attack in the Gaza Strip last week. Warplanes bombed a compound close to his Ramallah headquarters while he was working inside.
But these attacks were intended more as warnings than as serious efforts to strike at Arafat himself.
Later in the week, Sharon indicated that he was liable to turn down a request from Arafat to fly to Qatar for a gathering of Islamic foreign ministers.
"He is too busy arresting terrorists," Sharon sarcastically told the Cabinet. Perhaps to save himself the risk of humiliation, Arafat decided not to make the request.
Sharon has disclosed to Time magazine that he recently sent his son, Omri, on a secret mission to assure Arafat that he faces no physical danger from Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Tuesday that Israel was not trying to topple Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority. But he warned that unless Arafat acts firmly to stop terrorism, he runs the risk of being deposed by Palestinian extremists.
"Arafat made mistakes but it is not for Israel to decide who will lead the Palestinians," Peres told a news conference following talks in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"We are not going to dismantle the Palestinian Authority nor topple Arafat, but we demand he take responsibility" to end the violence, he said.
For Sharon, the issue is not Arafat’s personal safety but his political future. Sharon has been warned repeatedly, by Palestinians, foreign experts and some Israelis that military pressure on the Palestinian Authority could weaken Arafat’s rule to a point where it simply implodes.
To judge by his responses and by the Israeli army’s operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sharon is prepared at least to consider that scenario.
Sharon wants to force Arafat to confront the fundamentalist factions in the Palestinian territories, make sweeping arrests of known militants and hold and interrogate those incarcerated, instead of letting them walk free after a few days.
If that means a situation approaching a Palestinian civil war — from which Arafat emerges diminished or even defeated — then so be it, Sharon seems to be saying.
Significantly, the prime minister has taken issue with the conventional Israeli wisdom that if Arafat falls, more radical forces inevitably will seize power. Sharon suggested in several conversations this week that Arafat’s fall might throw up more moderate leaders with whom Israel could deal more productively.
Even if it doesn’t, Sharon said, it might be better for Israel to deal with a group like Hamas — which makes no secret of its intention to attack Israel — than with Arafat, whose moderate words allegedly mask a more belligerent agenda.
After decades of confrontations and broken promises, Sharon has no patience left for Arafat, whom he invariably refers to as "that terrorist."
Moreover, both from his recent meeting at the White House and from American pronouncements, Sharon knows that the Bush administration also has little patience left for what he regards as Arafat’s lies.
Israeli sources say the American peace envoy in the region, ex-Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, has been scathing in his expressions of frustration with Arafat.
But the Bush administration stops short of actually calling for pulling the plug on Arafat. Washington’s policy is still predicated on its expectation that Arafat can and will rein in the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror networks.
However deep their distaste for the Palestinian leader, therefore, Israeli policy-makers are toeing that same line. Yet they have even less confidence than the Americans in Arafat’s ability or desire to take serious action.
A significant advance this week came from an unexpected quarter — the European Union. In an unwontedly sharp criticism of the Palestinians, the European Union demanded that Arafat dismantle the Hamas and Islamic Jihad "terrorist networks" and also declare — in Arabic, to his own people — an end to the violence that has raged for the past 14 months.
Clearly influenced by public horror over the wave of suicide bombings that hit Israel in early December, the European Union. foreign ministers insisted that Arafat arrest terror suspects and bring them to justice. They also urged Israel to withdraw its forces from Palestinian areas, end closures of Palestinian cities, stop assassinating Palestinian terrorists and freeze Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Given the European Union’s traditional sympathy for the Palestinian position, Israeli officials took the statement as a sign of Arafat’s eroding international standing.
But not everyone in Israel relishes that prospect. Peres and others on the left warn that Arafat’s downfall would mean a hardening of the Palestinian line, given the steady rise in support for Hamas among the Palestinian public.
This camp argues that Sharon and the right want to see hard-liners win out among the Palestinians, so that Israel will not have to negotiate — and make concessions — in the foreseeable future.
One possible outcome of the new Israeli debate may be a strengthening of the "unilateralist" option. A small group, led by ex-Labor ministers Haim Ramon and Shlomo Ben-Ami, argues that Israel should withdraw unilaterally from large parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, dismantle settlements there, and build a border fence to seal off the Jewish State from the terrorist threat.
The unilateralists argue that having rejected the Clinton peace package last year, Arafat effectively has closed off the negotiating option as long as he is in power. Therefore, they say, Israel should act alone to better defend itself.
Yet the argument has gained little foothold among most politicians, who argue that the political trauma of dismantling settlements would be possible only within the context of real peacemaking.
Others dismiss the idea of unilateral withdrawal as foolhardy, noting that even after shrinking its borders — and giving up its negotiating assets — Israel would not be able to prevent Palestinian terrorists from entering the country.
JTA correspondent Ruth E. Gruber in Rome contributed to this report.