World Left Guessing on Arafat’s Future

In September 1982, an Israeli sniper in Beirut had Yasser Arafat’s head in his gunsights, and he waited for an order from Ariel Sharon, who in turn was awaiting word from Jerusalem: Kill him or set him free?

Sharon, then defense minister, soon got the order from Prime Minister Menachem Begin: Let Arafat board the boat evacuating the PLO leadership from Beirut.

More than 20 years later, Arafat is once again in Israeli sights, only this time Sharon is in Jerusalem calling the shots.

Now, after a new wave of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli retaliation, a series of contradictory statements has left the Israeli political establishment, U.S. Jews, the Bush administration and the world guessing: Will he or won’t he?

"Killing is definitely one of the options," Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday, a few days after the Israeli Security Cabinet decided in principle to "remove" Arafat, calling him an obstacle to peace.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom insisted killing most definitely was not an option under discussion. "We don’t speak about killing. We didn’t speak about it before, and we don’t speak about it today," he said.

The mixed signals have set friends of Israel here on edge, including those in the government and those in the Jewish community, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  

"People aren’t easy about it, they’re questioning a bit about it, and they’re waiting and seeing," Hoenlein said. He stressed that there was no sense of alarm.

Instead, he said, the feeling among Jews is: "That’s something the Israelis have to resolve there."

Repercussions have been limited in the administration and in Congress, he said. "There’s no sympathy for Arafat," Hoenlein observed.

Abraham Foxman, the national director for the Anti-Defamation League, said Bush administration officials were not taking the Israeli talk overly seriously.

"They understand Israelis are smart. They’re not about to do something that would so upset a friend and ally like the U.S.," Foxman said.

Foxman suggested the debate was a sophisticated political ploy intended to soften the blow of Israel’s real plans for Arafat.

Israel might be setting the stage for Arafat’s total isolation within his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah, he said.

"If Israel made this decision, announced it, the world would go nuts," Foxman said. "Now, if Israel says we will hermetically isolate him, the world is likelier to say OK."

Many analysts believe that the fact that Israel is talking so much about it means it’s unlikely they are going to kill him.

"You don’t talk about something like that if you’re going to do it," said Steven Spiegel, a professor at UCLA who is associated with the Israel Policy Forum. "You just do it."

Still, Hoenlein acknowledged that Olmert’s comments had led to expressions of concern from U.S. Jewish leaders.

"People who speak to Olmert might communicate their concern about how it’s received," he said.

Widespread repercussions make U.S. Jews nervous, Foxman said, even though there is an understanding of Israel’s position.

"Some wish Israel wouldn’t do this, they see the bad press, but there’s also tremendous compassion for the anger and frustration of the Israeli public," Foxman said.

Talk of killing Arafat followed last week’s decision by Israel’s Security Cabinet to reserve the right to exile the Palestinian Authority president in the wake of two suicide attacks that claimed 15 lives.

"Israel will work to remove this obstacle in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing," the Cabinet statement said.

The United States has steadfastly opposed exile, repeatedly saying it would only give Arafat a "broader stage."

Indeed, the prospect of Arafat gaining world sympathy and directing terrorist attacks from abroad led to discussions of whether to kill him.

When Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who has said that refraining from exiling Arafat was a historic error, recently raised the prospect of killing the Palestinian leader in a Cabinet meeting, Sharon silenced him.

At the last minute, Mofaz canceled a U.S. visit scheduled for this week in which he was expected to seek a green light from the Bush administration for Arafat’s exile.

Domestic political posturing also explains much of the chest-thumping over removing Arafat from power, whether through exile or execution.

Israelis are overwhelmingly frustrated at the recent tide of terror, and polls show a majority favor Arafat’s exile.

"It’s a classic example of domestic needs clashing with international political demands," said Spiegel, whose U.S.-based group supports peace initiatives in the Middle East. "They thought talking about it would assuage domestic anger, but all it has done is rally support for Arafat."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell blamed political pandering for the talk. "There are many people in Israeli political life who make statements," he said on Fox News on Sunday.

Still, he was rattled. "I don’t think it was helpful," Powell said. "The consequences 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."

The international community was already unsettled over the unraveling of the "road map" peace plan, and the U.N. Security Council convened this week to discuss a Syrian-proposed resolution that would oppose any action against Arafat.

The United States vetoed the resolution on Tuesday.

Whatever the seriousness of the threats against Arafat, Sharon is keeping friends and foes off guard — a strategy not new to the former warrior.

JTA correspondents Gil Sedan and Dan Baron in Israel contributed to this report.