Israelis say no plan to harm Arafat

Top officials play down comments by Sharon

April 26, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Top Israeli officials played down Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's latest threat against Yasser Arafat, saying yesterday that Israel has no immediate plans to harm or evict the Palestinian leader.

"I don't see the possibility that Arafat will be expelled or assassinated tomorrow morning," Cabinet Minister Gideon Ezra told Israel Radio.

He added, though, that Sharon's comments should be considered a warning against attacks by Palestinian militants. Israeli officials hold Arafat responsible for bombings and other strikes against Israel.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sharon's comments had thrown Arafat into "a state of panic." That, he said, was good for Israel.

The ministers' remarks followed a flurry of international criticism generated by Sharon's comments on Israeli television Friday that he no longer felt bound by a 3-year-old commitment to Bush not to harm Arafat, who is confined in a compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Sharon informed Bush of his change of heart during a visit to Washington two weeks ago.

After Sharon's televised comments, U.S. officials reiterated that they opposed any attempt to harm Arafat.

Sharon has made previous threats against the Palestinian president, who was said to be concerned for his safety after Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin last month and killed successor Abdul Aziz Rantisi on April 17.

Many analysts read Sharon's new threat as an effort to appeal to right-wing members of his Likud Party, which is weighing his proposal for a unilateral evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank. Likud will hold an internal vote on the pullout plan Sunday, and settlement activists are waging an energetic campaign to defeat it.

Opponents consider evacuating territory without Palestinian concessions as a victory for terrorism. Palestinian militants say an Israeli pullout would vindicate their armed resistance.

After nightfall yesterday, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a vehicle in the southern West Bank, killing one Israeli border police officer and wounding three other people, the Associated Press reported. In another attack nearby, an Israeli Arab was seriously wounded, the Associated Press said.

Also yesterday, Palestinian missiles struck a Gaza Strip settlement, injuring two Israelis and damaging two homes.

Sharon's tough posture toward Arafat would help show that Israel is not being chased out of the Gaza Strip, analysts said. But there was skepticism that he would act in the absence of a significant new attack against Israel.

Arafat dismissed the threat, and several thousand Palestinians showed up at his compound to show support. Hundreds staged a rally yesterday in the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

Sharon's hopes for selling his withdrawal proposal to the members of Likud ran into complications when three government ministers from the party who had endorsed the idea said they wouldn't campaign for it.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanhayu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat told Sharon their statements of support were as far as they would go to achieve the party's approval, Israeli news reports said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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