TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Monday Israel would consider expelling Palestinian President Yasser Arafat if he blocked efforts by his new prime minister to halt militant violence against Israelis.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has vowed to rein in militants in keeping with a new U.S.-backed peace plan after his appointment by Arafat under pressure from mediators to reduce the president’s power and implement reforms.
But Arafat has retained serious clout over diplomatic and security matters and Israeli officials believe he has been maneuvering to prevent Abbas consolidating the power needed to crack down on militants who have sworn to wreck the peace plan.
Israel accuses Arafat of inciting violence, a charge he denies, and its cabinet has repeatedly discussed exiling him. It did so again Sunday after a suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem, before shelving the idea “for the moment,” Mofaz said.
But, addressing a security affairs symposium, he said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s rightist government would seriously consider the option if it perceived Arafat to be actively undermining a peace drive by Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
“If we see that in the future Arafat continues to be a main obstacle to the peace process, and Abu Mazen is ready to fight terror and sit at the negotiating table, then there will be no alternative but to think about steps to deport Arafat,” he said.
“If we expelled him (now), the world would see this as a step against peace and it would look (to Palestinians) as if Abu Mazen was collaborating with Israel, which is not true,” he said at Tel Aviv University.
Arafat has been the reigning icon of Palestinian nationalism since the 1960s and still tops popularity polls by a wide margin. Abbas, although his reform agenda elicits wide support, lacks a power base and has been called “a traitor” by militant groups for condemning their uprising as counterproductive.
Arafat met French diplomats at his Ramallah quarters in the West Bank Monday and told reporters, “I condemn completely these terrorist activities” and described Abbas as “my brother.”
He accused Israel of spreading “big propaganda against me” to justify restrictions on its movements.
After Sunday’s violence the cabinet decided on more moves to isolate Arafat, including refusing to meet foreign dignitaries who went to see him while visiting the region.