JERUSALEM – Israel is determined to “remove” Yasser Arafat one day, even though the Palestinian leader might get hurt if he is seized by Israeli troops, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in an interview published Friday.
Sharon also indicated that prisoners held in Europe could be part of a German-brokered swap between Israel and the Iranian-backed Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.
Israeli newspapers, citing Israeli officials, reported Friday that England and Germany are willing to release Iranian and Lebanese prisoners they hold, in exchange for information on missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, who Israel says is held by Iran.
Also Friday, the Israeli military tightened a Palestinian travel ban in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because of the two-day Jewish New Year’s holiday which ends Sunday evening. In most of the West Bank, Palestinians were barred from leaving their communities during the holiday. All Palestinians were banned from entering Israel, in an attempt to prevent possible attacks by militants.
Sharon told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot that Israel is determined to “remove” Arafat one day. He said a decision to that effect by Israel’s security Cabinet on Sept. 11 canceled his personal promise to President Bush — made several years ago — not to harm the Palestinian leader physically.
“You have to keep in mind that it is very difficult to ensure that he (Arafat) won’t be harmed if we seize him,” Sharon said.
Other top Israeli officials have said the term “removal” could mean both expulsion and assassination, but Sharon’s remarks seemed to suggest that the first choice is to oust Arafat, not kill him.
Sharon said that American concerns will be taken into account. “But I repeat and emphasize: the fundamental decision to remove Arafat has been adopted by Israel,” Sharon said.
The Cabinet decision was roundly condemned by the international community, including by the United Nations.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Secretary of State Colin Powell this week that Israel did not plan to take action against Arafat right away, and would consult the United States before such a move, a U.S. State Department official said Thursday. The Bush administration has asked Israel not to exile him.
In the West Bank, the incoming Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, said he has concluded consultations on his new Cabinet and will present the team of ministers to parliament for approval within the coming days.
Leaders of the ruling Fatah party will meet Saturday to discuss and approve the names, Palestinian officials said. One-third of the ministers will be newcomers from Fatah, and at least two Cabinet members, Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath and Finance Minister Salam Fayad, will keep their jobs, the officials said.
Qureia has given Fatah — and thereby Arafat — considerable say in putting together the Cabinet. Qureia has said that, unlike predecessor Mahmoud Abbas, he will not challenge Arafat. The United States had initially hoped that the new post of prime minister would help sideline Arafat by forcing him to give up some power.
Israel has said it would not deal with an Arafat-controlled Cabinet.
However, Sharon has not ruled out doing business with Qureia, whom he has met repeatedly in recent years. In an interview with Yediot, Sharon described Qureia as a cunning politician and said he would judge him on his deeds, not his statements. Israel wants the Palestinians to dismantle Palestinian militant groups, as required by the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, but Qureia has suggested he will not use force against the militants.
Israeli newspapers, meanwhile, said several Iranian and Lebanese prisoners held in England and Germany could be traded for information on Arad, the navigator shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
Britain is holding Hade Soleimanpour, 47, who was arrested Aug. 21 on an Argentine warrant. Argentina accuses him of conspiracy to murder over the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people died.
Soleimanpour was Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time. He is now a graduate student at Durham University in northeast England.
According to the Israeli daily Maariv, England has agreed to cooperate with Israel and has sent a message to Iran saying that it would consider releasing the former diplomat in exchange for information on Arad.
The Haaretz daily said Germany is willing to release two Lebanese and an Iranian in a prisoner swap. Haaretz said the three are held in Germany for the murder of Iranian Kurdish dissident Sadik Sharafkindi and three of his associates in a Berlin restaurant in September 1992.
In April 1997, a German court ruled that the killing was ordered at the highest level in Iran and implicated the outgoing intelligence minister, Ali Fallahiyan. The court convicted an Iranian, allegedly an intelligence agent, and a Lebanese accomplice of murder and two other Lebanese as accessories.
As part of the emerging deal, Israel would free several hundred Arab prisoners, many of them Palestinians, in exchange for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2000.