Israel plays down threat to Arafat
Israel backed away from its latest threat against Yasser Arafat Sunday, saying no action was imminent but that it might eventually expel the Palestinian president from the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's declaration Friday that he was no longer bound by a pledge to the United States not to harm Arafat provoked outcry abroad and speculation in Israel that he was trying to rally right-wing support for a Gaza pullout plan.
"Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not intend to put something into action this very week, or today or tomorrow," Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Army Radio Sunday.
"He set out a position in principle regarding Arafat and the immunity he (Arafat) thought he enjoyed."
In an attack at the start of Israel's annual memorial day ceremonies, Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli border policeman and wounded three other members of the paramilitary force near Hebron in the West Bank, security officials said.
"Even as Israelis gathered to remember their fallen sons and daughters, Palestinian terrorists did not miss an opportunity to lash out at Israelis," said David Baker, an official in Sharon's office.
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Arafat's Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the attack on the border policemen's vehicle.
The militant group said in a telephone call to Reuters it was avenging the deaths of Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, the Hamas leader assassinated by Israel on April 17, and several of its own men killed by Israeli forces over the past week.
ARAFAT'S EXPULSION AN OPTION
A senior source in Sharon's office said Israel was examining different plans of action against Arafat. "One option is to expel him to Gaza," the source said, without giving details.
Sharon wants to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza, making way for Palestinian statehood in the coastal strip. But Palestinians reject the Sharon "disengagement plan," calling it a ploy to cement Israel's hold on most of the West Bank.
The Israeli prime minister also faces opposition from within his Likud party, which will hold a May 2 referendum on the plan.
Political analysts saw Sharon's latest threats to Arafat as a bid to win votes from the more hawkish of Likud's 200,000 members, who might be swayed by vigorous pro-settler lobbying.
Washington, lead patron of a tattered "road map" to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says it still holds Sharon to his three-year-old promise to U.S. President Bush not to physically harm Arafat.
Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid counseled against risking a diplomatic spat with the country's most important ally. "I do not think we should be quarrelling with the Americans because of Arafat," Lapid told Israel Radio.
Bush enraged Palestinians and the Arab world earlier this month when he broke with decades of U.S. policy by endorsing Sharon's bid to hold on to large Jewish settlement blocs on West Bank land captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
He also backed Sharon's denial of a right of return for Palestinians dispossessed in the 1948 war of Israel's creation, and for millions of their descendants. The Jewish state says a refugee influx would mean demographic suicide.