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Sharon appears to pull back on threat to expel Arafat
( 2003-10-18 16:17) (New York Times)

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appeared to back away Friday from a threat to expel the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, saying in a newspaper interview that he had for years seen that step as bad for Israel.

Mr. Sharon played down any prospect of imminent progress toward peace, as F.B.I. investigators met Friday with their Palestinian and Israeli counterparts to start looking into the latest increase in violence, the bombing in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday of an American diplomatic convoy. Three American guards were killed and one was wounded in that attack.

Some senior Israeli officials had suggested that the government might kill Mr. Arafat, but Mr. Sharon appeared to rule out any action that would harm him. Mr. Sharon was quoted as saying that one reason not to deport Mr. Arafat was that it would be hard to do so without injuring him.

"Our calculations for years have been that expelling him would not be good for Israel," he said, adding that Israeli intelligence services still held that view.

In the interview, with The Jerusalem Post, Mr. Sharon said that as long as Mr. Arafat remained in control, "there is no chance for a settlement or any political process that can lead to peace."

Many Palestinians say it is Mr. Sharon who is preventing a peace effort from taking hold, in part by refusing to deal with Mr. Arafat.

For negotiating the now shredded Oslo accords 10 years ago, Mr. Arafat shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli leaders. But Israel now accuses him of fomenting and even directing terrorist attacks. He denies the accusations.

Israel has trapped Mr. Arafat in his ruined compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah for 17 months, though he receives visitors there and communicates freely with the outside world. After two Palestinian suicide bombings in early September, the Israeli government decided in principle on Sept. 11 to "remove" him.

Some Israeli officials have raised the idea of jailing Mr. Arafat in place, walling him in and cutting his links to the outside world.

Mr. Arafat is the elected president of the governing Palestinian Authority, and though many Palestinians have been critical of his leadership, they have generally rallied round him as Israel has sought his international isolation. The Bush administration has supported the Israeli policy since June 2002.

An Israeli official attributed the attack in Gaza to the Popular Resistance Committees, a loosely organized Palestinian group in Gaza that includes members of Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction. The official said the group was "backed by Arafat" and by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, but he stopped short of attributing the bombing to either.

"We have to be careful about that," he said, adding that in Gaza, "things have gone a little bit out of control."

A senior United States official said that "our minds are totally open" about the culprits as the investigation begins.

Palestinian security officials say they have arrested several suspects, and the senior United States official said the Palestinians had promised to share the results of any interrogations. He said the F.B.I. was seeking to question suspects and witnesses directly.

The twisted wreck of the bombed vehicle, an armored Chevrolet Suburban, is now in the hands of the F.B.I., the official said. The Israeli official said that the explosive weighed at least 165 pounds, and was remotely triggered via a wire.

The American Embassy has for now halted all visits by officials to Gaza, cutting off American services like interviews for visas and diplomatic reporting.

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