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Friday, 19 October, 2001, 21:50 GMT 22:50 UK
Israel turns right
Ariel Sharon, left, at the funeral of assassinated minister Rehavam Zeevi
Sharon says Zeevi's assassination changed everything
Barbara Plett

After hesitant steps to assist US efforts aimed at cooling the Middle East conflict, the mood in Israel has swung firmly back to the right.

The assassination of the hardline Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi by Palestinian militants has led the Israeli security cabinet to "embark on the path that will lead to the removal of the Palestinian Authority", according to Israeli defence analyst Alex Fishman.


The governments of Israel know how to start a war - they have never known how to extricate themselves from one

Opposition leader Yossi Sarid
"After the attack on Zeevi, everything has changed," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted as saying by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

"We are in a new era. I have finished with (Palestinian Leader Yasser) Arafat, I intend to lead the government on another path."

Mr Sharon has reportedly given Mr Arafat seven days to impose complete quiet in the Palestinian territories, a demonstrably impossible task, before "we'll go to war on him."

Pressure stepped up

In the meantime the army has returned to tactics common before the latest attempt at a cease fire: incursions into Palestinian controlled towns and killing Palestinian militants on Israel's most wanted lists.

Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Fishman says these measures are meant to step up pressure on the Palestinian Authority with the idea of toppling it, if it does not start dealing with terror the way Israel understands it.

A plan to get rid of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority has been floating around since the beginning of the intifada, or uprise, but hardliners appear to be running with it now in the outrage after Zeevi's death.

Publicly, the government has given Mr Arafat an ultimatum - to arrest and extradite Zeevi's killers or else, in the words of one minister, "all bets are off". But it has not officially stated what that means.

An eye to Washington

Whatever Israel's generals are indeed planning, they are packaging it with an eye on the US response to the terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Newspapers report that government ministers are off to the United States and Europe to tell them that the Palestinian Authority is Israel's Taleban, an entity that "harbours terrorists."

They will say that Israel will "act in accordance with international guidelines," if the authority does not meet its ultimatum - a suggestion that it might revert to Afghanistan-style raids.


Do what you want, dream your dreams - in the end you'll understand that we need to talk and talk with the Palestinian Authority

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres
It is not clear whether this campaign will be any more successful than previous efforts to brand Mr Arafat as Israel's Osama Bin Laden.

The United States and Britain did not buy that argument, not least because they do not want to anger Arab states needed for their coalition against terrorism.

But the Europeans have long believed that Mr Arafat could be a peace partner if he were given tangible concessions, and some observers say the Bush administration seems to be coming around to that view.

'Lebanonisation' risk

The Palestinian Authority has started a flurry of arrests, but it will almost certainly not extradite the suspects: It can only take a crackdown so far before it risks serious internal unrest.

Critics have warned that Israel would have to deal with a fragmented and radical population if it tried to get rid of Mr Arafat, a "Lebanonisation" of the conflict.

Remembering Israel's own disastrous Lebanon War, the head of Israel's parliamentary opposition Yossi Sarid wrote in the Maariv daily: "The governments of Israel know how to start a war. They have never known how to extricate themselves".

Fishman himself finds hope in his assessment that "this government has never stood by its decisions for long, and may not keep this one either," especially as it has to bear in mind US strategic interests.

And the debate is not over.

"Do what you want, dream your dreams," the dovish Foreign minister Shimon Peres was quoted as telling his colleagues.

"In the end you'll understand that we need to talk and talk with the Palestinian Authority."


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19 Oct 01 | Middle East
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