Israeli officials are planning to publicly defend their
decision to keep soldiers in Bethlehem over Xmas and their
decision to bar Yasser Arafat, for the second year running,
from attending midnight church services in the city.
The issue surfaced as Israel scored a major diplomatic
victory at the U.N. Security Council, which voted to condemn
the Nov. 28 terror attacks on Israelis in Kenya.
Early this week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the army
chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, told Cabinet members
that because of continued terror warnings the army does not
plan to withdraw from the city. At the same meeting the
Cabinet decided that Arafat will not be allowed to attend
services in Bethlehem.
Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem in August as part of
an initiative to gradually transfer security control in
portions of the territories back to the Palestinian
Authority. But the army returned following a November
terrorist bombing in Jerusalem that was carried out by a
Palestinian from Bethlehem. In the interim there were
persistent reports that terrorists were using Bethlehem as a
free zone to plan further operations.
Last year, Israel came under a barrage of international
criticism for barring Arafat from making the trip to
Bethlehem, after Arafat refused to hand over the assassins of
Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze'evi.
Before that, Arafat, a Muslim, had attended every Xmas
service in Bethlehem since 1995, a year after the creation of
the Palestinian Authority.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials were applauding after the U.N.
Security Council condemned last month's terror attacks in
"The Security Council has never before adopted a resolution
that so clearly condemns the terrorist killing of Israelis or
Jews," Israel's deputy ambassador to the United Nations,
Aaron Jacob, told The New York Times.
On official of the American Jewish Committee told the
Times, "After 54 years of Israel's existence, the U.N.
Security Council, with American leadership, has finally
acknowledged that the loss of Jewish lives in terrorist
attacks warrants condemnation."
The resolution passed last Friday by a 14-1 vote. Syria cast
the sole dissenting vote.
Three Israelis and 10 Kenyans were killed in the Nov. 28
suicide bombing at the Paradise Hotel north of Mombasa.
Minutes earlier, two shoulder-launched missiles narrowly
missed an Israeli charter plane taking off from Mombasa
airport for Tel Aviv. About a week later, a spokesman for al-
Qaida claimed responsibility for the Kenya attacks.
Last weekend, Arafat sought to distance the Palestinian
Authority from al-Qaida, telling the London Sunday
Times, that bin Laden is exploiting Palestinian suffering
to garner support in the Arab world.
Israeli officials recently charged that al-Qaida set up bases
in Palestinian-controlled areas, a claim denied by the
Jordanian authorities arrested two members of al-Qaida in
connection with the recent assassination of US diplomat
Laurence Foley, who was gunned down in front of his house in
Amman on Oct. 28.
Expel Arafat or Not?
The Israeli cabinet no longer believes Palestinian Authority
Chairman Yasser Arafat would cause more trouble outside the
country than he is doing from his Ramallah compound, a highly
placed security official told The Jerusalem Post.
For months the country's security establishment had agreed
that expelling Arafat would cause more harm than good. Now,
the consensus is that Arafat is the primary obstacle standing
in the way of negotiations with the Palestinians.
Once Arafat is gone, according to one official, Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon would likely respond -- particularly if
Arafat's successor is Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) or Muhammed
Dahlan -- by moving decisively in dismantling settlements in
the Gaza Strip, as well as some mid-sized remote settlements
in Judea and Samaria, such as Itamar. He said Sharon would
present this not as dismantling, but rather as a
"repositioning" of settlements.
A different official, however, said that any dismantling of
settlements would not come as an up-front "gesture" to the
Palestinians, but rather as one of the stages in a long-term
diplomatic process that would necessitate an end to terrorism
and genuine Palestinian Authority reform.
A willingness to move on the settlement issue dovetails with
remarks of both Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Chief of
General Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon about a need for
decisive military achievements followed by intensive
This has been interpreted by those close to them as meaning
the expulsion of Arafat, followed by talks with leaders who
take his place.
Mofaz has made clear in private meetings that he believes a
new PA leadership will not emerge as long as Arafat remains
on the scene. Mofaz has said that he believes negotiations
can resume once Arafat is gone, as long as three conditions
are met: Terrorism ends; the Palestinians recognize Israel as
a Jewish state, meaning they give up the right of return; and
Jerusalem remains under Israeli sovereignty.
The official said Dahlan and Abbas are now essentially in
control of the Palestinian Legislative Council and are poised
to take over once Arafat is removed from power.
He said a mega-terror attack will lead to Arafat's expulsion.
He said this was made clear to Arafat recently by UN Middle
East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, who told him that if there is a
mega-terror attack, he will find himself facing soldiers with
orders either to expel or shoot him.
The official said Arafat has become alienated from his
allies, including Larsen and EU special Middle East envoy
Miguel Moratinos. In addition, he said, the relationship
between Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has
completely broken down.
He said some Arab leaders have signaled privately that they
want to see Arafat out of the region, but that if he is
actually evicted, "we will publicly condemn you."
In the eventuality that Arafat is expelled, he predicated
that Hamas will likely "play ball" with the PA to avoid a
Islamic Jihad, he said, will be less likely to cooperate.
This would then bring about massive US pressure on Syria to
rein in Islamic Jihad, which is headquartered in Damascus.
The US reaction to an Arafat expulsion, he said, would be
"condemnation, but nothing stronger."