Israel criticised at United Nations for threat to Arafat

Israel came under concerted criticism in the United Nations Security Council and in several capitals around the world yesterday for threatening to remove Yasser Arafat from the Middle East peace process, a policy that a cabinet member suggested could extend to killing him.

In a day-long special debate on the Middle East, Security Council members lined up to urge Israel to reconsider its stance. The government of Ariel Sharon was also asked by several speakers to end its policy of extrajudicial assassination of militant Palestinian leaders.

The council was considering whether to vote on a resolution drafted by Arab states demanding Israeli restraint with regard to the Palestinian leader. Hopes for its quick adoption were overshadowed by the threat of a United States veto. Washington has historically resisted resolutions that are critical of Israel.

John Negroponte, the US ambassador, said it had told Israel that it would not support the "elimination of Mr Arafat" or his forced exile. But he added that he would not support a resolution that failed to condemn the "explicit threat to the Middle East peace process posed by Hamas and other such terror groups".

In a report to the council, Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, said the peace process and the road-map brokered by President George Bush had stalled. "The recent cycle of terror attacks and extrajudicial killings has broken the Palestinian ceasefire and brought the process to a standstill," he warned.

Mr Roed-Larsen was among a chorus of voices at the UN to ask Israel to reconsider its decision to dislodge Mr Arafat, calling him the "legitimate leader of the Palestinians". He added that Mr Arafat "embodies Palestinian identity and national aspirations. He is now far from irrelevant."

Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, the French ambassador, was among those admonishing Israel. To remove Mr Arafat would be "contrary to the elementary rules of international law", he said, adding that it would be a "grave political mistake" that could only be "counterproductive for Israeli security as well as for the prospects for peace".

The diplomatic storm had been fuelled by a suggestion on Sunday from Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Vice-Prime Minister, that the decision by the full Cabinet last week to eliminate Mr Arafat could mean assassinating him. "In my eyes, from a moral point of view, this is no different from killing others who were involved in ... acts of terror," he said.

Zvi Shtauber, Israeli ambassador to Britain, was summoned to the Foreign Office for a dressing-down by Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean after the statement by Mr Olmert.

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