Killing Arafat is an option, says Sharon's deputy

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Israel upped the ante yesterday in its campaign against Yasser Arafat when a senior minister spoke openly for the first time about assassinating him. The government vowed last week to "remove" the Palestinian leader, "in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing".

Ehud Olmert, the Deputy Prime Minister, told Israel's army radio that killing Mr Arafat was "definitely one of the options". Although he left open the alternative of expelling him, Mr Olmert argued: "We are trying to eliminate all the heads of terror, and Arafat is one of the heads of terror. From a moral point of view, this is no different from others who were involved in acts of terror. It is only a practical question. What is the benefit? What will be the reaction?"

Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, is advocating Mr Arafat's assassination behind the scenes. The Israeli media reports that the head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, also backs it on the questionable assumption that the furore would fade more quickly if Israel killed Mr Arafat than if it sent him into exile.

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said: "The United States does not support either the elimination of him or the exile of Mr. Arafat. It's not our position; hasn't been. The Israeli government knows it."

He added: "I think the consequences would not be good. I think you can anticipate that there would be rage throughout the Arab world, the Muslim world and in many other parts of the world. And I don't see how, at this delicate moment, that would serve the cause of moving forward on the road-map."

Saeb Erakat, a former senior Palestinian peace negotiator, warned Israel that the result would be disastrous either way. "We would immediately enter into anarchy and chaos," he said. "Militias would take over with machine guns. The first thing they would do in Jericho, my home town, is come to my office and kill me like the rest of the moderates. The ground is set for that in Bethlehem, Hebron and other cities too."

Israel's Labour opposition came out against the intention to remove Mr Arafat. Isaac Herzog, a Labour MP, said: "Sharon has led us into a dead end. We're locked in with no way to move."

Leading Israeli columnists were scathing. Ze'ev Schiff wrote in Ha'aretz: "The declaration of intent to deport or kill Arafat raises serious doubts about the government's capacity to handle the acute, bloody crisis with the Palestinians."

Hemi Shalev said in Ma'ariv: "The government has placed a loaded gun on its table, and with the next terror attack, if and when it occurs, it is plausible that its only choice will be to shoot - even if the main victim is Israel itself."