After all the shooting is done, the Israelis will still have to talk to Mr Arafat

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The Independent Online

Rarely in recent years has the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, seemed physically more endangered than he is at present, besieged in his own headquarters in Ramallah, hemmed in by Israeli tanks and bombarded with shells. Rarely, though, has Mr Arafat been less dispensable. The Palestinians have no other obvious leader in the wings. The Israelis need an individual to blame for the deadly attacks on their civilians. And the would-be peace-brokers of the United States and Europe need two sides to talk to if their increasingly flailing efforts are to have the remotest chance of getting off the ground.

The Israeli government is well aware of the constraints, which is why the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has assured the US that Israel has no intention of harming Mr Arafat. It would, however, like him out of the immediate vicinity and has suggested that European do-gooders might whisk him out of his compound by helicopter and out of Palestinian territory, never to return.

Sending Mr Arafat into exile, however, solves no problems, and could create more. Mr Arafat himself said that he would never agree to leave Ramallah under any circumstances. Washington said – rightly – that expelling Mr Arafat would just give him "another place from which to conduct the same kinds of activities and give the same messages as he is giving now". If, as the US and Israel insist, Mr Arafat could be doing much more to halt the suicide attacks inside Israel, his whereabouts matter little.

The immediate purpose of Israel's action against Ramallah and now Bethlehem is clear: to do the job it believes that Mr Arafat has failed to do and curb the activities of anti-Israel terrorists. Any government of a country, faced with losing dozens of its citizens to suicide bombers each day, has a duty to act to prevent further damage. And, as the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, made known yesterday, the operation has Washington's support – but for a strictly limited period of perhaps two weeks.

Should Mr Arafat be killed, however, or the Israeli military operation continue past the unstated boundaries or deadline, the action will be justly condemned as nothing more than gratuitous violence. Washington would have to review its support. The success, or otherwise, of the operation will also be telling. In the unlikely event that the terrorist bombings in Israel come to a halt, the Israeli government and its US backers will be vindicated in their view that Mr Arafat had it in his power to switch off the attacks – and chose not to.

The more likely outcome is that sporadic Palestinian attacks on Israel will continue, fuelled by the experience at Ramallah. Mr Arafat, assuming that he survives, will emerge with his battered leadership image enhanced – at least among his own people. At this point, the re-engagement of Washington will become more urgent than ever, as will a willingness to talk to both sides. America, for all President Bush's hands-off instincts, has done some things right: it has stated its readiness to recognise a Palestinian state, urged restraint on Mr Sharon, and joined UN resolutions that are as critical of Israel as of the Palestinian Authority.

To any US re-engagement, however, Mr Arafat's involvement is crucial. With no successor (or rival) in sight, Mr Arafat is the only interlocutor with the requisite status on the Palestinian side. It is unrealistic to hope that a moderate with broad popular support is just waiting to replace him. His death, or removal, would presage at best a confusion of power, at worst a takeover of the Palestinian Authority by the extremists of Hamas – with repercussions that Israel, and the region as a whole, should fear.