JERUSALEM - Regretting that Israel had not already done so, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that it might move to expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by the end of the year.
"Arafat never wanted to reach an agreement with us, and all he wants is to continue the conflict and bleed the citizens of Israel," Mofaz told Israel's Army Radio. "I believe that he has to disappear from the stage of history."
"The state of Israel made a historic mistake by not expelling him some two years ago, and we had more than a few opportunities to do this," Mofaz said. "We will need to address this matter in a relatively short space of time, very possibly the end of this year."
In his radio interview, Mofaz reiterated that Israel would not relent until the Palestinian Authority begins to take meaningful steps to combat terrorism.
"Hamas is in distress because of our activity, but we will not stop the pressure until the terrorist infrastructure is dismantled either by the Palestinian Authority or by us," he said.
Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian legislature and head of the negotiations office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Mofaz's comments served only to increase tensions and cripple peace efforts based on a U.S.-backed plan called the "road map."
"These statements will lead only in one direction - the undermining of the peace process, the undermining of the road map and a move, in an expeditious fashion, toward resuming the full occupation of the West Bank and Gaza," Erekat said. "That is their endgame."
Mofaz has urged Arafat's expulsion before, though other security officials have argued that Arafat would cause more trouble in exile than he does confined to his compound in Ramallah. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that an attempt to expel Arafat, which would almost surely involve force, could risk violating a promise he made to President Bush not to harm the Palestinian leader.
But with the peace plan in trouble, the Israeli leadership has moved to focus blame on Arafat.
Trapped in his crumbling compound, Arafat is locked in a bitter power struggle with the man he reluctantly appointed prime minister in April, Mahmoud Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen.
Israel and the U.S. government have been refusing to negotiate with Arafat, choosing instead to deal directly with Abbas in their efforts to implement the road map.
Abbas, whose limited credibility among Palestinians has faltered - in part because of Israel's willingness to embrace him - wants greater control of Palestinian security forces, which Arafat does not wish to relinquish. The two men, who have known each other for decades and co-founded the mainstream Fatah movement, are no longer on speaking terms.
Distressed by the in-house struggle, more than 200 politicians, academics and other public figures have signed a letter that appeared in newspaper ads yesterday calling on Arafat and Abbas to set aside their differences and focus on the larger mission of confronting the Israeli occupation.
"We call on you to put an end to all kinds of internal differences and work to resolve the current crisis inside the Palestinian institutions," said the letter. The leadership must "head off all attempts being taken by the enemy of our people, mainly the government of the Israeli occupation, to sabotage our national unity," it said.
Abbas is expected to appear before the Palestinian parliament tomorrow to defend his government's first 100 days in office and possibly to seek a vote of confidence from legislators. Failure to win that vote could lead to his removal.