- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

Israel's tough line against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has demonstrated that terrorism can be defeated and will hasten the day that Palestinians embrace real political reforms, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon said yesterday.

"Terror, even the most gruesome type, is not God-given. It's not a plague. It can be fought, and we have proven it," Mr. Ayalon told editors and reporters in a luncheon interview at The Washington Times.

Israel, he said, "is a testing ground, and had the suicide terrorists succeeded there in making political gains, terrorism would now be rampant" around the world.

Mr. Ayalon, a senior foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before coming to Washington in July, said his government's policy of demolishing the homes of suicide bombers and even deporting members of their families complicit in the attacks had resulted in more than 30 would-be Palestinian attackers either surrendering or being turned in by relatives.

Despite U.S. and U.N. criticism of the Sharon government's 10-day siege of Mr. Arafat's compound, the Israeli ambassador rejected arguments that the aborted mission would boost Mr. Arafat's clout, which had been seen as waning.

Israel's uncompromising stance and the popular support for the Sharon government "have had a big effect on the Palestinians," Mr. Ayalon said.

"Even last week, when [Mr. Arafat] was under siege, calling for millions to come out and protest, only a few hundred came out. That's a telling fact," he said.

"I don't think any sympathy for Arafat will be long-lived."

Security sources in Jerusalem yesterday confirmed a report in the newspaper Maariv that commandos have practiced a plan to remove Mr. Arafat from his wrecked headquarters compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah to a prearranged place of exile in a foreign country.

The Israeli government is reportedly divided over whether expelling Mr. Arafat would help his shaky standing among Palestinians.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said this week that U.S. pressure played a major role in the decision to call off the siege Sunday. The standoff complicated the Bush administration's efforts to rally international backing for tough, new demands on Iraq to disarm.

"The first principle is to give priority to the campaign against Iraq," Mr. Peres said in a radio interview. Facing the terrorist threat from the Palestinians and the nuclear and unconventional weapons threat from Baghdad, "we must give priority to the United States to carry out its policy."

Mr. Ayalon dismissed as "nonsense" arguments that Israel did not want to see political and economic reform among the Palestinians for fear that the emergence of a more centrist post-Arafat leadership would increase the pressure on Israel to make concessions.

"In the final analysis, I believe we will see a growing leadership coming from within who will spit out Arafat and his cronies," he said.

The ambassador acknowledged that the prospect of a U.S.-led military strike against Iraq presents a dilemma for his country.

Israel refused to retaliate during the 1991 Persian Gulf war when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fired dozens of Scud missiles into its territory, killing three persons.

Israeli officials have said they are prepared to respond in kind if Saddam tries again.

"For your benefit and for our own interests as well, we want to keep a low profile" on Iraq, Mr. Ayalon said.

"Iraq is not really an Israeli problem. Some try to drag us into it to frustrate any focusing on an American campaign there. We are very careful to say publicly it's none of our business. However, if we're dragged into it, we will reserve the right to defend ourselves," he said.

Mr. Ayalon said the response would take into account the severity of the attack and the damage and casualties inflicted.

"We are not on autopilot," he said.

But he said Israel also had to balance restraint against the fear that a weak response would encourage future terrorist strikes in Israel and abroad.

"If you lose this kind of deterrence, it can lead to a very bad situation," said Mr. Ayalon, who declined to discuss any conversations between the Israeli and U.S. governments about an Iraqi strike.

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