- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

The Bush administration said yesterday that it does not necessarily expect Israel to negotiate directly with Yasser Arafat, opening the door to dealing with other Palestinian figures who could replace the beleaguered leader.

But in a statement that seems to reflect conflicting views within the administration on Mr. Arafat's future, the State Department said it still recognizes him as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people.

Speaking hours after an Israeli assault on Mr. Arafat's Ramallah compound, including a shell that struck within 5 feet of his bed, the department also said Israeli authorities had promised Mr. Arafat would not be hurt.

"Israel had previously made clear that it was not their intention to harm Chairman Arafat or to go after him directly," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

"As we were in touch with them during the operation, we reconfirmed, or they reconfirmed to us, that this remained their intention."

The six-hour, pre-dawn raid, conducted in response to a suicide attack on a bus that killed 17 Israelis, destroyed three buildings and left a gaping hole in Mr. Arafat's bedroom.

But a defiant Mr. Arafat rejected a rising chorus of Israeli demands that he be expelled or replaced: "Expel me? I will die here," he said.

The White House also rejected the idea of exiling the Palestinian leader.

"I don't think exiling Arafat solves anything," said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "The issue is building Palestinian institutions and, in the process, bringing the Palestinian people into the building of these institutions."

A day earlier, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer had suggested in the strongest language yet that it might be time for the administration to begin looking to a younger generation of future leaders.

"In the president's eyes, Yasser Arafat has never played a role of someone who could be trusted or who was effective," Mr. Fleischer told reporters.

"What the president is interested in is results, from whatever corner they may come. If that's Chairman Arafat, that's fine with the president. If it's others, that's fine with the president."

Mr. Boucher, asked yesterday whether it is still U.S. policy that Israel should negotiate with Mr. Arafat, said: "I don't think we've ever actually quite phrased it that way."

Mr. Boucher told reporters it was "a question about the guest list for a meeting or a negotiation, and at this point, we haven't tried to specify individual participants."

"Does Israel need to deal with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority? Yes. Is Chairman Arafat the leader of the Palestinian Authority? Yes. What format, what level, what personnel will be at any negotiation that may happen that's not a question I can answer at this point," he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in Tel Aviv yesterday that Washington had proposed that Israel dismantle its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza in return for a Palestinian renunciation of the right of return for refugees.

Mr. Boucher declined to comment on Mr. Peres' remarks, saying only that the United States is discussing different ideas with a number of parties in the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House on Monday and is expected to press the United States to take a tougher line on Mr. Arafat.

But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who meets with Mr. Bush at Camp David this weekend, will insist that the Palestinian leader remain an important player in the Middle East.

U.S. officials said in interviews this week that the administration is divided over Mr. Arafat's future, and that is causing confusion for both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.

The officials said special envoys such as William Burns, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, say one thing when they visit the region, but then Mr. Bush says something else when he talks with Mr. Sharon on the phone.

One official suggested that Mr. Burns' bureau at the State Department is the most ardent advocate of keeping the Palestinian leader in place.

The idea of Mr. Arafat's ouster appeared to be gaining ground in Israel, with a public left reeling from Wednesday's bus attack carried out by a suicide attacker who had learned to drive just four days earlier.

"The blood-boiling spectacle of the people who were burned to death in that bus needs to bring us very close to the decision to exempt the region from Arafat's presence," the mass circulation Ma'ariv newspaper said in an editorial.

"The attacks are continuing and we need to decide," said Israeli Finance Minister Silvan Shalom. "Once Arafat is gone, others will take his place who will agree to a cease-fire."

The Israeli military chief, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, also supports expulsion, but key security agencies, including the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and military intelligence, are skeptical.

"The security services do not recommend [expulsion] as the most effective solution," said Raanan Gissin, Mr. Sharon's spokesman. "We will operate in accordance with the recommendation of the security services," he said.

Danielle Haas in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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