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February 1, 2002
Sharon Is Sorry Israel Didn't Kill Arafat in the 80's
By JAMES BENNET
JERUSALEM, Jan. 31 — The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, said in an interview published today that Israel should have killed Yasir Arafat when it had the chance in Lebanon 20 years ago.
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, said the comment indicated that Mr. Sharon "is going to correct his mistake now" by killing Mr. Arafat. Israeli officials have said that it is government policy not to harm the Palestinian leader, and in fact, Mr. Sharon emphasized today that Mr. Arafat could still be an active player in the peace process.
Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon, aging leaders who exemplify the violence, passion and complexity of their people's feud, clashed in Lebanon with bitter results for both. Both rebounded in the last two decades.
Mr. Arafat recognized the right of Israel to exist, returned from exile to Palestinian-controlled territory and pursued a peace process that was expected to result in a Palestinian state beside Israel. Mr. Sharon, who as the defense minister directed the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, recovered from condemnation of his performance there, winning an overwhelming mandate last year to lead Israel.
In the last year, hopes for imminent peace have collapsed under an intensifying exchange of blows between the antagonists. Mr. Arafat, accused by Israel of encouraging terrorism, is again besieged by Israeli forces, this time in the West Bank city of Ramallah rather than in Beirut. As they were in 1982, the Israeli troops are once again under the command of Mr. Sharon.
The two leaders have renewed their decades-old rivalry in the land at its root, and analysts here say it now seems that one or both will fall from power before the impasse is resolved.
The conflict can seem as personal as it is political, though associates of both men deny that it is.
In an interview with the newspaper Maariv, Mr. Sharon said he regretted not striking the knockout blow when he had the chance.
"There was an agreement in Lebanon not to liquidate Yasir Arafat," he said. "Actually, I am sorry that we did not liquidate him." An Israeli sniper is said to have had Mr. Arafat in his sights as the Palestinian leader boarded a ship to leave Beirut for Tunis, but he did not receive the order to fire.
Mr. Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said of Mr. Sharon's comment, "A prime minister in his country who would say something about killing people or liquidating people — it's a gangster mentality."
Mr. Arafat and other Palestinians believe that Israel repeatedly tried to kill him in Lebanon with bombing raids that, like other efforts to assassinate him over the years, barely missed their target.
As the conflict has dragged on, the Bush administration has increasingly backed Mr. Sharon. Today, with obvious reluctance, it gently rebuked him for publicly regretting that Israel missed a chance to kill the Palestinian leader. Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said he did not have "any particular comment." But he added that both sides should "avoid remarks that inflame the situation."
"Remarks like these can be unhelpful," he said.
The Bush administration has repeatedly said that Mr. Arafat has done too little to stop Palestinian violence. Last week, President Bush suggested that Mr. Arafat was "enhancing terror," citing Israel's capture on Jan. 4 of a ship smuggling munitions under Palestinian command. Mr. Arafat has said he had nothing to do with the ship.
Though he wished Mr. Arafat dead, Mr. Sharon insisted in the interview that he had not given up on the Palestinian leader as a potential partner for peace. "If Arafat takes all the steps we are demanding that he take, as far as I am concerned, he will again be a partner to negotiations," Mr. Sharon said. Israel insists that Mr. Arafat crush all Palestinian militant groups and take other steps to prevent violence before any substantive negotiations resume.
Mr. Sharon reiterated his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, albeit a limited one. "Ultimately, an independent Palestinian state will be established, which will be demilitarized and will have only a police force, to keep public order," he told Maariv. "In order to have true peace, I am willing to relinquish portions of Israel."
Mr. Sharon has previously indicated that he would give up about 42 percent of the West Bank, which Israel took by force in the 1967 war. Less than two years ago, Mr. Arafat rejected as insufficient an offer from Ehud Barak, then the Israeli prime minister, of more than twice that much territory.
The last standoff between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat, in Lebanon, did not end well for either. The invasion began in June 1982 and was sold to the public as a limited mission to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization back from the northern border. Within a week the Israeli troops were besieging Beirut.
By August, Mr. Arafat was evacuating his men from the city. In February 1983, Mr. Sharon resigned his post after a commission of inquiry assigned him "indirect responsibility" for the massacre by Christian Phalangists of hundreds of Palestinians in two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila.
Israel finally withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon in May 2000.
Mr. Sharon remains broadly popular in Israel for his tough stand on security. But the Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza have come under criticism from within the ranks of those assigned to carry them out. Fifty-two combat officers and soldiers in the Israeli Army Reserve signed a statement declaring that they would refuse to serve again in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"The price of occupation is the army's loss of its human image and the corruption of all Israeli society," said the statement, which was published in the newspaper Haaretz last week.
Today, the army's chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, indicated that the reserve soldiers would be disciplined. "I see this with the utmost severity," he said. He said "an army in a democratic state" could not afford to have soldiers flout orders that were legal and did "not have a black flag waving above them."
"There is no room for this negative phenomenon," he said, adding that conclusions on punishment for each officer would be released on Friday.
Reserve soldiers who signed the statement argued that some of their orders were illegal. The statement cited such actions as demolishing homes, firing machine guns into neighborhoods in response to mortar fire, blockading villages and shooting at boys throwing stones.