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Isreal plans to remove Arafat

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By MARK LAVIE, Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM - Over strong U.S. objections, Israel insisted Friday it will remove Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (news - web sites) as an obstacle to peace, and one Cabinet minister said Israel "doesn't take orders" from Washington.

Israeli leaders, however, left their statements intentionally vague and put off immediate action to avoid a direct clash with the United States, leave their options open and keep the Palestinian chief wary and guessing.

The 74-year-old Palestinian leader was defiant, declaring that no one will "kick me out," after thousands of Palestinians poured into streets throughout the West Bank and Gaza to support him. The Israeli threats only seemed to bolster Arafat, who has been trapped in his office for a year and a half by Israel.

Reacting to two Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 15 Israelis this week in a Jerusalem cafe and outside an army base near Tel Aviv, Israel's security Cabinet on Thursday declared Arafat "a complete obstacle" to peace, blaming him for the violence. It added that "Israel will work to remove this obstacle in the manner, at the time, and in the ways that will be decided on separately."

That wording makes room for several options: deporting Arafat, capturing him or killing him. The Haaretz daily, however, reported that when Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz talked of killing Arafat during the Cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites) asked him not to use that language.

U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer met with Mofaz on Friday and was expected to relay stiff U.S. opposition. Speaking to reporters before the meeting — and with Kurtzer at his side — Mofaz insisted Israel would act against Arafat, who he said has sabotaged peace efforts.

"The security Cabinet decided last night that Israel will act to remove the obstacle Arafat at the time and in the manner that will be decided on separately," Mofaz said. "I am convinced the state of Israel has in the past made a historic mistake by not taking this decision earlier."

Kurtzer said that the United States had not changed its position and the issue would continue to be discussed "quietly" with Israel.

On Thursday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated the longstanding U.S. view, saying, "We think that it would not be helpful to expel (Arafat) because it would just give him another stage to play on." Along with Israel, the United States has boycotted Arafat and called him a failed leader who has a hand in terrorism.

Israel believes Arafat is at least indirectly to blame for militant attacks over the last three years of fighting and charges that he's done nothing with the security forces under his control to stop bomb attacks on Israelis.

Education Minister Limor Livnat said that despite the U.S. objections, Arafat — whom she compared to Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) and Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) — was no longer immune.

"Israel is an independent and sovereign state and though it has a close and friendly important relationship with America, it doesn't take orders from America," Livnat said Friday.

A poll published in a newspaper Friday, showed 60 percent of Israelis would like to see Arafat killed or exiled.

The telephone survey conducted Thursday evening by the Dahaf Institute asked a representative sample of 503 Israeli adults what should be done with Arafat. Thirty-seven percent favored assassination, 23 percent said Israel should expel him and 21 percent said he should continue to be isolated at his West Bank headquarters. Published in the Yediot Ahronot daily, the survey had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

The immediate effect of the Israeli decision was an outpouring of Palestinian support for the embattled leader and Palestinian officials warned that an expulsion would wreck all chances for peace.

In Ramallah, Arafat appeared at the doorway of his sandbagged office building at his headquarters complex that was all but destroyed by Israeli tank fire and bulldozers during the last year.

Carried aloft by bodyguards, Arafat grinned broadly and flashed "V for victory" signs with his fingers at thousands of backers who rushed to the headquarters to protect him from what they feared would be an immediate Israeli move to seize him.

"We will die and you will live, old man," the crowd chanted.

Using a bullhorn, Arafat recited a passage from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, about being steadfast in the face of an oppressor. He also said: "My brothers, my loved ones, this round (of fighting) that the brave peoples are living through tells the world that this people is not afraid and will not kneel."

The Israeli decision meant that Sharon and Mofaz could decide on expelling Arafat without reconvening the Cabinet. Security officials said the army has already begun preparations for Arafat's quick ouster.

The Israeli decision came as Palestinian premier-designate Ahmed Qureia was putting together a Cabinet. Arafat picked Qureia to replace Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned Saturday. Qureia said expelling Arafat would "eliminate any possibility for me to form a Palestinian government."

"We call upon all wise people in the world to stop this crazy decision," he said.

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