JERUSALEM – Yasser Arafat should "disappear" from the Palestinian leadership, and Israel may have to decide by year's end whether to expel him if he continues to get in the way of a U.S.-backed peace plan, Israel's defense minister said Tuesday.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) issued the warning as Arafat and his prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (search), remained locked in a bitter power struggle. Abbas, backed by the United States and Israel, is increasingly unpopular at home and could be ousted — possibly in a parliament vote next week.
Nearly 200 Palestinian legislators, academics and writers appealed to Arafat and Abbas in newspaper ads Tuesday to resolve their differences, saying the deadlock was hurting Palestinian interests.
"We call on you to stop all actions that may open the door to foreign interference," the ad read.
Leaders of the ruling Fatah movement met Tuesday but failed to find a compromise. Mediators were to keep shuttling between the leaders, who are not speaking to each other. Officials close to Abbas denied reports that he has threatened to resign and leave the Palestinian areas.
Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan (search), who is close to Abbas, suggested the tensions defied a permanent solution. He told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that there might be a temporary compromise, "until the next crisis, in a week, a month, three months, who knows?"
Also Tuesday, a Palestinian was killed by army fire at a West Bank checkpoint, the Israeli military said. It said the man got out of a car and drew a handgun, trying to shoot soldiers who opened fire and killed him. A passenger in the car was taken for questioning, the army said.
In Gaza City, an 11-year-old Palestinian girl died of injuries sustained last week in an Israeli missile strike.
In all, 15 Palestinians — 11 Hamas members and four bystanders — have been killed in six missile attacks on Hamas targets in the past two weeks, part of a tough new policy adopted after a Hamas suicide bombing in mid-August killed 21 people on a Jerusalem bus.
Mofaz said Tuesday that there will be no letup in the campaign.
"Hamas is in distress because of our activity, but we will not stop the pressure until the terror infrastructure is dismantled either by the Palestinian Authority or by us," he told Israel Army Radio.
Asked about civilian casualties — 46 bystanders have been hurt in the past two weeks — Mofaz said he has called off some strikes amid concerns that innocents could be harmed.
He said pilots have diverted missiles at the last minute for that reason. However, the missiles are usually fired into crowded Gaza City streets, in several cases when a militants' vehicle was slowed in a traffic jam.
In his radio interview, Mofaz also said Arafat stood in the way of progress on the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.
"Arafat, of course, has become the most significant obstacle both to the leadership of [Abbas] and to the peace process," Mofaz said.
"Because this is the situation and because Arafat never wanted to reach an agreement with us ... I think that he has to disappear from the stage of history, and not be included in the ranks of the Palestinian leadership," Mofaz said.
Mofaz said he favors expelling Arafat, but that the timing has to be right.
"I believe that Israel made a historic mistake by not exiling him two years ago," he said.
"With regard to the future, I think we will be compelled to deal with this issue within a relatively short period of time, very possibly even this year," Mofaz said. A security official said Mofaz was referring to the Western calendar, not the Jewish year ending Sept. 26.
Mofaz said the timing would have to be chosen carefully so as not to undermine Abbas, who Israel believes is serious about reaching a peace deal.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Ghassan Khatib said Mofaz's threat only raised tensions, "but is consistent with the spirit of escalation of the Israeli leadership."
Israel's Cabinet has repeatedly considered expelling Arafat, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has blocked such a move, in part because of opposition by the United States and because his security advisers have cautioned against it.
Also Tuesday, a landmark report on Israel's treatment of its large Arab minority continued to dominate public debate. The 831-page report released Monday concluded that successive Israeli governments discriminated against Arab citizens, and that the minority's growing frustration was a key trigger in October 2000 riots in which 13 Arabs were killed by police fire.
The report, issued by a commission of inquiry after three years of study, marked the first time in Israel's 55-year history that a state-appointed body criticized government policy toward the Arab minority in such a sweeping way.
The report also said some Arab leaders in Israel encouraged violence, and that police used excessive force — including live fire and rubber-coated steel pellets — in quelling the riots. Large crowds had taken to the streets to show support with the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.