The cabinet's statement that it would remove Arafat "in a manner and at a time which will be decided afterwards" was an ambiguous compromise in which each word was chosen very carefully.

Despite this, the decision to force the veteran palestinian figurehead into exile - or to assassinate him - has been blasted around the world as a rash, unlawful action guaranteed to derail the peace process.

The Israeli security cabinet, which groups the 11 most senior ministers, took the decision on Thursday night following Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hurried return from India after two bomb attacks killed 15 in Israel on Tuesday

The bombings came amid repeated extrajudicial attacks on Hamas leaders and untried bombing suspects.

Although the cabinet's deliberations were meant to have been kept secret, details were leaked to the press and published on Friday.

Personal enemy

Sharon, who for decades has seen Arafat as a personal enemy, lambasted him without reserve during the meeting, sources said.

"Arafat is one of the worst killers known to the Jewish people in the course of their history. He is at the heart of a catastrophe for our own people and there is no doubt that we cannot terminate the current conflict without ending his power," he reportedly hammered.

Attorney General Eliakim Rubinstein piled on condemnation, branding Arafat was a "war criminal".

"For the security of our citizens, we must expel Arafat. In my opinion, we have to do it and I don't care if we liquidate him"

Shaul Mofaz,
Israeli Defence Minister

Sharon asked the cabinet to approve the text of a statement drawn up by him, calling Arafat an "obstacle to peace" and that Israel would "remove this obstacle" at an opportune moment.

Diehards win out

Some ministers suggested a less threatening text, saying "remove" should be substituted with "expel" in order to avoid allegations that Israel was on a mission to assassinate the Palestinian leader.

But backed by the extreme right in the cabinet, such as Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, Sharon refused to allow any moderating tweaks.

"For the security of our citizens, we must expel Arafat," Mofaz was quoted in the daily Maariv as saying, adding ominously: "In my opinion, we have to do it and I don't care if we liquidate him."

But Sharon reportedly cut him short.

"I don't want to hear such things in this meeting. Its not about murder or liquidation," the premier was reported to have said.

US warning

"It would be better if he (Arafat) stays under our surveillance (in Ram Allah) than goes into exile where we have no means of knowing how he will harm us" 

Avi Dichter,
Chief of Israel's domestic security service Shin Beth
 

Before the meeting, US President George Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, telephoned Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, to press home Washington's opposition to expelling Arafat, government sources said.

After the decision was taken, Israeli officials ruled out expelling Arafat unless they get at least a tacit green light from Washington.

The final statement said: "The events of these last few days have proved again that Yasir Arafat is an absolute obstacle to all attempts at reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"Israel will act to remove this obstacle in a manner and at a time which will be decided afterwards."

Post-cabinet bickering

The army chief of staff, General Moshe Yaalon, and the head of military intelligence, General Aharon Zeevi, both approve in principle the idea of expelling Arafat, but judge that the timing is not right.

In contrast, the chief of Israel's domestic security service Shin Beth, Avi Dichter, does not.

"It would be better if he (Arafat) stays under our surveillance (in Ram Allah) than goes into exile where we have no means of knowing how he will harm us," he said.
 
For the past 20 months, the Palestinian leader has been cornered in his Ram Allah headquarters by the Israeli army. Even so, Israel has never banned him from leaving, while making it abundantly clear that if he did, he would not be allowed to return.

At the final count, all cabinet members except Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the centrist Laic Shinoui party, approved Sharon's text, the reports said.

Global condemnation

World leaders have unanimously condemned the decision, while tens of thousands of Palestinians came out to support and protect their leader.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said expelling Arafat would be "unwise".

Russia called the plan a "serious political mistake with the most negative  consequences," on Friday.

A senior US administration official said once again that Washington would not work with Arafat but opposed expelling him because that would only give him "a wider international stage."

French president Jacques Chirac, speaking from Spain before the Israeli decision, said: "Yasir Arafat is the legitimate authority" of Palestinian politics.

European Commission spokesman De Ojeda said the EU would keep channels open to legitimate Palestinian leaders.

Britain said on Friday it would be "wrong" for Israel to expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and that such a move would undermine both the quest for peace and Israel's own interests.

"We have repeatedly made clear to the Israeli government that the expulsion of chairman Arafat would be wrong," said Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in a statement.

"I urge Israel not to allow justified anger at the continuing violence to lead to actions that will undermine both the peace process and Israel's own interests," he said