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Israel Backs Off Arafat Threats

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, peers out of his headquarters' window to flash the V-sign as he salutes hundreds of schoolchildren gathered to support him outside his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Saturday Sept. 13, 2003 in this photo made available from the Palestinian Authority.
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The Israeli government seemed to back off Monday from comments it would just as soon kill Yasser Arafat as expel him, while other countries condemned Israel.

Israel has not adopted a formal decision to kill Yasser Arafat, Israel's foreign minister said Monday. But Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, accused the Security Council of "hypocrisy" for considering a Palestinian resolution that demands Israel refrain from taking any action against Arafat.

The council was to meet later in the day. Gillerman complained that the council has not convened to discuss Palestinian suicide bombings and shootings.

Meanwhile, the chief U.N. envoy to the Middle East declared Monday that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has broken down and said he fears even worse bloodletting lies ahead.

"The recent cycle of terror attacks and extrajudicial killings has broken the Palestinian cease-fire and brought the process to a standstill," U.N. Mideast envoy Terje Roed-Larsen told the Security Council at the start of an open meeting to discuss the troubled region.

But "while the situation is grave, it is alarmist to speak of the demise of the peace process," he warned.

Also this week, the U.N.'s nuclear body, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is expected to discuss Israel's nuclear program this week during talks in Vienna. Although Iran, Iraq and North Korea are also on the agenda, observers told Israel's Haaretz newspaper the talks about Israel could become heated.

Arab states have frequently complained that the IAEA has been silent so far about Israel, which has never acknowledge having — but is widely believed to possess — nuclear weapons.

Last week, Israel's security Cabinet decided in principle to "remove" Arafat, but did not say what, or when, action would be taken. The Israeli decision came in response to twin Hamas suicide bombings that killed 15 people last week.

On Sunday, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said killing Arafat is a possibility, along with expulsion and isolation. "Mr. Arafat is a murderer and a killer," he declared.

However, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom appeared to play down Olmert's statement.

"It (killing Arafat) is not the official policy of the Israeli government. It was never before, and we don't speak about any killing. We didn't speak about it before, and we don't speak about it today," Shalom told reporters Monday.

Even Israel's decision to "remove" Arafat may have backfired, reports CBS News Correspondent Berger.

Arafat has been under virtual house arrest in his battered West Bank headquarters for the past two years, but Israel's decision to expel or possibly kill him has brought him back to center stage. In solidarity, thousands of Palestinians have been visiting Arafat's compound, which has become a new place of pilgrimage. The international community has also rallied round Arafat, demanding that Israel leave him alone.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States does not support either Arafat's exile or his elimination.

"I think you can anticipate that there would be rage throughout the Arab world, the Muslim world and in many other parts of the world," Powell said during a visit Sunday to Iraq.

In London, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair said Olmert's comments were unacceptable, adding that it had lodged a protest with the Israeli ambassador to Britain.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he has asked the Bush administration to pressure Israel into leaving the Palestinian leader alone.

"We told them (the Americans) that removing Yasser Arafat would be extremely dangerous," Mubarak said following talks with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris.

Chirac agreed that expelling or otherwise eliminating Arafat would be futile, according to presidential spokeswoman Catherine Colonna.

The Russian deputy foreign minister, Yuri Fedotov, said an attempt to kill Arafat could lead to "an immense and wide-scale growth in the threat of terrorism."

And European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Olmert's comments had inflamed an already "dramatic" situation in the Middle East.

Also Monday, Fatah legislators met to come up with candidates for Cabinet posts.

"Fatah institutions will choose the members of the government, in consultation with President Arafat," said legislator Hani al-Hassan.

This appears to grant Arafat de facto control over the composition of the Cabinet.

In pressing for the appointment of a prime minister earlier this year, the United States and Israel hoped to sideline Arafat. However, Arafat has refused to relinquish any of his powers, and constant wrangling over authority contributed to Abbas' resignation earlier this month.

Qureia has told confidants he has no intention of challenging Arafat. It remained unclear whether Fatah would present Qureia with a pool of candidates from which he would fill 16 Cabinet posts, or whether he would simply accept a list of 16 names.