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Israeli Defense Minister: Arafat Increasingly Irrelevant - 2002-02-06


Israel's Defense Minister Benyamin Ben-Eliezer is in the United States for the first time since he joined Israel's coalition government last year. He says he is on a mission to pressure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Ben-Eliezer says that he is trying to convince American and international leaders to press Mr. Arafat to end more than a year of bloodshed.

At the same time, Israel's defense minister describes Mr. Arafat's role as increasingly irrelevant and quotes unnamed Palestinians who he says oppose the president of the Palestinian Authority. "Therefore for the sake of finding a solution, let's concentrate on talking to the proper people," said Mr. Ben-Eliezer. "Ignoring Arafat, I'm not going to touch him, no one is going to touch him, but open a dialogue with them, maybe through them by the pressure coming all over from every point against Arafat, something will happen. What I'm trying to do is try to gather everyone to concentrate on the breakthrough."

According to Mr. Ben-Eliezer, talks with the unnamed Palestinian officials are continuing. He called on President Bush to open a similar dialogue with alternative Palestinian leaders.

Recently, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged high-level contacts with senior Palestinian officials, Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmed Qurei'a and Mohammed Rashid. Mr. Arafat, whom Israel has confined to the West Bank town of Ramallah, was excluded from the talks.

Mr. Sharon is scheduled to meet with President Bush on Thursday. Mr. Ben-Eliezer precedes him to Washington and will meet with officials in the Bush administration and members of Congress.

While in New York, Mr. Ben-Eliezer spoke to Jewish community leaders and accused the Lebanese-based radical group Hezbollah of being infiltrated by members of the al-Qaida terrorist group. The Israeli official also repeated Israel's position that Iran poses a nuclear threat to Israel and the entire region.

A war of words has erupted between Israel and Iran, with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres Monday accusing Iran of providing Hezbollah with rockets and infiltrating Iranian Revolutionary Guards into southern Lebanon. Iran has rejected the accusations and warned that an Israeli strike at Iran would result in "unimaginable" retaliation. Israel has denied any plans to attack Iran.

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