The Israeli government has declared Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "irrelevant" and has severed all contacts with the Palestinian chairman after a surge of violence that has once again thrown the Middle East into turmoil. Palestinians say the Israeli decision is a "declaration of war" that will only intensify the bloody conflict that has killed more than 800 Palestinians and nearly 250 Israelis.
A surge in Palestinian suicide bombings and attacks, coupled with retaliatory assaults by Israeli warplanes and combat helicopters, have once again left the region on the edge of chaos and confusion.
The Israeli government's decision to break all contacts with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat marks a new crisis in this bitter fight, and seriously threatens diplomatic efforts to move both sides away from the abyss of permanent conflict.
Israeli government spokesman Arye Mekel says the severity of recent acts of violence after more than 14 months of bloodshed led ministers to the conclusion that Mr. Arafat is not committed to fighting terrorism and is no longer a partner for peace. "It means that, from now on, we will have to do the job that he has not done," he said. "Namely, we will have to fight terrorists. We will have to arrest members of terrorist organizations. We will have to intercept and disrupt their plans when they try to create more havoc in the streets of Israel. It also means that we will not negotiate with Arafat or his people. We will not deal with them. We will simply consider them irrelevant, like they do not exist."
A senior adviser to Mr. Arafat, Nabil Abu Rdainah, accused the Israeli government of declaring war on the Palestinian people. He says the decision to sever ties with Mr. Arafat will lead the region into "more escalation, instability and violence."
Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib spoke with VOA from his home in Ramallah as four Israeli tanks rumbled down the street where he lives.
He called the Israeli government decision a sign of 'political bankruptcy'. "I think Israel by this step is moving in the wrong direction," he said. "Without addressing the political causes of the current violence, which is the occupation, and without negotiating an exchange of a complete ending of occupation on one hand and complete and comprehensive peace and security on the other hand, there is no way out."
The Israeli government's announcement cutting contacts with Mr. Arafat also says there is no directive to attack the Palestinian leader personally.
Mr. Khatib, however, says with tanks parked within firing range of the Palestinian leader's Ramallah headquarters, he is increasingly concerned about Mr. Arafat's safety. "One Israeli minister was saying yesterday on Israeli government TV that he is inviting everybody to attend the funeral of Yasser Arafat tomorrow," he said. "This kind of incitement is frightening because in such an atmosphere, whether there is an official decision or there isn't, the danger is really serious."
Government spokesman Arye Mekel says Israel does not intend to permanently re-occupy areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that have been turned over to the Palestinians under interim peace accords.
It is clear, however, that little is left of the tattered peace process or the Oslo accords that, before the current uprising erupted, were moving Israel and the Palestinians toward a peaceful solution to their conflict.
Mr. Mekel says Israel is now looking for a new generation of Palestinian leaders to replace Mr. Arafat. "Arafat simply refuses to fight terror and therefore, unfortunately, the way it looks now we may have to wait until the next phase," said Arye Mekel. "In other words, once terror is stopped, hopefully there will be another leadership among the Palestinians, a pragmatic leadership who wants to live in peace with us and hopefully we can deal with them. Frankly, Arafat to us right now looks like a lost case."
If Israel sticks with its decision, there is no clear leader to take Mr. Arafat's place, either on the world stage or around the bargaining table. The Palestinian chairman has survived many confrontations in his long career, but certainly the current situation is one of the most difficult he has ever faced.