Israel's deputy premier, Ehud Olmert, says there are no imminent plans to assassinate Yasser Arafat, despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's latest threats against the Palestinian president. Mr. Sharon's comments have drawn a sharp reaction from the U.S. administration, which says Israel must not harm the Palestinian leader.

Israel's deputy prime minister insists Mr. Sharon is not about to give the order to have Mr. Arafat killed.

Ehud Olmert says Mr. Sharon was simply setting out a principle, that Mr. Arafat, who Israel blames for orchestrating violent attacks, has no guarantees of immunity.

Mr. Olmert says that the intention is to put fear into the Palestinian leader, to discourage him from supporting more terrorism.

He was reacting to the storm of controversy following Mr. Sharon's comments on Friday that he had told President Bush, during their summit earlier this month, that Israel is no longer bound to a commitment not to harm Mr. Arafat.

In response, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington strictly opposes any threat to Mr. Arafat and that this had been made clear by Mr. Bush in his talks with Mr. Sharon at the White House.

Mr. Arafat told supporters at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday that he was not afraid of Mr. Sharon's threats and was ready, as he put it, to embrace martyrdom.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says he firmly believes Mr. Arafat should be removed from the political scene. But Israel's justice minister, Tommy Lapid, countered that, in fact, no decision has been made by Israel to kill Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Lapid said it had been agreed months ago by government ministers that such a decision would have to go before the inner security cabinet and that no meeting to discuss the matter had ever been convened.