Jerusalem Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's newly declared intention to try to hasten the emergence of a more pragmatic Palestinian leadership by sidelining Yasser Arafat was met Friday by Palestinian outrage and some skepticism in Israel.
Palestinians accused Sharon of arrogance and meddling, and those tagged by Sharon as an alternative to the Palestinian leader, including Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia, said they would never go around Arafat to make a deal with Israel.
"Those thinking about an alternative leadership don't know the Palestinian people," Qureia told The Associated Press. "It's a silly idea."
Some Israeli commentators warned that Sharon is taking a dangerous gamble, and that pushing aside Arafat could strengthen Islamic militants or plunge the West Bank and Gaza Strip into chaos.
However, Sharon supporters said that despite possible risks, Israel could no longer afford to put up with Arafat, who returned from exile in 1994 to establish the Palestinian Authority as part of an interim peace agreement with Israel.
"After eight years, it is evident that there is no chance for real stability and peace with Arafat," said Yuval Steinitz, a legislator in Sharon's Likud Party.
Steinitz said he believed the Israeli government was also considering expelling Arafat, though Sharon has not spoken publicly about such an option. A recent poll indicated that 54 percent of Israelis support that idea and 35 percent oppose it.
During his year in power, Sharon has gradually tightened the cordon around Arafat, his old nemesis. In December, Sharon confined Arafat to the West Bank town of Ramallah, and since January, the Palestinian leader has been unable to leave his compound, which is surrounded by Israeli tanks.
The siege was ostensibly meant to prod Arafat to crack down on Palestinian militants and prevent them from attacking Israelis. However, Sharon and his defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, made it clear this week for the first time in public that their objective was to sideline Arafat.
Briefing Israeli reporters Thursday after a meeting with President Bush at the White House, Sharon said pressure on Arafat must be intensified in order to hasten the emergence of a more pragmatic leadership.
Arafat, 72, has no plans of stepping down, though in interviews this week he addressed the transition question for the first time, suggesting that in the event of his departure, Qureia and Abbas temporarily assume the two key posts he now holds.