Sharon Says Arafat's Condition Won't Affect Gaza Pullout

Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday that the illness of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would not alter Israel's plans to unilaterally withdraw Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials reported that Arafat's condition appeared to be improving. The 75-year-old Palestinian Authority president was airlifted Friday from his battered compound in the West Bank to a military hospital outside Paris for medical tests to determine the cause of an illness that by some accounts caused him to briefly lose consciousness.

Sharon told his Cabinet during a closed-door meeting Sunday that his central rationale for the pullout — the lack of a credible negotiating partner on the Palestinian side — was unchanged, a Sharon aide said.

Sharon told ministers, however, that he was prepared to coordinate Israel's pullout and resume negotiations with the Palestinians if Arafat were to be replaced by someone more to Israel's liking.

"We are moving with our plans," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said during an interview on CNN. "The prime minister is determined to move forward."

Sharon also told ministers that if Arafat died, he would not be buried in Jerusalem as long as he was Israel's prime minister. Arafat had expressed a desire to be buried in Jerusalem's Old City on a contested holy site that is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al Sharif. Many Israelis fear that burying Arafat there would strengthen Palestinian claims to the site.

The Cabinet met for the first time since Arafat became seriously ill last week. Palestinian spokesmen have downplayed the severity of his illness, insisting at first that he had the flu.

Arafat's doctors said his blood had a low level of platelets, which aid clotting. Such a deficiency can be an indication of cancer or another life-threatening illness.

Palestinian officials said Sunday that tests appeared to rule out leukemia, and doctors were exploring the possibility of a viral infection. Test results could take two more days, the officials said.

Leila Shahid, the top Palestinian representative in France, said Arafat was awake and had been eating. "His situation is quite stable," she said, providing few details.

Two key Palestinian government bodies — the parliament and the National Security Council — met Sunday in the West Bank as Palestinian leaders sought to convey an air of normality.

In deference to Arafat, his chair remained vacant during the council session, which was lead by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Korei, and during a separate gathering of the leadership of Arafat's Fatah faction.

Arafat's "illness and treatment does not mean that everything collapses," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told reporters in Ramallah. "On the contrary, institutions are functioning normally."

Arafat has not named a successor, and many fear that his eventual demise will spark chaos in the Palestinian territories.

Arafat's illness and departure have forced Palestinians to consider a future without him and Israel to consider its options.

Israel holds Arafat responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks and blames the Palestinian leadership for failing to crack down on armed militants. Sharon has defended his unilateral plan for a Gaza pullout by saying that Israel has no one to talk to on the Palestinian side and thus should pull back to more easily defended boundaries.

Arafat's death or effective removal from power could alter the equation — perhaps clearing the way for negotiations.

Some observers suggest that Israel would have to reconsider evacuating 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four others in the northern West Bank by the end of next year.

The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, approved the plan last week. The Knesset today is expected to weigh a bill for compensating settlers who are forced to leave their homes.

Other observers say Sharon should stick with his plan, which polls show has broad support among Israelis, without waiting to see whether an Arafat successor proves to be more flexible.

Guy Bechor, an analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said internal Palestinian politics could prevent any Arafat replacement from seeming too eager to accommodate Israel.

"It is preferable to continue with the [withdrawal]. If there is a surprise from the Palestinians, well, OK," Bechor said.

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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