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Israelis of all political stripes questioned the aims of the IDF offensive in the West Bank, prompting speculation that if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's goal was to exorcize his personal dybbuk Yasser Arafat, Israel's focus on Arafat as the godhead of terror could backfire, with the Palestinian leader already taking on the mantle of a living, breathing martyr.

Israel has repeatedly stressed that the massive IDF operation was meant to head off Palestinian suicide attacks and other terror strikes which have rocked Israel to the core. But world attention had focused on the plight of Arafat, holding court in an ever-shrinking area of his Israeli-surrounded and occupied headquarters compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"All in all, you could call these operations the Peace for Arafat War," remarks Ha'aretz commentator Danny Rubinstein. "We [Israelis] ourselves did this. We turned this into a war over Arafat."

Official Israel has represented and continues to represent Arafat as "the ultimate monster, the liar, the cheat, the one who's fooled us all the way," Rubinstein says.

But all could boomerang on Israel. Rubinstein notes that Arafat's confinement and isolation has already elevated him to a hero status in the Arab world perhaps unrivalled by any period in the long history of his conflict with Israel - and with arch-nemesis Sharon.

"If Israel in fact holds to its promise not to strike at Arafat, and he's neither harmed nor deported, in another few days or weeks when we pull out of there, he will come out of there as a great victor, with tremendous power," Rubinstein said, indicating that Arafat's newfound backing could mean that if there are to be future peace negotiations, the wily Palestinian leader could come to the table in a position of power.

Ran Cohen of the leftist Meretz party said the right-center Sharon government was unable to present any aim for the war because it was unwilling to face up to the only alternative course - separating from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to allow a Palestinian state alongside Israel. "The policy is one of total failure, not because of a lack of military activity - there is that. But there is no diplomatic direction or goal."

Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, a leader of the dovish wing of Labor, also took issue with the IDF actions, saying that negotiations were the only route to a solution. "The Israelis' greatest problem is that some of us have fallen in love with the stupidity of the Palestinians. Just because the position of the Palestinians is a stupid one, just because they cannot overcome terrorism and they fled the peace process in a violent manner, does that require us to enter this insane cycle?"

But Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, a senior figure in Sharon's Likud, dismissed the calls for a return to talks, saying that Israel should deport Arafat, not show him the way back to the bargaining table.

"Whoever speaks of a diplomatic accord is misleading the people," said Shalom, citing the failed negotiations in 2000-2001in which then-prime minister Ehud Barak, backed by the Clinton White House, made far-reaching concessions to Arafat, who ultimately turned them down.

"There's no way to reach an agreement with a man who received an offer of 100 percent [of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip], including an independent state, including [East] Jerusalem as its capital, including exchange of lands as part of the [Palestinian] right of return, and he still said no."

Shalom said that instead of fostering the "delusion" that Israel had failed to offer Arafat the magic formula for peace, "we should know how to make the courageous decision... the simple decision, to expel this man out of here."

Far-right MK Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned his cabinet seat earlier this month in protest over Sharon's easing of hard-line policies regarding Arafat and his Palestinian Authority, went further, declaring that Arafat's Ramallah headquarters - the PA chairman included - should be "erased from the face of the earth."

Referring to Arafat's headquarters compound, Lieberman said "I don't see why we don't erase that Mukata [compound] from the face of the earth. If it was up to me - we have enough F-16s and helicopters, we should simply erase this whole complex, along with everything inside - including everyone who's sitting inside."

Speaking to Israel Radio, Lieberman declared that Israelis of all parties must unite behind the government and the army. But he quickly added that the operation lacked "a clear definition or direction. We are not moving in the right direction, and this operation will also fail to stop the terrorism," he said.

"What does Yasser Arafat care if some hick from Daheisheh [refugee camp] blows himself up in the center of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. As far as he's concerned, 100 - 1,000 - 20,000 can blow themselves up - the more the better. He has no sensitivity to human life.

Taking an uncharacteristically broad view, however, Lieberman said that in Arafat caged and alive, the government had chosen the worst of both worlds.

Referring to separate statements Sunday by Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Lieberman noted that "On the one hand the prime ministre declares Arafat to be the enemy of the Israeli people and of humanity, while on the other hand the foreign minister still announces that he's a partner [for negotiations].

"If he's the enemy, we have to go all the way with him. If he's a partner, we need not humiliate him, allow him room for negotiating. But to leave him like this, like a wounded animal, is the least correct thing to do."