Powell says Israeli could set off rage among Muslims everywhere

WASHINGTON -- Israel would incite rage not only among Arabs but also Muslims everywhere by exiling or executing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday.

Powell, speaking from Baghdad during a visit to Iraq, also said that Israeli politicians are not helping the U.S.-sponsored peace process with such statements as vice prime minister Ehud Olmert's comment Sunday that "killing (Arafat) is definitely one of the options" under consideration by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government.

Since mid-2002, the Bush administration has refused to deal with Arafat for peacemaking or for any other reason. Yet the United States worries that expelling him from his shattered West Bank headquarters would widen his influence by positioning him as a martyr with a broader stage to air his views.

"The Israelis know our position quite well," Powell said on "Fox News Sunday."

As for Olmert's statement to Israel Radio, Powell said: "There are many people in Israeli political life who make statements with regard to their political positions. I don't think it was helpful."

Other Israeli officials have spoken about options for dealing with Arafat, who has been in virtual house arrest at his besieged headquarters for months, since Sharon's security cabinet voted last week to remove him from the West Bank and Gaza.

Olmert, considered a possible future candidate for prime minister, is the most senior official to speculate about killing him.

On CNN's "Late Edition," two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee criticized Olmert's comment.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the committee's senior Democrat, said Arafat should be isolated, "but every time the Israelis do this, they up his popularity." The committee's second-ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, said exiling or killing Arafat "would be very, very dangerous and very counterproductive."

Powell did not dispute that peacemaking might be easier if Arafat were no longer in the picture.

But, he said, "The United States does not support either the elimination of him or the exile of Mr. Arafat. It's not our position; hasn't been. The Israeli government knows it.

"And I think the consequences would not be good ones. I think you can anticipate that there would be rage throughout the Arab world, the Muslim world and in many other parts of the world. And I don't see how, at this delicate moment, that would serve the cause of moving forward on the road map."

The road map is a U.S.-backed plan, formulated in conjunction with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, that sets a series of actions for the Israelis and Palestinians to product an independent Palestinian state by 2005 on territory taken by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Powell indicated that even other Arabs might rather see Arafat out of the picture for peacemaking, "The question is how Mr. Arafat departs from the scene. ... If he departs from the scene as a result of Israeli action, I do not think that would help the road map process."