WASHINGTON, Nov 11: Israel may use a possible US military action against Iraq as a pretext to oust Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from Palestine, Arab diplomats in Washington said on Monday.

Several senior Arab diplomats told Dawn in Washington that their fears are not unfounded. They point out that hours after the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution on Friday, Israel’s newly-inducted Foreign Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared that a war with Iraq would also be a good time to oust Arafat.

Netanyahu also said that the Bush administration’s three-year road map to peace is “off the agenda” and that Israel would now use its own discretion on how to resolve the Palestinian issue.

Since Netanyahu is also a key candidate for leading the rightist Likud party into the elections, his words rang alarms across the Middle East. Arabs do not remember Netanyahu fondly.

As chairman of the Likud Party since 1993, Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister of Israel in May 1996, serving in this position until July 1999. During these three years, he introduced policies that caused the Arab world to view him as one of those Israeli leaders who want to resolve the Palestinian issue by annihilating the Palestinians.

Following his defeat in the 1999 elections, he resigned from the chairmanship of the Likud and from the 15th Knesset but returned to the Israeli Cabinet after the Labour Party quit the ruling coalition two weeks ago. He is once again vying for the leadership of the Likud party.

His emergence on the political scene has caused the Arab world to watch the forthcoming elections in Israel with fear and apprehension. Although not directly connected to Iraq, observers say that the Israeli elections can play a key role in deciding whether the international community — particularly the Arab states — will support a US military action against Baghdad.

The Israeli elections are scheduled for late January, a time when the United States and its allies would also be thinking of a military action against Iraq if President Saddam Hussein fails to comply with the latest UN resolution against him.

America’s Arab allies have long taken the stance that a military offensive against Iraq would encourage Israel to take a similar action against the Palestinians. As late as this weekend, such close US allies as Egypt and Saudi Arabia warned the Bush administration that a military action against Iraq would further aggravate Israel’s belligerent attitude against the Palestinians.

And officials in Washington privately admit that Netanyahu’s rhetoric has not helped remove Arab fears. They say that such rhetoric also can unnerve America’s European allies — such as France and Russia — who still have reservations about a US military offensive against Iraq.

Officials in Washington fear that if a military action against Iraq appears to be leading to a similar action by Israel against the Palestinians, it could seriously endanger the international solidarity behind the United States displayed last week at the UN Security Council where the American resolution was adopted 15-0.

It is as yet unclear whether the current Israeli premier Ariel Sharon or Netanyahu will lead Likud into the election. Israel’s polls are all over the place. A poll in Friday’s edition of Ma’ariv found Sharon maintains a double-digit lead, 48 per cent to 38 per cent. A simultaneous poll by Midgam Research shows Netanyahu defeating Sharon 40.9 per cent to 40.5 per cent, an 11-point swing in favour of Netanyahu over the last week. Asked “Who will better handle the economy for the next four years?” 56 per cent said Netanyahu and 18 per cent said Sharon.

Americans fear that an Arab (and increasingly European) reaction to Israel’s anti-Intifada policies, could provide Saddam Hussein with the escape hatch that might let him survive again.

“It would be a tragic irony if his most dedicated enemies in Israel fought the kind of election campaign that could give the Iraqi leader a new chance to deflect that political will of the Security Council,” says Martin Walker, chief international correspondent for United Press International.

Commentators like Walker, also see the UN resolution as a vindication for US Secretary of State Colin, Colin Powell, who had strongly opposed a unilateral US military action against Iraq this summer. In August, Washington had come close to taking a unilateral military action as the so-called Iraq hawks in the Bush administration — like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — appeared to have a strong influence over President George W. Bush’s policies.