A Digest of debkafile Round-the-Clock Exclusives in Week Ending October 29, 2004:

Spreading Impact of Arafat’s Illness


23 October: debkafile‘s political and Palestinian sources disclose that Yasser Arafat’s medical advisers want him to undergo surgery to remove gall bladder stones without delay. This would mean flying him to a hospital outside the West Bank after three years of being confined to Ramallah

Prime minister Sharon would not object to him leaving, but is already under American and European diplomatic pressure to make sure he is allowed his return. Earlier this week, on Monday, October 18, a medical team from Egypt and Palestinian doctors from Jerusalem and Nablus gave the 75-year old Palestinian leader a thorough check-up after he complained of severe pains. They decided provisionally that he was suffering from stones on the gall bladder that needed to be surgically removed and an acute intestinal infection, which is the more serious ailment because of its recurrence within a short period despite medication. For a definitive diagnosis, they want him X-rayed under hospital conditions which are lacking in Ramallah.

Even in extreme pain, Arafat keeps his eye on the main chance. He and his close aides have grasped that ill health offers him an opportunity to break out of the siege Israel clamped down on his Ramallah quarters after the failed Karin-A weapons smuggling episode in January 2001.

The deterioration in Arafat’s health has caught Sharon unawares. He is currently in full tilt of an assault on government and parliament to hammer home his disengagement plan against massive resistance. The distraction of Arafat’s sudden departure from Ramallah threatens to slow down his plans in the short term. A long term threat cannot be ruled out. Established in an Arab or European country, the Palestinian leader would pose a different sort of peril, one that could undermine Sharon’s disengagement scheme. If and when Arafat recovers, he may decide not to return to Ramallah. He may find he has more freedom of action and broader international support for running the Palestinian political and terror war against Israel from a base in an Arab or European capital, like Paris. But for the moment, Arafat has been so weakened by pain and high fever that he has given up the Ramadan fast and cancelled appointments.


For Sharon, One Hurdle Overcome, Dozens to Go


24 October: The bill grading compensation rates for evacuated Jewish settlers scraped past its first hurdle at the cabinet meeting Sunday, October 24, by a vote of 13 ministers to 6. The split in Likud is deepening as the pro-Sharon and anti-evacuation camps pull hard against each other in the 48 hours running up to the Knesset vote Tuesday, October 26. The prime minister is counting on 65-66 supporters in the 120-member house. A large portion will come from the left-of-center opposition that will plug the hole left by the 17+ rebels of his 40-member Likud and their right-of-center supporters.

But even if a Knesset majority favors disengagement, the Likud rebels will fight on and try to topple the Sharon government by defeating the 2005 national budget or some other crucial measure. The danger is real. The Sharon government rested on a parliamentary minority of 58 before the revolt and will continue to skate on extremely thin ice. The irreparably fissured Likud poses an invitation to opposition parties to wait at every corner for a chance to bring the ruling administration down.

If Arafat is able to escape his three-year confinement in Ramallah to a supportive overseas haven, he will bequeath Israel a Gaza Strip in shambles and a dysfunctional Palestinian Authority and security mechanism.

Two unpublicized developments demonstrate the hopeless situation in the territory:

1. Chiefs of Palestinian security and intelligence services, Hamas, Jihad Islami and the Popular Resistance Committees live in hiding in well protected havens or work underground – in fear of one another. Amin al Hindi, head of Palestinian General Intelligence, for instance, sleeps, eats and lives in his closely guarded office at intelligence headquarters for fear of assassins. Mussa Arafat, commander of Palestinian armed forces in the Gaza Strip and chief of military intelligence, never moves across the shortest distances without a 20-vehicle convoy and 100 armed bodyguards. A wholesale war of reciprocal liquidations is about to erupt and could rage for months placing Israel and its army in an impossible situation. All the groups and gangs are deeply involved in the machinery of terror against Israel and will resort to attacks, including Qassam missile barrages, to score points in their feuds.

2. Arafat’s headquarters has turned its attention to duplicating Gaza-style mayhem to West Bank towns. The disintegration of governance, law and order, and military and intelligence frameworks, well advanced in Gaza has begun in West Bank too. debkafile‘s Palestinian sources report that Arafat’s objective is to create a roiling, formless mass in place of organized authority, so that not only Israel, but the United States, Arab governments – primarily Egypt, and the Europeans have no one to engage on the Palestinian side in any diplomatic process.

Israeli and Palestinian security officers who came together informally last week at a secret overseas venue failed to arrange the orderly handover of Jewish residential locations and public utilities after the Gaza Strip settlers’ evacuation. Because of the anarchy governing the territory, the Palestinians were unable to present a coherent plan to match the schedule the Israelis presented.

The mini-conference between Israeli and Palestinian delegates that British premier Tony Blair planned to open in London on the same day as Tuesday’s Knesset debate on disengagement was cancelled on the advice of British intelligence agents who had just fled the Gaza Strip. They said there was no chance of the Palestinians putting together a proper delegation. The same advice came from Egypt, which has backed out of any role in the pullout.

Under international law, Israel may not disengage unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. Its responsibilities as occupying power remain in force for as long as there is no legitimate recipient willing to take over. By making sure that no one will touch the unruly territory with a barge pole, Arafat has cut Sharon’s disengagement plan adrift. Israel will find it has no choice but to send the army back into the Gaza Strip again.


Sharon Has 14 Days to Decide between Early Poll and New Government


26 October: Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was that close to losing the crucial Knesset vote Tuesday, October 26, on his plan to uproot Israel’s civilian and troop presence from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. His comfortable victory of 67 lawmakers to 45 against and 7 abstentions was, above all, the product of a last-minute switch by his four top ministers from no to yes. Likud’s pro-settlement rebels almost wept with disappointment.

They were not consoled when Binyamin Netanyahu, finance, Limor Livnat, education, Israeli Katz, agriculture and Danny Naveh, health, followed the lead of the last remaining National Religious Party minister and gave Sharon 14 days to announce a national referendum on the withdrawal of settlements. If not, they promised to step down, making the government’s parliamentary situation untenable.

Sharon is treating those 14 days like a bonanza. He lost no time in sacking two cabinet members who voted against his plan and is unlikely to back down in 14 days’ time – any more than he did when he was unsure of the parliamentary outcome.

Sharon has three good reasons for dismissing the demand:

First, he holds a national referendum, for which special legislation would be needed, including endorsement of the question, to be a ruse for stalling the pullout.

Second, if he gives in, the same ministers will be there to block every one of the four stages still ahead of the withdrawal program whereby the cabinet must determine which settlements are evacuated and when. The split in his government and party over settlement removal is irreparable. Not only half a dozen ministers, but also the Speaker of Parliament, Reuven Rivlin, head of the Knesset faction Gideon Saar, and chairman of the foreign affairs and security committee, Yuval Steinitz, oppose the plan.

Third, elections hold out a much better prospect. After staring down his main rival former prime minister Netanyahu over the Knesset vote, Sharon will count on the electorate – or even Likud – picking him for a third term as prime minister. Even the anti-withdrawal rebels will think twice before placing their trust in Netanyahu and company after they jumped back from the brink in the Knesset.

But he has more than one attractive option. There is little to stop him cobbling together a new coalition government with the opposition Labor party. He already has a good understanding with Labor leader Shimon Peres. Both are committed to the evacuation of Gaza and withdrawal of settlements. If Netanyahu and his gang of four make good on their threat to quit in 14 days, Labor’s quarreling factions will race each other to jump aboard the Sharon government and pick up the topnotch portfolios left vacant by the departing ministers. The chance of implementing the pullbacks will be an added lure.

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