A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

3 May: For the first time, prime minister Ariel Sharon sets off for Washington Saturday night, May 4, completely in the dark about what awaits him in the Oval Office. The New York Times report on Wednesday, May 1 – that the Saudi ruler arrived at the Bush ranch worried about his host’s policy vacillations and came out optimistic – only deepened the anxiety in Jerusalem. Deep forebodings were entertained about the new strategy the two leaders agreed on for “joint pressure to break the deadlock in the Middle East crisis”.

As DEBKAfile wrote earlier this week, Abdullah intends to pour Saudi money into the West Bank to rebuild not only the Palestinian Authority but also Yasser Arafat’s standing as PA chairman. Bush, for his part, will steer Sharon toward a new policy. If Sharon balks, Bush will bring the full weight of the White House to bear on him, just as he did this week when he forced him to accept the transfer to a Jericho prison of the wanted killers of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi and the end of Arafat’s confinement.

Saudi money will therefore wipe out the profits of Operation Defensive Shield and the month-long siege of Arafat’s compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The US president’s decision to play the Arafat card left Sharon too stunned to speak and with few options. This week’s UN Security Council deliberations on the Jenin refugee camp fact-finding mission might have been an added complication. However the Syrian anti-Israel motion at the Security Council was defeated not by Washington, but on the initiative of factions of the UN staff who know there was no massacre in the Jenin battle. They blocked anti-Israeli moves in the Security Council because they realized that railroading Israel would destroy the last vestige of the world body’s moral legitimacy. They therefore maneuvered the deliberations into a blind alley from which Israel somehow emerged unscathed. This set of circumstances cannot be relied upon to recur in future diplomatic battles.

Ignorant of his prospects in the White House, Sharon decided to put together some cards of his own. First he leaked details of his peace plan – one drawn up by Israel’s national security council and gathering dust in a bottom drawer. Then, he chose a more powerful card: publication of the Barghouti file.

The Ramallah Fatah-Tanzim chief Marwan Barghouti was arrested two weeks ago towards the end of Operation Defensive Shield. He has been under intense interrogation since. The file contains his testimony on how he planned dozens of shooting, bombing and suicide attacks against Israelis and recruited terrorists for perpetrating them. The testimony comes in the form of written statements, recordings and videotaped reconstructions of the attacks he led. Running through the file is his constant assertion of Yasser Arafat’s complicity. In one place he says:

“When I planned this attack and others and found we were short of funds, I turned to Yasser Arafat and told him we needed more money. Before approving the funds, the president asked me to explain every detail. He knew about each attack down to the last detail and the cost of each item needed to put it into motion.”

5 May: Now that Israel has released Yasser Arafat from confinement, American, European and Saudi sources are all talking fast in the hope of moving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict onto the diplomatic track. All that remains, they imply, is for Arafat to democratize his regime and transfer authority to non-violent hands – names of candidates for the succession are freely bruited about. The diplomats will then be free to get together for another Middle East peace conference and move the conflict forward from violent confrontation to discussion.

After receiving the Saudi crown prince last month, Bush hopes to start the diplomatic ball rolling this week when he sees the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and Jordanian monarch, Abdullah II. He will listen politely to the Israeli leader’s demand to cut Arafat out of any future diplomatic process.

None of this has much to do with the Palestinian leader’s plans. According to DEBKAfile‘s intelligence and Palestinian sources, far from preparing to step aside, he is hatching new schemes for upsetting the Bush-Abdullah-Sharon program, aiming to time a terror spectacular to coincide with Sharon’s White House talks on Tuesday, May 7. It would not be the first time that a major terror strike has forced the Israeli prime minister to cut short his Washington trip and come rushing home.

Fearing an Arafat provocation in Bethlehem – and with the Orthodox Easter celebrated on Sunday, May 5 – the Americans and Israelis pushed hard to get the deadlocked negotiations restarted on Saturday, May 4.

No sooner did the parties get together, when chief Palestinian negotiator Salah Ta’amri resigned, furiously accusing an unnamed “Palestinian source” of passing to Israel the list of 20 wanted terrorists barricaded in the church.

DEBKAfile‘s sources name the source as Mohammed Rashid, Arafat’s personal financial adviser who joined with the Israeli prime minister’s chef de bureau, Dov Weissglass, to negotiate the terms for Arafat’s release last Wednesday, May 1, from his Ramallah compound.

To win his freedom, Arafat had to eat crow and hand the head of the second most important member of the PLO, the Palestine Front for the Liberation of Palestine, over to foreign custody. Now he must mollify the Palestinian and Arab masses and regain their trust. A terrorist spectacular timed to coincide with Sharon’s meeting in the White House – might deflect their attention from his comedown.

Arafat is also keeping a wary eye on his partners-in-Intifada, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Hizballah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, neither of whom will have taken kindly to his dealing with two nations, the US and UK, committed to waging war against them. Both have staked heavily in the Palestinian struggle continuing. Saddam hands out stipends – $25,000 for the family of each suicide and $5-10,000 for the families of Palestinians who are killed or wounded in battle; the Hizballah sending over arms, terror experts and high explosives. At best, Arafat risks bitter recriminations; at worst, a physical threat – unless he moves fast to break up the Palestinian Camp X-Ray in Jericho.

Certain intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the Vatican, took fright when Arafat turned his rhetoric to the Church of the Nativity, shortly after the IDF lifted the siege on his Ramallah compound three days ago: “The Nativity Church,” he declared”, is the Palestinians’ al Aqsa in Bethlehem.” For many years, the Arab world used the arson attack on the al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem by an Australian called Michael Rohan, who was later certified as insane, as a stick against Israel.

6 May: A large number of badly wanted Palestinian gunmen were among the 200 people who dived into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem 35 days ago, just ahead of the incursion of Israeli troops and tanks, in the early days of Israel’s largest anti-terror operation against Palestinian West Bank towns. They claimed and received sanctuary in the Christian shrine.

Since then, the wanted men have been holed up in the church with a group of monks and nuns of various denominations, surrounded by Israeli tanks.

In the course of the siege, 6 gunmen were killed and 90 allowed to leave the church. Still inside are 123 gunmen, priests and others, who have been the object of feverish negotiations. Israel has demanded the handover of terrorists for trial before lifting the siege on the church and pulling its troops out of Bethlehem, the last Palestinian city from which they have not yet withdrawn. The Palestinians have been holding out.

In the past 48 hours, Palestinian sources have announced three times that the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to end the crisis have reached a successful conclusion. Three times the talks stalled, while various international go-betweens bustled between the parties.

Monday night, yet another announcement was trumpeted that a deal was all but in the bag. But this too may have been a negotiating tactic. DEBKAfile‘s Palestinian sources report that Yasser Arafat has decided at the eleventh hour to withhold his signature on the all but completed accord. In essence, its terms permit the permanent exile of a small group of hard-core terrorists, known to have committed and masterminded many murders of Israeli civilians, to Italy or some other European country. Among them is the Tanzim militia commander of Bethlehem, Ibrahim Abayat, and senior Fatah and Force 17 militants from Hebron.

A second, larger group would be transferred to the Gaza Strip, away from its members’ strongholds in Bethlehem and Hebron.

According to our Washington sources, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, in between his meetings Monday, May 6, with US secretary of state Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ordered the Israeli negotiators to wind up the Bethlehem discussions before he meets President George W. Bush at the White House on Tuesday, May 7.

The Israeli team redoubled its efforts, faced with Palestinian negotiators willing to reciprocate and terminate the war of nerves.

Still, Monday night, two snags remained.

Arafat was unwilling to afford Sharon the advantage of being able to inform the US president that Israeli forces had withdrawn from every one of the West Bank towns entered during Operation Defensive Shield.

He was even more unwilling to let three of his senior aides enjoy the kudos of resolving the Bethlehem crisis. Those aides, his deputy Abu Mazen and financial adviser Mohamed Rashid and the Gaza Strip security chief, Muhamed Dahlan, stepped into the negotiations in the last three days to haul them out of deep stalemate. Their success will enhance each of their ratings as potential successors to Arafat as Palestinian leader.

7 May: Monday, May 6, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon visited the Pentagon. On the same day, John Bolton, US undersecretary of state, disarmament expert and the closest official in that department to the White House, accused Libya, Syria and Cuba of pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The terms of this warning strongly resembled the language Washington uses in reference to Saddam Hussein. Bolton warned all three of American action to ensure they do not supply terrorists with such arms.

Regarding to Damascus, he said: “We are concerned about Syrian advances in its indigenous CW (chemical weapons) infrastructure (and believe Syria is) pursuing development of biological weapons and is able to produce at least small amounts of biological warfare agents.”

Shortly after the US issued its warning, the Hizballah fired 27 anti-air missiles from its bases in Lebanon over Western Galilee in northern Israel. Debris scattered over Shlomi and other villages in the area.

Israeli military spokesmen made haste to state that no Israeli air force planes were flying over the Israel-Lebanese frontier at the time of the Hizballah attack.

DEBKAfile‘s Washington sources report that Bolton’s warning to Damascus did not come out of the blue. It was prompted by US concern over the latest Syrian military movements in Lebanon and at home and its reciprocal ties with the Lebanese Hizballah terror group.

The Americans are concerned lest the Syrians equip the hundreds of missiles in Hizballah hands with chemical warheads – hence Bolton’s sharp warning to Damascus and its timing to coincide with the Israeli prime minister’s talks with defense secretary Rumsfeld in Washington.

The Hizballah response Monday, May 6, to Bolton’s warning was a reminder to the US, Israel and Syria too that, armed with the new Iranian Fajr missiles, the Hizballah is also a force to be reckoned with.

7 May: None of the parties to the Church of Nativity settlement in Bethlehem has reason to be proud of the text cooked up by four intelligence agencies – the American CIA, the British MI6, the Vatican’s Opus Dei and the Israeli Shin Beit. It was designed to end Israel’s 36-day siege of the shrine, extricate the terrorists harbored there and remove Israeli forces from Bethlehem after they quit the other six Palestinian cities entered for Operation Defensive Shield.

All 123 individuals were to have left the church, including 39 murderous terrorists directly responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths and injuries. Thirteen were to be flown to Egypt and wait there for the US administration to talk Italy, or some other government, round to granting them asylum; 26 to the Gaza Strip and the rest go free. At the eleventh hour, however, the Italians stalled, bitter about the “patronizing Anglo-American” who made their arrangements without bothering to consult with Rome or even discuss the details. Italy was not the only country to hold out against being made an asylum for Palestinian terrorists. At this time, no other government has been found to host the 13 Palestinian terrorists.

For three days, the Palestinians announced repeatedly that the deal was in the bag. Each time it sprang a fresh hole – typical of the handiwork of intelligence operatives who never have a complete picture to work with. They drove forward nonetheless, certain that in the final reckoning, the parties would have to sign.

The negotiating process was deliberately injected with dramatic momentum to achieve two objectives:

1. To lend a semblance of plausibility to an impossible transaction.

2. To deflect embarrassing questions to the US, British and Israeli leaders, all sworn enemies of terror, as to the morality of sending 13 hardened terrorists and murderers on a three-year jaunt to Italy – compliments of the CIA.

How will this reflect on Bush and his global war on terror?

And how will it go down for British prime minister Tony Blair and MI6 with the British commandos scouring Afghanistan’s eastern mountains for al Qaeda terrorists in a desperate attempt to prevent their regrouping for a summer assault on Kabul?

Yasser Arafat comes out of this episode as badly or even worse – his Fatah followers and the Hamas have not pulled their punches in accusing him of selling out his own fighting men.

As for Sharon, letting 13 killers assigned by Arafat to stage the bloodiest Palestinian terror and suicide missions against Israeli civilians take off for pleasant climes, will hardly give wings to his arguments for cutting Arafat the arch-terrorist out of future peace negotiations.

Israeli chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, did not directly criticize his political masters when he briefed the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee meeting on Tuesday, May 7. He merely complained that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was undergoing “soft internationalization”- thereby meeting a longstanding Palestinian demand.

In the last week, Israel bowed to heavy pressure from Washington and lifted the two sieges left over from Operational Defense Shield – the one on Arafat’s Ramallah compound and the one in Bethlehem. Mofaz’s gripe referred to the way both were resolved. The Israeli tourism minister’s assassins ended up in Anglo-American custody in Jericho, instead of being extradited to Israel for trial, while 13 wanted Palestinian terrorists holed up in the Bethlehem church are to be shipped overseas instead of being brought to justice.

Sharon has made the colossal mistake of giving British intelligence a say in fateful decisions concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict – their presence was permitted in Jericho and again in Bethlehem. That not very efficient presence, as the two episodes proved, means that Israel is allowing its war on terror to slip out of its hands; it is also a license for foreign governments – or their agencies – to decide on the disposition of terrorists guilty of murdering Israelis.

These two precedents are bound to proliferate very quickly; before Israeli knows it, international interference will be a ubiquitous presence at its highest state policy-making level.

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