A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

15 March: US envoy Anthony Zinni has as little chance of bringing off a ceasefire as he did on his previous attempts. The reason? The Palestinians are satisfied they have terrorized Israel to a draw, and are determined to press their advantage by redoubling their onslaught.

DEBKAfile analyses this perception:

Israel‘s main feats:

1. The seizure of the Karine-A arms smuggling ship, before the cargo reached Palestinian hands;

2. The capture of all Palestinian towns;

3. Deep incursions into hardline Palestinian terror strongholds sheltering in the refugee camps, to begin the task of rooting out the hardline al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades command centers run by Arafat’s Fatah. Thousands of Palestinian activists were detained and bomb and rocket manufacturing facilities destroyed.

4. Effective intelligence penetration of the most dangerous Tanzim and al Aqsa Brigades terrorist organizations, and the targeted liquidations of 70 percent of the hit and suicide teams poised ready to go.

5. The temporary removal of the Qasam rocket threat hanging over Israel’s Sharon and Shomron areas north of Tel Aviv – and possibly Jerusalem;

6. The shattering of much of the extremist Hamas and Jihad Islami’s operational capability;

7. The Gaza Strip and most of its terror machinery have been sealed off from adjoining Israeli territory;

8. These operations were achieved for a relatively small number of Israeli troop casualties and low collateral damage to civilian life.

Palestinian achievements:

1. A high degree of operational mobility against superior Israeli military strength;

2. Offensives that level both sides of the military playing field, in the face of Israel’s military preponderance. Examples: The two surprise assaults on Israeli military roadblocks at Ein Arik and Ofra; the blowing up of two Israeli Merkava tanks in the Gaza Strip;

3. The ability to constantly restart waves of mass-casualty terror:

4. The preservation of the various Palestinian security forces’ operational frameworks although IDF forces were present in Palestinian towns;

5. The almost uninterrupted flow from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to Palestinian areas of trained guerrilla fighters, arms, explosives and funds;

6. The ongoing Palestinian operational interrelations with outside terrorist groups – Hamas, Jihad Islami, Hizballah, Imad Mughniyeh, al Qaeda and Iraqi military intelligence.

This deadlock ties in significantly with the broader Middle East scene, chiefly the advancing US military preparations for its offensive against Iraq and the al Qaeda bases going up in Lebanon.

When US vice president Richard Cheney arrives for talks with Israeli leaders next week, the ground will have been prepared for him by Zinni, who sat down with Israel’s armed forces chiefs the day he arrived, Thursday, March 14, as well as with political leaders. DEBKAfile‘s military sources expect Cheney’s most important interview in Israel to be his encounter with Zinni, where concrete decisions are likely to be taken in the light of the envoy’s updated briefing.

17 March: Israelis, faced with daily terrorist attacks on civilian targets, have been smothered in a blanket of diplo-babble since the US Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni landed last Thursday, March 15. The Palestinians simply carried on as usual.

On day three of the Zinni mission, one Israeli civilian was killed and 32 injured in two terrorist attacks in the first part of Sunday, March 17 – both in the heart of Israeli cities. One or more gunmen struck downtown Kfar Saba, northeast of Tel Aviv, and a suicide bomber hit a busy intersection in North Jerusalem.

Ben Eliezer, who announced he had decided to hold back on any action in response for last week’s unprovoked attack from Lebanon on a Galilee highway, in which six Israelis died.

The defense minister was consistent: a few hours before Zinni landed, he ordered the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, to cut short the Ramallah operation and not touch the terror kingpins sheltering in Arafat’s enclave.

As soon as the US envoy arrived, Sharon asked him to convene a trilateral conference with the Palestinians, to get the truce talks going. The Palestinians refused to join the talks, demanding first a full Israeli pullout from Palestinian areas, with American guarantees that Israeli troops would not return. Israel agreed to the withdrawal as long as the Palestinian Authority took responsibility for the evacuated land. The Palestinians refused.

Sunday, they gave the US envoy the welcome that was familiar to him from his two previous mediation attempts – a hail of terror against Israeli civilians.

Nonetheless, at Sunday’s cabinet session in Jerusalem, prime minister Ariel Sharon paid lip service to all and sundry with a serpentine statement. After the ceasefire process (originally defined by CIA Director George Tenet) goes into effect, Israeli will refrain from aerial attacks and confine its targeted liquidations to “ticking bombs” – on condition that the Palestinians preserve calm.

The carnage after the terrorist attack in a Protestant church in Islamabad is horrifyingly familiar to every Israeli, who asks why President George W. Bush is so resolute about rooting out the al Qaeda brand of terror, while so anxious to accommodate the Arafat kind with smiling emissaries.

17 March: Ahead of the next US-led operation in Afghanistan, Army Maj.-Gen. Franklin L. “Buster” Hagenbeck informed reporters at Bagram Air Base Saturday, March 16, that the two-week Anaconda Operation around the Shah-e-Kot Valey had severely damaged the al Qaeda network, killed most of its most seasoned military leaders and destroyed so much of its ammunition that its members will have to find new ways of supporting and equipping themselves.

he general also confirmed DEBKAfile reports that pockets of resistance remained around Afghanistan. They are focused in two or three areas – chiefly, in the eastern Afghan province of Paktia, al Qaeda’s historic stronghold of support – and scene of the Shah-e-Kot battles – the southern city of Kandahar and the nearby province of Uruzgan, where the Taliban originated. Hagenbeck was saying in fact that ahead of the United States lie many more months of combat in Afghanistan. DEBKAfile‘s military sources report that al Qaeda commanders are just as pleased with their military performance as the American general is of his. They regard their withdrawal from the Shah-e-Kot Valley as a tactical maneuver, and expect to regroup faster than the US-led force of Australian, New Zealander, Norwegian and Afghan troops, and be ready to hit back within days. Their primary goal now is to gain the first-strike advantage in the next round of fighting.

According to DEBKAfile‘s military sources, combat-ready Taliban-al Qaeda forces are encamped not only in eastern Afghanistan, but also in the central, western and northern regions. The Pakita contingents receive supplies of men, ammunition and food from the east – ie western Pakistan, the other concentrations are supplied from northwest Pakistan, including Kashmir.

General Hagenbeck’s key sentence was: “We didn’t have operational surprise. There are no secrets in Afghanistan.”

Put another way, al Qaeda has the intelligence advantage in Afghanistan DEBKAfile‘s military sources report that to overcoming this inadequacy, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and Norwegian special forces were deployed for the first time, all seasoned in combat and intelligence gathering in high, snowbound mountain terrain. The immediate US intelligence problem now goes beyond gathering intelligence on the enemy; it is how to prevent incoming intelligence leaking out to the other side, and how to conceal US military preparations based on this incoming intelligence.

The al Qaeda network wields an army of terrorists on either side of the Pakistan-Afghan frontier, both equally hard to keep track of. This was demonstrated Sunday, March 17, when terrorists penetrated the well-guarded diplomatic compound of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and tossed grenades into a Protestant church. Five worshippers were killed and more than forty injured, including many foreign envoys and their families.

18 March: Monday, March 18, just before US Vice President Richard Cheney landed in Israel to wind up his 12-nation tour of the region, US Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni extracted from the US- Israeli-Palestinian security commission a limited accord.

Monday night and Tuesday, Israel would withdraw the last troops remaining in Palestinian sectors – the northern Gaza Strip, Bethlehem and Beit Jala, both bordering south Jerusalem – on two conditions: a) that the Palestinian Authority take full security responsibility for keeping the evacuated areas free of terrorist bases and preventing cross-border shooting and rocket attacks on Israeli targets. b) that Palestinian security crack down on the key terrorist organizations still embedded in those areas – Arafat’s Fatah-Tanzim and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the extremist Hamas and Jihad Islami.

Thus, the US mediator, on the fifth day of his mission, could report to Cheney with whom he rode to Jerusalem on the afternoon of March 18, that he had brought the warring sides one apparent step closer to a Palestinian-Israeli truce.

But all the parties are perfectly aware of its brittleness.

DEBKAfile‘s political and military sources report that the posing and the consent to Israel’s second condition were simply make believe, as long as Arafat did not issue a direct order. And the Palestinian leader would not dream of harming the group he cherishes most as the executors of his campaign of terror.

However, Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s first condition was almost as short-lived, shattered Monday night by two Qasam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip dropping on the Israeli side of the border near Kibbutz Zikim, halfway to Ashkelon. Clearly, even if Israeli tanks roll back from every last inch of Palestinian territory – in deference to the Palestinian pre-condition for ceasefire talks – the terror will go on.

Calling Sharon his “old friend”, Cheney declared he had made this journey to confer with regional leaders on issues of great importance, including the conflict and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region. He went on to say: “I come as well to reconfirm the strong and enduring ties between the American and Israeli peoples and to remind the world of the commitment of the US to the security and well-being of Israel.”

Up to that point, he made no mention of Arafat.

Referring to Bush’s vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, he stressed: “In order to realize that vision, the Israeli people must have confidence that their existence as a Jewish state within secure borders is accepted by all, first and foremost, by Israel’s neighbors in the region.”

But in the context of “a Jewish state within secure borders”. he calls on “Chairman Yasser Arafat to live up to his commitments and renounce once and for all the use of violence as a political weapon and exert 100 percent effort to stamp out terrorism”.

The reference to Arafat is therefore carefully separated from the context of the Bush vision. Instead, he is awarded a failed grade in living up to his commitments to scotch terror.

The distinct separation of the vision of a Palestinian state from the reference by name to Arafat is perhaps the most significant element of Cheney’s first words in Israel. It sounds very much as though Washington does not necessarily view Arafat as the head of a future Palestinian state.

The Palestinian leader, whose political instincts are excessively acute, will certainly have picked up on the Cheney subtext. Therefore, if Zinni’s assignment is to quell the war flames in the Israel-Palestinian arena, to buy time for America’s next steps in the Middle East and its offensive against Iraq, Arafat will make sure the US envoy does not succeed. He will raise those flames as high as he can.

19 March: When US Vice President Richard Cheney began his whirlwind Middle East tour, only one regional leader was under US ultimatum. When he left, on Tuesday, March 19, there were two: Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein.

Neither is expected to surrender.

DEBKAfile‘s US and Israeli sources report that, as Cheney headed for his broadcast joint news conference with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, US envoy Anthony Zinni sped to Ramallah. He was instructed to give Arafat due warning: Take a week to toe the US line – or face the consequences.

The US line is embodied in the Tenet work plan, which both the Palestinians and Israel formally accepted last year after its formulation by CIA director George Tenet. Its acceptance bound the Palestinian side to cease all acts of war and terror, to disband Palestinian terrorist organizations – his own Fatah-Tanzim and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, as well as the Hamas, Jihad Islami and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and arrest their terror activists. Arafat is also required to round up all illicit weapons, including explosives, mortars and rockets, sever his ties with fellow-terrorist bodies overseas, such as the Hizballah, and the terror and intelligence groups sponsored by Iraq and Iran, and staunch the outpouring of anti-American and anti-Israeli hate propaganda over their media.

Cheney broke new ground in yet a second key respect: He put Saddam on the spot by turning the screws on Arafat. Now, if Arafat meets America’s truce demands, Iraq stands to lose its forward line of defense against a US offensive and the option of opening a second front to ease US pressure.

In Cheney’s hands, two ultimatums tacitly merged into one.

Sharon responded to Cheney’s tactic by sacrificing one of his most precious precepts, the refusal to enter into political negotiations under fire. Accordingly, on Tuesday, March 19, Israel’s extended security cabinet endorsed the unilateral acceptance of the Tenet ceasefire blueprint and undertook to apply the Mitchell plan thereafter. This was deemed a fitting quid pro quo for the American stratagem that pushed Arafat into sharing a corner with Saddam Hussein.

Like Arafat, Syrian president Bashar Assad, was cold-shouldered by the US vice president, who skipped Damascus in his tour. Assad will not have missed the ultimatum dealt out to Arafat, and will understand that he too has been put on notice by Washington to abandon his ties with the Hizballah and Baghdad, or else.

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