A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

26 April: Israel’s peacenik opposition and its European sponsors seek concessions from the Sharon government to crown the kudos Arafat deserves for his “magnanimity” in giving way to the Palestinian prime minister designate on the makeup of his government. The fact that he continues to pursue his campaign of terror at full blast is not the point, it is argued. The point is that he has earned the right to be a partner in the Middle East road map – even though it was designed to purge the terror and corruption he instituted and make the Palestinians fit for statehood by replacing their leaders, chiefly Arafat himself.

The weeks of relative freedom from terror Israel has enjoyed have come about thanks to round-the-clock counter-terror operations by the Israeli armed forces, police, special units and intelligence, aided by curfews and closures. Palestinian attempts to send suicide killers into Israel are unrelenting. End the crackdown – and the Palestinian suicide bombers, funded and sanctioned by Arafat in person, will break through in force.

However, the removal of these restraints is exactly what insistent European voices, including British leaders, are demanding. According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the Europeans and their Israeli following are running ahead of themselves. US policy-makes took careful note of a statement the Fatah West Bank secretary Hussein al-Sheikh made last week: “Now that the Palestinians have done their share, it is up to the Israelis to do theirs by withdrawing from all Palestinian towns and lifting the siege over the Muqataa (Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters).” Hussein al-Sheikh has been revealed by Washington’s intelligence sources as the Palestinian terror network’s new “minister of finance”, Arafat’s paymaster who distributes operational funds to the Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs (Suicides) Brigades, Jihad Islami and the Hamas.

Intelligence assessments reaching Washington explain that Arafat is impatient to move Israeli forces out of his way in Ramallah because he is in the middle of a major reorganization of his terrorist resources, drawing command centers in from West Bank towns to Ramallah so as to place them under directly under his hand and bring his suicide killers within easy reach of Jerusalem six miles away. US intelligence analysts conclude that neither Abu Mazen nor his internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan has the slightest hope of restraining Arafat. All they can do is try and develop parallel instruments of government to Arafat’s rule and stay afloat by blaming the continuing Palestinian terrorism on Israeli’s refusal to play its part in the road map.

In any case, the Bush administration has more urgent fish to fry. Secretary of state Colin Powell’s most important Middle East stop will be Damascus, not Jerusalem or Ramallah.

The three-point US ultimatum to Syrian president Bashar Assad, revealed last week by debkafile, stands today more firmly than ever. Saturday, April 26, Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and member of the House International Relations Committee said after an interview with the Syrian president: “I told (Assad) that Syria’s position in the US dropped dramatically as we saw the transfer of military equipment from and through Syria to Iraq, and a large number of Syrian fighters joining a doomed and dying regime in Iraq. This was a very bad and historic mistake, and the time is long overdue to correct the course of Syria’s policy.” He added, “We find that there should not be headquarters of terrorist organizations in Damascus. These should be closed… Secondly, the ongoing support and supply of Hizballah military activities through the airport in Damascus must end.”

Abu Mazen will not be let off more lightly than Bashar Assad. This does not mean that Israel will escape demands for concessions, even painful ones, but not before the blight of terror is seriously addressed by the two Arab regimes.

29 April: Rumors continue to surround Saddam Hussein’s fate since he disappeared.

debkafile‘s intelligence sources have turned up strong evidence that the deposed ruler and his sons were carried to safety in Minsk in late March aboard two chartered airliners. This week, the Polish news agency PAP sent a team of reporters to the Belarus capital to check on this account. They quote Natalia Pietkiewicz, spokesperson at President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s bureau, as evading a direct reply when asked if the former Iraqi ruler was in the country. She said: “We have no information that Saddam Hussein is in Belarus.” This is a long way from a flat denial.

The big question is how did the trio and its following of several hundred manage to elude coalition air forces, by then in full command of Iraqi skies, a question which leads to another: How did the men at the pinnacle of enemy power come to survive the two wars the Bush administration fought in less than two years?

Part of the answer lies in the “deep enemy penetration” tactic first employed for the 1991 Gulf War, when US intelligence officers went behind the front lines in Kuwait armed with personal data on targeted Iraqi battalion and divisional commanders. Their mission, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed in its last issue on April 25, was then and now to negotiate surrender terms before coalition forces came on the scene. It explains how Iraq’s 45 army divisions seemed to go up in smoke as the campaign progressed and the country’s oil and gas installations came out of the war by and large undamaged and ready to pump oil for export (as defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted during his tour of Iraq Wednesday, April 30), save for a small number of oil fields torched in southern Iraq.

All these gains bear strongly on the key question of who is to be given charge of governing ad rebuilding the New Iraq.

The Americans have been set back by the jumble of political, religious, ethnic and tribal impediments to setting up a functioning, democratic administration. Although no American official has said a word on the subject, it is beginning to look as though the only organized Iraqi force that does not need to be pacified and is capable of getting down without delay to the tasks of restoring order and reconstruction may turn out to be the thousands of Iraqi generals, their subordinates and men, who shed their uniforms in the war and went home.

The conscription of Iraqi ex-soldiers army for national tasks would necessitate:

A. Vetting and sorting an extremely large body of men to unearth those with potential for becoming efficient civil servants and to weed out Saddam loyalists.

B. Keeping them out of reach of Saddam and his sons.

C. Teaching them to work within the democratic structures Washington is charting for post-war Iraq.

D. Gradually preparing Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities for integration in the national ruling administration.

30 April: As night follows day, a Palestinian terrorist attack was bound to follow the approval of the new Abu Mazen government on Tuesday, April 29, in Ramallah. In fact, it was carried out during the night between his cabinet’s approval and its swearing in Wednesday morning April 30 as the first Palestinian prime minister supposedly dedicated to fighting terror.

Yasser Arafat must have had his next operation well in hand when he urged the Palestinian Legislative Council meeting at his office in Ramallah to endorse a cabinet originally conceived to root out the terrorism and corruption he instigated. After failing to torpedo the new administration, Arafat made a big show of adopting it, while first rendering Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) helpless to carry out the reforms that would have cleared the way for the revival of a peace process on the road to Palestinian statehood.

The attack which killed three and left more than 60 injured at Mike’s Place on the Herbert Samuel seafront promenade a few yards from the American embassy in Tel Aviv was Arafat’s way of saying that he – not Abbas – would determine the course of action and destiny of the Palestinian people. His own Fatah proudly took responsibility for the strike, together with the Hamas, which is totally committed to defying any ceasefire initiatives.

The speeches Arafat and Abu Mazen delivered to Palestinian lawmakers left no room for illusions. After promising the Palestinians a state whose capital would be Jerusalem, Arafat invited those who stand against him “to go and drink the salt water of the sea!” This has been Arafat’s triumphant battle cry since September 2000, his way of informing adherents that their campaign of terror is unbeatable and would go on.

He is known to have targeted American victims at every opportunity, although on the quiet. Now the mask and gloves are off. Assuming the victorious posture of the only Arab Muslim leader remaining to challenge the world’s number one power – Saddam Hussein was vanquished in 30 days and Bin Laden has failed – Arafat confidently and unequivocally declared war on the United States – and not just in the Palestinian-Israeli context. In ringing tones addressed to the entire Middle East, he called on the Shurfa (noble men) and “free men” to fight the American occupation of Iraq.

Mahmoud Abbas, who addressed the PLC after Arafat, did not dispute his predecessor’s message. He offered no fighting words that might indicate he meant to fulfill the hopes reposed in him of stamping out Palestinian violence. Most media misreported him as promising to rein in terror. They had no direct quotes because he made no such promise. His only commitment in dry, legalistic tones was to impose law and order on “Palestinian chaos” under which only authorized officials would be permitted to carry arms. All in all, the incoming Palestinian prime minister’s soft words were taken by his Palestinian listeners as a plea to terrorist groups to keep their heads down for a while until the heat from Washington was off

When Powell stood up in the US Senate Tuesday night and demanded that Abu Mazen act now, it was a case of the show must go on. The secretary of state knows perfectly well that Arafat never leaves his quarters in Ramallah lest Israeli forces pounce on 200 of the most vicious master-terrorists in the region whom he has been sheltering there since last year. No foreign nation, even the United States, can be expected to deal with the scourge blighting Israeli lives, any more than Abu Mazen, Dahlan or any other Palestinian. Since no Israeli prime minister – whether Labor’s Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak or Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon – has so far been willing to put his hands in the lion’s mouth and remove Yasser Arafat in person, Israelis on the street, in the markets, shopping malls, cafes, buses, schools, night spots and highways, will have to keep on looking over their shoulders for the next Palestinian suicide killer before and after the Middle East road map is published.

1 May: The long-awaited road map charted by the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union was presented without fanfare to the Israeli and Palestinian governments on Wednesday, April 30, only 16 hours after a suicide bomber killed three people and injured 60 at Mike’s Place, a seafront Blues club near the US embassy in Tel Aviv.

debkafile‘s diplomatic sources are beginning to believe that the road map has so many obstacles stacked up against it that it may in the end lead nowhere.

Phase I requires the Palestinians to unconditionally end terror and violence.

There is little hope of that given the timing of the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv and the statements of intent coming from Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen when the new government was presented to the Palestinian parliament on Tuesday, April 20. Those events reflect the Palestinian leadership’s true intentions, as spelled out in earlier articles on this page. As things stand now, the entire road map enterprise looks like grinding to a halt before moving out of Phase I.

In short, no one seems to be in much of a rush.

Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and secretary of state Colin Powell have been sent out to scout out the area and test their findings against the various options – a process that will take time. But the White House has a time limit. Campaigning for the November 2004 US presidential election gets started in earnest next January or February, which leaves the Bush team with seven or eight months to capitalize on the Iraq War and choose the correct options for making its aftermath a success and ushering in an era of peace and stability.

Given this time limit, the White House is focusing on the two objectives that appear most promising: Bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end and negotiating an Israel-Syrian peace treaty.

Even the spectacle of Bush, Sharon and Abu Mazen ceremonially signing an interim peace treaty at the White House would enhance the standing of all three signatories. But Assad’s attendance at a similar ceremony carries the promise of a rush of votes to Bush’s table.

In their disparate ways therefore, three leaders are getting set for the period following the Iraq War: The US administration has sent its top officials to canvass options, Sharon’s office is reorganizing to meet the needs of intensive peacemaking and Yasser Arafat, while never easing up on his terrorist campaign, has allowed Abu Mazen to be installed as prime minister and the best man for taking advantage of any peace perks on offer.

But Washington may find progress a lot less feasible than imagined. All the three sides have completely different expectations from the Middle East road map.

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