A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

27 January: More time for the inspections is now the prime issue before the Security Council members. However, this is the last commodity the Bush administration can afford to offer after so many declarations and delays.

The British government found an unconventional means of announcing the disclosure on March 1 of a new dossier revealing the locations of Saddam Hussein’s hidden VX and Sarin stocks on the basis of “human intelligence”. The disclosure came in the middle of a Sky TV News panel program on Monday, January 27, just a few hours before the Blix-ElBaradei performance at the Security Council. It was made by Robert Fox, the British network’s senior political editor “on behalf of our government”.

According to DEBKAfile‘s Washington and London correspondents, the British disclosure was the opening shot of the joint US-UK strategy of letting the Security Council and inspection team go their own way, while proceeding with military action against Iraq, without waiting for authorization from the world body.

At best, clandestine data might be shared with UN inspectors in dribs and drabs. As debkafile has reported before, the Americans suspect the inspection teams are penetrated by Iraqi double agents who make regular reports to Baghdad. This was as much as admitted by Hans Blix in his report to the Security Council. Last week, when the inspectors set out for an unannounced visit to a site suspected of containing engines for the prohibited long-range al-Hussein missiles, they met with unaccountable holdups. An American spy satellite discovered why when it photographed Iraqi military crews hurriedly loading engines from the site aboard giant trucks.

The most telling aspect of the British disclosure is the date: March 1.

The promised British revelation of Saddam’s secret chemical weapons cache is timed precisely to coincide with the still tentative timetable for launching war on Iraq, whether by a cruise missile blitz, heavy air bombardment, or paratroop landings at the concealed WMD sites and their destruction.

Because of the tight time factor, a competition has sprung up between the two opposing camps: the United States, Britain and their covert allies, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, versus the anti-war faction led by Russia, France, Germany, China and the United Nations. Members of the second camp may well switch sides once the offensive is in progress, but first they must show their own peoples and the Muslim world that they were ready to put up a fight to prevent it – even at the risk of an open breach with Washington.

The American-led camp is also taking a grave risk, that of mortally wounding the United Nations. Many observers wonder how long the world body will survive if the United States goes to war against Iraq in flat defiance of its institutions and majority will.

However, Security Council members opposed to the war likewise drove the world body into a no-exit situation by their unanimous endorsement of Resolution 1441. Their failure to back the Bush administration now could put the world body’s survival in jeopardy. The United Nations itself, and not just Saddam Hussein, face existential danger over the whole unconventional weapons issue.

The inspectors have been awarded one more month to wind up their investigations in Iraq, no real concession when the war dateline is one month hence anyway, the time needed for American war planners to complete their military buildup and meet the President’s conditions.

At the same time, the Bush administration has been making Herculean diplomatic efforts to bring the war opponents round; it was Colin Powell’s main mission at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. An Israeli emissary, Efraim Halevy, head of Sharon’s National Security Council, was asked to pay a visit to Moscow over the weekend. According to debkafile‘s sources, Halevy presented the Kremlin with documents and data exposing joint Iraqi-al Qaeda planning for mega-terror attacks in Europe and the Middle East, as well as Russia. The hope was that this would melt Vladimir Putin’s resistance to the US offensive and prepare the way for the telephone call British prime minister Tony Blair put through to President Putin Monday, January 27.

However, Putin stuck to his guns – notwithstanding Israeli intelligence evidence of a major terror threat to Moscow involving Iraq and Blair’s persuasiveness.

27 January: Israel’s election campaign was an exercise in fading credibility.

Two days before the poll, Labor’s eminence grise, dovish Shimon Peres – former prime minister and foreign minister, echoed by ex-party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer – faithfully repeated Amram Mitzna’s vow never to join a government led by Ariel Sharon.

Friends of Labor and top pundits then declared the prime minister would be forced to be satisfied with a narrow-based, ultra-nationalist government bloc, commanding roughly half the Knesset and be prone to the internal manipulation and instability that plagued the last two governments and forced three elections in three years.

All the polls empower (Change) as scale turner despite its fuzzy positions on most key issues. The only clear statement coming from Lapid is a vow never to sit in the same government as Shas.

DEBKAfile‘s political analysts assert that none of these three pledges and premises will survive the vote-counting.

— Some, though not all, Labor politicians will take their seats at Sharon’s cabinet table after being convinced that the prime minister has taken steps towards advancing the peace process with the Palestinians.

— Sharon will lead a national unity government with one of the strongest majorities of any Israeli administration – without the National Union, which advocates voluntary transfer for the Palestinians.

— Lapid and his followers will not resist the lure of a couple of portfolios at least, when confronted with the national emergency of a looming US war with Iraq and threat of mega-terror.

According to DEBKAfile‘s sources in Jerusalem, at least two of these post-election realities are already accomplished facts. The prime minister’s chef de bureau and confidant, Dov Weissglass and former minister Dan Meridor are engaged in advanced dialogue with Peres on the Israeli version of the “road map” for President George W. Bush’s two-state Middle East vision. Approval of the Middle East Quartet’s version was postponed until after the Israeli election. Accord on the Sharon government’s version will open the way for Peres to rejoin the new government. He officiated in the outgoing government as foreign minister until Labor walked out last October.

As a senior architect of the 1993 Oslo peace framework accord with the Palestinians, Peres, who is pushing 80, is unlikely to put his name to a new “road map” document, or join the Sharon government, without prior consultation with his partner in Oslo, Yasser Arafat.

But after being marooned so many times by Arafat’s broken promises, Peres is making sure that the Palestinian leader’s close advisers, his financial guru Mohammed Rashid and national security adviser Mohammed Dahlan, are fully committed to the Peres-Weissglass blueprint and make sure it is signed by Arafat. He hopes that even if Arafat behaves in character and goes back on this accord, Rashid, Dahlan and their factions will abide by the “road map” formulated by and on behalf of… Ariel Sharon.

The annual World Economic Forum gathering at Davos this week was selected as the perfect venue to demonstrate to the Americans and Europeans that the Israel-Palestinian dialogue is back on track on the eve of the Iraq war. Both Peres and Rashid chose to attend and be seen together.

The Israeli voter should therefore be prepared for at least two surprises when the 55th Knesset convenes in Jerusalem.

One, if Labor is dumped to third place for the first time in its history, at least four ex-ministers will find their way back into the Sharon government, as a result of which Binyamin Netanyahu may lose his job in the foreign ministry to Shimon Peres. Mitzna and faction may split off and join the dwindling left wing Meretz.

Two, Sharon will be seen to have laid the foundations for the creation of a Palestinian state, albeit on depleted land with limited sovereignty

29 January: The Israeli electorate greeted the January 28 general election apathetically, only 68.5 percent bothering to vote for the 120 men and women who will sit in the 16th Knesset. Ariel Sharon’s Likud was generally tipped as the big winner, although its 38 seats went beyond expectation.

Nonetheless there were a couple of surprises. Left-wing, dovish Meretz was severely battered, falling from 10 to 7 seats. Its leader, Yossi Sarid, resigned on the spot. The Labor leader, Amram Mitzna, received the party’s worst electoral defeat in its history – from 25 in the outgoing Knesset to 19 – in the ringing tones of a victor: “For me this is a marathon and we’ve only covered a few kilometers. Our intention is not to join Sharon but to replace him as an alternative government party.”

The second new face thrown to the top by the election was that of the former journalist Tommy Lapid who gathered up a strong protest vote by campaigning against government subsidies and military exemption for the ultra-religious communities, singling out the Sephardi Shas. He declared he felt the heavy weight of responsibility for the future of the country, called on Sharon to form a “national secular” administration without Shas, and proceeded to dictate the next government’s program: Every able-bodied Israel must serve in the armed forces, no religious coercion and a sensible peace and war policy. Labor must act responsibly and join this government.

In any case, Sharon and Likud perceive a national unity administration as more than a partnership between the political left and right, but rather a popular crosscut representation, such as secular versus religious, Ashkenazi versus Sephardi. Shas, despite losing one-third of its list – 17 down to 10 – will be invited to join an administration led by Sharon – not despite but because of his wish to co-opt Labor and Shinui, since both the latter are predominantly Ashkenazi parties. Therefore, Lapid’s “secular” government is totally unrealistic as long as it is up to the Likud leader to form the next government.

So too is his demand to conscript every able-bodied Israeli Jew.

The Israeli Defense Forces has no need of universal conscription, although circumstances in the Middle East may alter this. In fact, more than one group is granted exemption. New immigrants over 25, tens of thousands of them, are not obliged to serve in the military either.

As for the Labor leader, Mitzna may find his do-or-die oath to keep “Labor under my leadership” out of any government headed by Ariel Sharon untenable. The grim faces of ex-ministers Shimon Peres, Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Matan Vilnai when he repeated this Tuesday night should warn Mitzna that his 60-day old leadership might not suffice to keep the party whole and united against joining the next government.

These old hands might make a dash for the Sharon line-up – and not only because of the way Labor crashed under the new star. They know the party is shrinking in the sense that it has no reserves or social strata to draw on to rejuvenate its ranks. In the last seven years, Labor has aged, lacking appeal to the rising generation or newcomers to the country.

Compared with this stagnancy, other Knesset factions have moved on. The new House will be more secular, right-leaning, youthful and feminine than the outgoing one. Seventeen members of the Likud’s thirty-plus parliamentary party are new to politics and seven are women. Shinui provides a fresh and vigorous, albeit unformed, pull for disenchanted Laborites and youngsters.

The election also belied the pundits and pollsters who predicted that the electorate would grant the prime minister barely enough votes to form a narrow-based new administration dependent on right-wing extremist factions and unlikely to survive full term. As it turns out, Sharon is sitting pretty. He has the option of assembling a centrist government based on a narrow majority without right wing factions. Or he could delay coalition negotiations until the third or fourth week of February, meanwhile leading a caretaker administration, in the expectation of the US launching its offensive against Iraq. The concomitant peril to Israel would ease the path of Mitzna and Lapid into the new government, divesting them of their ifs and buts. They will find it difficult to gainsay Sharon’s election-enhanced authority or challenge his program in this time of emergency when, as he stressed in his victory speech Tuesday night, January 28, he shares the same principles as the President of the United States.

Indeed, Sharon is the first Israeli prime minister since 1996 to survive Yasser Arafat’s campaign of terror and machinations, which successfully unseated Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. The Likud leader has in fact doubled his parliamentary strength and is preparing a peace offer that will amount to the dictation of capitulation terms to the Palestinian leader.

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