A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

24 May: According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the Bush team is divided on how to deal with Iran’s persistence in developing nuclear weapons and continued shelter for al Qaeda members operating from its soil. Some of the president’s White House advisers and certain factions in the CIA and the Pentagon favor direct action – another group advocates quiet negotiation.

The first group offers following arguments to support tough action:

1. Iran is playing a double game – while pretending to cooperate, the ayatollahs are in a covert race to make the Islamic republic a nuclear power and present Washington with a fait accompli. American cannot let them get away with it. Let us first destroy their nuclear program, then go back to the negotiating table.

2. Eradicating the Iranian nuclear option will be a lesson for North Korea, whose only foreseeable source of revenue for its own program is Iran. So action against Tehran’s program would kill two birds with one stone.

3. It would also serve as a graphic lesson to Syria and the Lebanese Hizballah that Washington’s demands are not to be trifled with.

The pro-diplomacy factions in the White House, the CIA and the State Department maintain:

A. Iran’s leaders are open to reforming their regime in line with American demands. These reforms should be extracted quickly before any thought of war action.

B. The US government knows by now that changing an entire system of national government is arduous, difficult and expensive. In Iran with a population of 60 million, three times that of Iraq, the enterprise would be hugely daunting.

C. If Tehran can be persuaded to scale down its nuclear ambitions from a bomb to a limited option, then China and North Korea, who rather than Russia are Iran’s primary suppliers of nuclear and missile technologies will have lost their best client. Iran’s switch to the American sphere of influence will leave the Chinese and North Koreans with nowhere to go but to play ball with the Americans on nuclear non-proliferation.

E. Quiet, discreet understandings with Tehran could open up the way to good working accommodations with Iraq’s Shiites, as well as Syrian leaders and the Iran-backed Hizballah.

A heavy outlay of effort and patience is worth while if they lead to pricking the hot bubble of Shiite militancy and anti-Americanism and achieving pragmatic co-existence under the American aegis. The Sunni Muslim extremists would be left isolated by their belligerence and terrorism – witness the Palestinians and the multi-branched al Qaeda network.

25 May: Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was drawn into saying yes to the Middle East road map and fitting unreservedly into America’s geo-strategic box for the postwar Middle East by three key inducements:

First – The building into the Bush master plan the systematic disarmament by the United States of Israel’s most dangerous enemies – Iraq first, to be followed by the attempt to dissolve Iran’s nuclear weapons option, steps to eliminate Syria’s missile systems and weapons of mass destruction and the Hizballah’s military capabilities, as well as in the long term, the curtailment of Egyptian and Libyan N-bombs programs. All this, without Israel having to sacrifice a single soldier, fire a single shot or expend its military and economic resources. For the first time in its history, Israel stands to find itself liberated from all its next-door enemies in the space of three or four years.

Second – The prospect of Yasser Arafat’s eclipse on the international and Palestinian stage. The United States has acquired a new partner for the job of tightening the noose of isolation around the terror master’s neck – Saudi Arabia.

Third – Sharon has been assured by the Bush White House – though not publicly – that Washington will back him in resisting any attempt to include the return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees in a final-status accord. Washington also promises to go along with leaving the main Jewish settlement blocks in place on the West Bank.

These incentives for Israeli acceptance of the road map carry a steep price tag.

For the first time since the Six Day War – and however strenuously this may be denied – a foreign power from outside the Middle East will be responsible for governing Palestinian Authority areas. Israel and its armed forces will have lost their freedom of action to combat terror emanating from these regions. The IDF will have to give prior notice of incursions, and eventually require permission from those outside “coordinators”.

No one mentions Jerusalem, a particularly intractable issue. At some point, the US administrators-coordinators will almost certainly want to extend their jurisdiction to the Palestinian residential districts of the Israeli capital, including the Old City, which also happen to occupy the sites of supreme Jewish historical and religious importance.

Sharon’s passivity and his total conformity with the Bush administration’s policy lines have seriously devalued Israel’s geopolitical and regional standing. In the shadow of a strong American military presence in the region, along with US allies like Britain, Australia, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Israel is being reduced from a regional power to a segment of the very local Israel-Palestinian conflict. The regional centrality formerly occupied by the Israeli-Turkish military pact has been sidelined since Turkey lost its strategic value to Washington, leaving Israel with the single regional asset of its military cooperation pact with India.

Furthermore, Israel’s hopes of an economic shot in the arm from Iraq’s reconstruction projects have been disappointed. Having foregone much of its own freedom of action and independent policy-making, the Sharon government will find itself left with meager defenses against undue assaults on the country’s national interests.

This situation has partially disabled the Sharon coalition cabinet as an effective instrument of governance, leaving most of the ministers dependent on three rival decision-making centers: The prime minister’s office and Sharon’s personal advisers, who exercise most of the government’s real powers; a second faction which supports finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu whose hope of regaining office as prime minister motivates most of what he does; the third power center, which is headed by defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who stays clear of insider politics in order to focus on his tasks and prevent interference.

26 May: The forty-member Likud parliamentary party hurled bitter complaints against prime minister Ariel Sharon Monday, May 26, for failing to consult the party before he presented the Middle East road map to the cabinet for endorsement on Sunday, May 25. It was carried by a narrow majority of 12 to 7 ministers and four abstentions. None of the Likud ministers voted against the document. Even the nay-saying coalition hawks did not walk out of the Sharon coalition.

Former foreign minister David Levy attacked the government for accepting a Palestinian state. For a much lower price, he said, “the left” would have got us full peace. One MK accused the Sharon government of accepting “Oslo C” – a reference to the 1993 Oslo accords signed by a Labor government, long anathema for Likud and nationalist parties.

Sharon replied by declaring:” Maintaining three and a half million Palestinians under occupation is a bad thing. One and a half million are in the care of international organizations. Do we want to take over? Can we? Asked what would happen if the Palestinians continued to wage a war of terror, he said thumping on the table: We will continue to fight terror day and night as we do now and the Palestinians will get nothing. Without our consent, nothing can go forward.

When a representative from the West Bank town of Ariel asked about building a new neighborhood, Sharon replied: Expansion to accommodate natural growth is not restricted. “Go and build houses for your children, your grandchildren and maybe even your great grandchildren.”

debkafile‘s political analysts note that Sharon is the first Israeli prime minister to use the term “occupation” in reference to Israel’s presence on lands captured in the 1967 all-out war launched by its Arab neighbors. He thereby risks providing fodder for future anti-Israeli UN resolutions, writers of international treaties and international courts, including war crimes tribunals, seeking grounds for incriminating Israel or any individual acting in its name. The Americans mindful of this potential legal trap were careful to refer to their invasion of Iraq as liberation rather than occupation.

26 May:  The Israeli government’s narrow endorsement of the Middle East road map on Sunday May 25 – and acceptance of a Palestinian state at the end of the road – far from removing the obstacles to peacemaking, accentuates the difficulties facing the next stages.

debkafile‘s US and Israeli security sources report increasing signs that Yasser Arafat is now seriously gunning for the new Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas. Arafat cannot abide the notion of any top-level conference going forward without him. The plot he is thought to be preparing would inculpate Israel for any harm befalling Abu Mazen or his associates. He would thus show the Palestinians and the Muslim world that his arm is still long and that if anyone is bent on sabotaging the prospects of peace it is Israel.

Arafat is busy with a complicated scheme that may start with an attack on someone close to Abbas or a Washington-backed appointee as a warning to the Palestinian prime minister to remove himself while he still has time. He is reported going to the lengths of waking up or importing secret sleeper terror cells kept till now in reserve. Not all their members are Palestinian. They include bearers of Canadian and European passports, genuine or forged, like the two British terrorists who carried out the April 30 Mike’s Place bombing. The attack, which was meant to hit the US embassy, was set up and prepared in Damascus by Hamas and Hizballah planners and comprehensively supported by Fatah and Hamas teams in the Gaza Strip as well as Fatah, al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hamas accomplices on the West Bank.

debkafile‘s intelligence sources totally refute the reports broadcast last week claiming Syria had shut down the Damascus offices of Palestinian terror groups in response to a sharp American ultimatum. They discovered that Jihad Islami and Hamas operational leaders supposedly expelled to Beirut, Cairo and Qatar to throw the Americans off the scent have all gone to ground in Syria. The Jihad Islami’s Abdullah Salah Ramadan, Zeid Nahla and Ibrahim Shehada, as well as the Hamas’s Mussa Abu Marzuk, Khaled Mashal and operations chief Imad al Alami are all in hiding under the protection of Syrian military intelligence. A senior Israeli security source commented: “Having this collection of top terror operatives under cover and working overtime is not good news for anyone.”

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