A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives
28 June: For the Palestinians to begin upholding their June 4 Aqaba summit pledges, another strong shove was needed from Washington. It was administered this week in a telephone call from US secretary of state Colin Powell to Palestinian internal security minister Mohamed Dahlan. debkafile‘s Washington sources report Powell as saying in effect: The Hamas everyone is talking about is made up of no more than 500 to 1,000 armed men. If Dahlan can’t get them under control and stop their terrorist activity, “someone else” will take over and finish them off one by one.
A demonstration quickly followed. Early Friday, June 27, a team of the Israeli naval commando Unit 13 raided a Hamas fastness in the southern Gaza Strip, killing three terrorists and capturing another three. The Israeli side lost one fighter, Staff Sgt. Erez Ashkenazi, 21, from Kibbutz Reshafim.
A few hours later, the Palestinian minister dropped his unremitting demands for Israeli and American concessions and resigned himself to finally talking turkey. He agreed to assume Palestinian responsibility for terror prevention in the areas turned over by the Israeli military and promised also to act on Israeli intelligence tip-offs on impending attacks. Whereupon Israel set a date for pulling its troops back from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem, starting Monday, June 30 and reopening its borders to Palestinian traffic.
The deal is far from perfect. The Palestinian commitment defers action to stop Qassam missile and mortar strikes against Israeli locations in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel to some time in the future. Moreover, there is no timeline for the dismantlement of terrorist organizations. The Abu Mazen-Dahlan team is counting on saving themselves the trouble of breaking up the Hamas, Fatah and Jihad Islami terror groups by accepting the flimsy ceasefire on offer.
Yet Israel is pulling back pretty much to the lines it held up until Yasser Arafat’s armed confrontation erupted on September 29, 2000. A trilateral US-Israeli-Palestinian mechanism led by the American CIA is left to monitor the implementation of these accords – even though this recipe failed disastrously once before. The same mechanism collapsed in the hail of bullets the Palestinian liaison officers fired at their Israeli counterparts soon after September 29 while they were on joint patrols and together in their shared liaison headquarters.
Still, the White House is cautiously praising the new arrangements. In the welter of accords, palaver and cautious celebrations, no one is mentioning Yasser Arafat or checking to see how irrelevant he really is to all the new arrangements.
29 June: What did the US President’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice really come to the Middle East for? To get the Abu Mazen-Dahlan team started on the war against Palestinian terror? Not a chance. They presented her with a list of demands a mile long when she met the duo in Jericho on Saturday, June 28. They also informed her that a partial, temporary, conditional truce was their limit. If that would not do, the Palestinians would turn to the international community for guarantees and a large buffer force to take over Washington’s role as go-between. What about the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem? That package was neatly tied up well in advance of the presidential adviser’s visit – as debkafile reported on June 16.
debkafile‘s political sources have discovered that Rice’s real mission during her day in Israel – Sunday, June 29, was to start the remaking of Ariel Sharon’s government. She followed up on her boss’s suggestion at the Aqaba summit on June 4 that the Israeli leader might be better off without his right-wing coalition partners and with the opposition Labor party who would be more amenable to concessions to the Palestinians. In subsequent trips to Washington, Sharon’s chef to bureau Dov Weisglass was given to understand that the Bush administration was not a particular fan of Israel’s Labor party but was keen to have Shimon Peres, Labor’s interim chairman and popular figure with the Palestinians as a peace negotiator, back at the helm of the foreign ministry. The reckoning in Washington is that a Sharon government made up of biddable Likud ministers, Labor and Change would quickly freeze the right-wingers out, including the few Likud ministers who would be uncomfortable with the new setup and its policies.
Without them, the Israeli government would be more amenable to the next stage of the Bush blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian peace that will come up some time during the presidential election year of 2004. Then, an Israeli government will be needed in Jerusalem with a guaranteed ability to execute evacuations – not only of fringe outposts, but of thriving Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank to make way for a Palestinian state. The White House does not want to risk this plan going awry.
Foreign minister Silvan Shalom was therefore handed the first pink slip, asked if he would mind vacating his ministerial seat in favor of Peres.
For obvious reasons, no hint of this maneuver was published. The only content officially leaked from the Rice luncheon meeting with Israel’s inner cabinet was the ministers’ solid resistance to her criticism of the security fence under construction along the Israel-West Bank border. For the first time in military history, a defense line was thus called up to serve both as a red herring and a substitute for military action to eliminate terrorists. The Sharon government has clearly bowed to the Bush government’s demand to give up fighting terror. Under assault now is a poor substitute, the partially built static defense line that is no proof against continuing terrorist incursions.
2 July: Jerusalem was the scene of a piece of show business on Tuesday, July 2. Two prime ministers, Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas stood on their respective lecterns at the Israeli prime minister’s office in Jerusalem Tuesday, July 2, and gave a showcase peace performance that was broadcast around the world.
In Washington, US secretary of state Colin Powell had a simple explanation for Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon stepping so completely out of character as to follow a U.S.-charted “road map” to peace with the Palestinians and an independent state of their own. He told Fox News on Wednesday, July 2, that it was the US victory in Iraq that convinced the old war horse to tread the peace track. However, Sharon was motivated by reasons of his own.
Cut to Tel Aviv University where Avi Dichter, director of Israel’s Shin Bet – the domestic security agency charged with detecting and stopping Palestinian suicide bombers in their tracks – warned that the moment of truth would arrive in about three weeks when the Palestinian prime minister and his internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan would have to start collecting illegal weapons from terrorists, especially Hamas. If they failed, Israel would be constrained from handing any more Palestinian towns on the West Bank. “The entire diplomatic process will stumble and could even break down,” Dichter said.
On Israel’s place in the larger world scheme, Dichter observed:
“For Iran, Israel’s destruction is not just a pipedream but the subject of an active operational program. Teheran continually stokes up violence between the Palestinians and Israel, investing cash, arms and manpower in upgrading terrorist action, sending its spies over and fomenting anti-Israeli subversion. Today, Iran ranks as the number one terrorist state in the world. Israel finds it difficult to contend with the Iranian threat on its own,” Dichter said.
Returning to the Israeli prime minister’s reasons for playing along with Washington, Sharon believes that Israel, with all its military and intelligence prowess, could not take on a combination of Syria, Hizballah and al Qaeda single-handed. It is obliged to depend on its foremost ally, the United States, a dependence which has a steep price, acceptance of a Palestinian state, which the Israeli prime minister alone is capable of selling to the Israeli public just as Bush believed that he was capable of selling the Iraq War to Americans.
Both face the first cracks in their game plans.
A. In Afghanistan, despite Washington’s declaration of victory, the war on terror is far from over, any more than it is in Iraq. Not only is Osama bin Laden at large, but he launched his summer offensive with massive terrorist attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca in May. Needless to say, other attacks will follow against American targets and US allies, including Israel.
In Iraq, the Saddam regime has been overthrown, but the deposed Iraqi ruler and his sons remain at large and anti-American violence in the country is just beginning. Like bin Laden, Saddam has embarked on a summer guerrilla offensive in central Iraq, including the capital Baghdad, whose outcome is still to be seen.
B. Bush and Sharon have not tackled the fountainhead of Palestinian terror, Yasser Arafat.
C. It looks therefore as though the three masters of terror, bin Laden, Saddam and Arafat have weathered America’s mighty campaigns against them and are fully capable of inflicting grievous harm. Indeed, each in his own way is a potential threat to Bush’s prospects of re-election in November 2004, as well as a dire menace to Israel and Sharon’s hopes.