Mahmoud Abbas will arrive at the White House on July 25 seriously disempowered by Yasser Arafat, the very man whose authority he was appointed to curtail in order to stamp out Palestinian terrorism.
A glimpse into the strange world of Palestinian politics may illumine – if not explain – why every single Palestinian-Israeli peace effort in more than a decade has come undone moments after it was put together.
The head of Egyptian intelligence, General Omar Suleiman, arrived in Ramallah on Wednesday July 17 to perform urgent repair work on the capsized power-sharing deal between Palestinian “president” Yasser Arafat and prime minister Mahmoud Abbas. The Egyptian general, who has been intimately involved in the thankless task of peacemaking among the various Palestinian organizations for more than a year, came to try his hand at a truce between the two top Palestinian officials. In a huff over in-house criticism, Abu Mazen last week resigned from the two key Palestinian ruling bodies, the Fatah central committee and its revolutionary council.
The word going round Palestinian drawing rooms in Ramallah was that Abbas had a letter of resignation as prime minister in his pocket and was weighing whether to present it to Yasser Arafat.
The prime minister acquired by the Palestinians was always there on sufferance for Arafat. To this day, Palestinian high policy is set in one place, Arafat’s shell-pocked office in Ramallah, although quite a lot of wheeling and dealing is carried out in the drawing rooms of his appointees elsewhere in the town, the equivalent of the private power clubs of Washington, London or Paris.
Every Palestinian bigwig, be he politician, security official, intelligence chief or terrorist commander, lives in a handsome, spacious villa in the city. Faced with reddish or ochre Jerusalem stone, often surrounded by a rose garden, these residences are invariably enclosed by a high wall equipped with the latest video surveillance system.
The VIP is served by a staff of six to eight (10 are considered an extravagance) – secretaries, bodyguards, drivers and a servant who pours out endless thimble-sized cups of thick Turkish coffee. On the move, a member of his retinue will carry his cell phone.
Day and night, these VIPs visit each other accompanied by their attendants. They settle down in soft leather arm chairs and talk. The big difference here is that in the club-lands of Western capitals, the movers and shakers usually do real business and get things done; in the Palestinian drawing rooms, Arafat’s “courtiers” talk for the sake of talking, droning on, shooting the breeze, in an aimless exercise that gives Palestinian politics its special lassitudinous flavor. Behind their high-flown titles and big jobs, none has any illusions; “The Ra’is” Arafat will have the last word.
As he did last Wednesday.
Abbas arrived in Arafat’s office for their sulha with high hopes. In the drawing room palavers he had gained the impression that Arafat had decided to bury the hatchet and turn over a new leaf of cooperation – even though an ulterior motive was undoubtedly present as well. He understood Arafat was buying a respite for recruiting new fighting strength to bolster the intelligence and security forces under his personal control.
Arafat has managed to keep hold of more than 70 percent of the various Palestinian security forces, making sure he – and not prime minister Abbas and his internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan – is the power in the land. This point Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon hammered home to British premier Tony Blair when they meet in London this week and in a speech to British Jewish leaders. Sharon tried to persuade the Blair government to sever its ties with Arafat – to no avail.
Still, though shorn of almost all the troops he needed, Abu Mazen entered the Muqata on Wednesday believing he was home and dry and the power struggle was over. He had also been assured in a telephone call from Cairo that the Egyptian security chief would not be wasting his time traveling to Ramallah without an advance guarantee from Arafat’s people that the coming interview would produce a real reconciliation between the two Palestinian leaders and a new chapter in their relations. Suleiman was particularly encouraged by the invitation to the meeting Arafat extended to the pro-American Palestinian finance minister Salim Fayyad, whom the Palestinian leader calls in private an “American puppet”, whom he systematically boycotts and whom he makes sure never gets to see the real records of the Palestinian Authority’s finances.
Even Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, who slipped into Ramallah almost unnoticed on Tuesday, July 15, came out of a private lunch with Arafat bucked up. In the hour he managed to squeeze in with Abu Mazen before flying back to Moscow, Ivanov declared his certainty that “from now on everything will be all right between you and Arafat”.
But once again Arafat pulled a fast one. No sooner had the meeting begun when the smiles froze on the faces of Suleiman and Abbas.
As a senior Palestinian official present put it to DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “The Ra’is, as usual, said one thing and did another. He promised a new page and cooperation, but did he say what would be written on that page or what he meant by cooperation? Like a great film director, he bowled Abbas and Suleiman over with a surprise script.”
Their first sight on entering Arafat’s office was a row of Abu Mazen’s most vocal adversaries in the ruling Palestinian bodies. His allies were conspicuous by their absence. Instead of being devoted to reconciliation and cooperation, the occasion quickly turned into a sort of revolutionary tribunal session with the Palestinian prime minister in the dock and the object of abuse. Pilloried and humiliated, Abu Mazen and his supporters, including the Egyptian official, ended up bowing to Arafat’s dictates.
“In the end, Abbas was beaten into giving Arafat full authority over his decisions and actions,” said the source.
That authority was translated into formal, bureaucratic measures that Arafat forced the meeting to approve. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources report the formation of three new committees:
Supreme Palestinian Negotiating committee
This body gives Arafat ultimate control of all diplomatic contacts with the United States and Israel. Its tasks are to determine Palestinian negotiating strategy and issue directives binding on all Palestinian representatives in any diplomatic talks. All decisions will be approved in advance by the committee.
Committee Chairman: Yasser Arafat.
Supreme Palestinian Military and Security Committee
This body gives Arafat ultimate authority over every part of the Palestinian security system.
All Palestinian security agencies are subordinate to this committee, which comprises chiefs of security, intelligence and police agencies, along with internal security affairs minister Mohammed Dahlan. As committee members, the security chiefs are promoted to the same rank as Dahlan thus leaving him stripped of authority over them. If the minister wants to hire or fire, he must first get the committee’s endorsement. This panel is also empowered to fire him.
By this move, Arafat neutralized Dahlan, depriving Abu Mazen of his “security and intelligence bite.”
Committee Chairman: Yasser Arafat.
Secret Arbitration Committee on Premiership Powers
This body effectively reduces the prime minister to a cipher.
The committee will censor Abu Mazen’s actions as prime minister. Its small composition will be kept secret to prevent exposure to outside interference or pressure. Whenever Arafat deems the prime minister to have overstepped his authority or initiated policy without sanction from the competent Palestinian decision-making bodies he will ask the committee for a ruling, against which there is no appeal. This panel is not mandated to examine Arafat’s actions or powers.
Committee Chairman: Yasser Arafat.
Abbas’ closest associates strongly advised him to reject the measures and restraints Arafat imposed as his price for reconciliation – or at least delay acceptance until the end of summer. They warned him he dare not swallow the worst humiliation conceivable for a Palestinian leader.
He turned a deaf ear, saying that whatever the cost, it was preferable to living under the constant strain of Arafat’s threats. He also counted on the Americans and Europeans to bring all their weight to bear on Arafat and rein him in, so that he could get on with his job as head of Palestinian government unimpeded.
However, the new regime lost no time in swinging into action.
The Supreme Negotiating Committee – chaired by Arafat – convened and gave Abu Mazen permission to meet Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on July 20 and travel to Washington to meet the US president George W. Bush on July 25.
The panel meets again next week to instruct him what to say in the White House, or more precisely, how best to present Arafat’s demands to the US president.
Just over a year ago, Bush called for a new Palestinian leadership untainted by terror. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in his turn, declared the US peace initiative would be revived when a Palestinian prime minister with powers was installed.
Yet today Arafat is still calling the shots. He has managed to outgun Abu Mazen and strip him of the power to carry forward his policy of seeking accommodation with Israel purely by peaceful means. He has avenged himself for last month’s summits in Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba which affirmed the Bush vision of a Middle East peace. By force and craft, he has pulled Palestinian feet off the path of engagement and back onto the course he has set for them. He has reduced the prime minister who dared to talk peace on behalf of the Palestinian people in Aqaba to a marionette who will henceforth speak only the words he dictates.
This is not just political maneuver. Events moving forward on the West Bank and Gaza Strip betray Arafat’s true objectives, as enumerated by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources.
West Bank: Arafat’s Fatah has stepped up recruitment to the Tanzim militia and its suicide arm, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the two groups which carry the brunt of terrorist attacks in and from the West Bank. It is dismantling old units and creating new ones ready for a fresh terror offensive. Logistical structures are being located in different hideouts and taking delivery of quantities of explosives and new weapons flooding in from Syria and Lebanon. Damascus is also relaying huge sums of money – mostly from sources in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Israeli forces are passively watching the massive rehabilitation of Arafat’s terrorist legions and resources, powerless to intervene for fear of being accused of violating the US-brokered ceasefire declared by Palestinian terrorist groups on June 29.
Gaza Strip: Since the Gaza Strip was handed over to the Palestinians, twice as many weapons and explosives are being smuggled in through the Egyptian and Israeli borders and by sea. More than 24 Palestinian weapons factories are in full production, having been furnished with orders, materials and cash for augmenting their production lines and doubling output.
Israel’s security cabinet was given an intelligence report last week disclosing Arafat’s instructions to factory and workshop owners to produce 1,000 advanced Qassam surface missiles by mid-August or early September – when the three-month truce expires. The new model’s range is estimated to have been extended from 8 to roughly 20 or 25 miles (32 km to 40 km), bringing Israel’s southern coastal cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod in their sights, together with more than half of Israel’s electrical power plants and oil installations which are located there.
According to this intelligence report, the Palestinians have been testing the new longer-range missiles by firing them from Gaza into the Mediterranean. Their objectives are, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, two-fold. One, the new missiles need routine testing to gauge their capabilities and faults. Two, by launching the rockets without prior notice, they keep Israeli missile boats at bay and so throw off the Israeli naval blockade imposed on the Gazan coast to intercept arms smuggling ships from Lebanon and keep them from reaching shore.
The contraband cargoes originate with the Lebanese Hizballah terrorist group and are funded by Iranian sources in the country.
The rocket-testing gambit has worked. Arms ships are putting in to Gaza with greater frequency. A similar deterioration is reported for the smuggling routes from Egypt. When Israel pulled its troops out of the Gaza Strip and handed over to the Palestinian Authority, only two functioning smuggling tunnels were left linking the southern Gaza Strip, mainly in the Rafah region, to Egyptian Sinai. Ten are operating now and another four are under construction.
These are sophisticated underground facilities capable of processing weapons systems, crates of ammunition and explosives as efficiently as any modern packing factory or international cargo terminal. The tunnels start at the Egyptian end from large structures or courtyards then snake over to the Palestinian side along routes quarried under the densely populated neighborhoods of Rafah and Khan Younes.
At the end of their report, the Israeli intelligence analysts reached the conclusion that the only explanation for the furious pace of Palestinian rearmament, recruitment, renovation and expansion is Arafat’s determination to pursue the course of violence.
His strategy is plain; he will opportunistically exploit the diplomatic track, as he has the current truce, to further his ends, deploying Abu Mazen as his instrument.
The Palestinian prime minister will keep on talking to Sharon to manipulate Israel into continuing to pull its troops out of West Bank towns and advancing enough concessions as artificial respiration to keep the diplomatic process alive. Territory vacated by the Israeli army will be instantly turned into Palestinian staging areas for building and training new and stronger security units. The truce will keep them safe from Israeli attack.
Abbas will continue to clamor in Washington for more and more Israeli concessions. He will argue that the more “gestures” the Bush administration can wring from Sharon, the more popular he will be at Arafat’s expense.
In his White House talks, Abu Mazen will attempt to brush off the new Arafat-dominated committees as bureaucratic devices with little real say over his actions. To make sure they support him, he needs to prove he can bend the Israelis to the Palestinian will.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources disclose that the Abbas line to Bush will be that on matters of principle, he is his own man. To prove it, he will maintain he has not retracted the letters of resignation he submitted to the Fatah central committee and revolutionary council, where Arafat also enjoys a majority. He will refrain from explaining that this action also strengthens Arafat’s hand, leaving him completely unopposed in both key policy-making bodies and free to ram through any resolutions he wishes.
Abu Mazen’s spiel to the US President will boil down to this: My struggle with Arafat will be long and hard with many ups and downs. While I am not capable at present of standing up to or isolating Arafat, I will do my best to hold him in check and turn him away from violence to engagement.
However, Mahmoud Abbas’ best is nowhere near good enough. He lacks the political dynamism, sophistication and personal authority for carrying forward the peace process against a foe of Arafat’s caliber. Dahlan, the “powerful” security chief he relied on for steel and backbone, was easily deactivated by Arafat.
Bush and Sharon again find themselves without an effective Palestinian peace partner, unless of course they decide to go back to dealing with the intractable Arafat.
The prospects in Iraq are not much brighter.