Since Yasser Arafat died, US President George Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon have all paid lip service to the need for a democratic election to bring in a new Palestinian president and government who will lead the Palestinians to statehood.
At a White House news conference, Friday, November 12, Bush after talks with Blair waxed optimistic, saying: “I believe we've got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state. I would like to see it done in four years. I think it is possible.”
Bush, Blair and Sharon may hope their pipe dream comes true. But none believes it is possible under the current circumstances.
Moreover, they have all seen intelligence reports predicting that Mahmoud Abbas, the “moderate” they would like to see lead the Palestinians, is living on borrowed time. The common assessment is that an attempt will be made to assassinate him even before the scheduled January 9 Palestinian presidential election.
The choice of likely killers is wide.
It includes Palestinian terrorist groups receiving funds from Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah as well as various armed groups within Arafat's Fatah who do not want to see Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, succeed him.
The target himself is virtually unprotected. He is secured only by a handful of untrained Palestinian security men. As the November 14 shooting incident at the mourner's tent for Arafat in Gaza demonstrated, getting close to Abu Mazen is not hard, even if you brandish an assault rifle. While he was in the tent, some 40 gunmen, most of them Fatah dissidents, came right up to the silver-haired leader and fired in the air. They were sending him a clear message: Next time we'll shoot to kill. (See HOT POINTS).
Promising to halt terror deepens his unpopularity
Deeply alarmed that Arafat’s designated successor might soon join him in a Ramallah grave, some of his Palestinian Authority colleagues urged him to hire Arafat’s own presidential guard Force 17 for proper protection. Abu Mazen refused. He knew that many Force 17 members had been sent by their master to engage in terrorism on behalf of various Palestinian groups. For such operations, they were paid from Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah sources. He also saw them taking part in the shooting incident in Gaza.
According out DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Palestinian sources, political Palestinian opposition to Abbas gains with each passing day. His unpopularity has deepened since he declared his intention to halt terrorist attacks against Israel. Some doubt he will survive until election-day. And even if he does, he won’t last beyond a few months. Either a bullet will do for him or riots in Gaza inflamed by the refusal of local Palestinian leaders and militia chiefs to recognize his presidency.
Once Abu Mazen is gone, the reports say, the Palestinian Authority will collapse for good and make way for lawlessness. The terrorists, paramilitary groups and warlords will take over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, living by the gun, running protection rackets and committing armed robberies.
Sharon has publicly offered to help Abu Mazen succeed and organize elections, but our political sources report that on the quiet he is saying that Israel had better prepare for a powerful wave of terror in December and January amid total chaos in the Palestinian Authority. Israeli intelligence has also warned the prime minister that, even if Abu Mazen is elected, he will be constantly peering over his shoulder for an assassin. In that situation, he will scarcely venture to take bold action for stemming Palestinian terrorism.
Abu Mazen's survival is pivotal not only for Israel; he is also the key to the policies of the second Bush administration and its ties with Europe.
Blair and French president Jacques Chirac are urging Bush to pressure Israel for concessions to the Palestinians to reduce their economic and military distress as the best way to prop Abbas up. Bush isn't buying this premise. He told the British premier last week at the White House that he will not consider putting the screws on Israel before the Palestinians stop terror and put their house in order.
Chirac, who saw Blair in London Thursday, November 18, harangued the British press on the error of his host's ways in supporting Bush's policies on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Blair, the French president said, should acknowledge where he went wrong and align himself with Paris, which to this day has not quite swallowed the fact that Bush is the leader of the free world.
Chirac's extreme posture makes it that much harder for the United States and Europe to come to any understanding over Iraq.