Arafat May Soon be Out

Israel’s security cabinet decision Sunday, February 24, to slightly ease Yasser Arafat’s conditions of confinement in Ramallah was accompanied by a pullback of the tanks besieging his headquarters for nearly three months. But to leave thisWest Bank hub town – he wants to attend the Arab League summit in Beirut on March 28 – he will have to ask Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon for permission. The cabinet reaffirmed Israel’s demand for the Palestinian Authority to extradite the Palestinian murderers of tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi last year. Most ministers remain skeptical of the Palestinian claim to have arrested three killers in Nablus last Thursday, February 22.
Palestinian officials greeted the Israeli cabinet decision with rage, announcing severance of political and security contacts with Israel and calling off the second joint security commission meeting scheduled for Sunday night. The first meeting Thursday approved eased restrictions for the Palestinians.
Alongside Palestinian rage, Labor and opposition left-wing spokesmen have slammed the decision, while the hardliners hail it a victory. debkafile‘s political sources in Jerusalem, Cairo, Amman and Palestinian-ruled areas advise waiting for the arrival in Jerusalem and Ramallah of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s top political adviser, Osama al-Baz Monday, February 25. He will be continuing the initiative launched by the Egyptian president in his telephone conversation with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon last Thursday, February 22. (See separate article on this page.)
Under that initiative, Arafat will order a slowdown in the Palestinian shooting and terror campaign, though not its complete cessation – upon which Egypt will ask the US government to send retired general Anthony Zinni back to the region to continue the impetus. This sequence of events was arranged when US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s special envoy, Richard Haas, visited Cairo last week. Zinni’s return is intended to revive the trilateral US-Palestinian-Israel security forum inactive since the onset of the latest wave of Palestinian escalation following the capture of the Palesitnian Karine-A arms smuggling ship in early January. Progress in that forum will unlock the door for Arafat to attend the Beirut Arab League summit.
Over the weekend, Sharon received word from Cairo that Arafat had accepted these steps and it was Sharon’s turn to recommend his release at the Sunday morning cabinet meeting. However, the prime minister a cursory check found that the Palestinian endorsement had not come from Arafat but from non-combatant Palestinian Authority officials, Saeb Arikat, Yasser Abd Rabbo, Abu Mazen and Abu Ala. Arafat himself had said nothing. Sharon accordingly demanded an interim step before setting the Palestinian leader free.
Al Baz will therefore put the question fair and square before Arafat Monday: Do you or don’t you accept the deal on offer? If so, President Mubarak wants a clear answer and a commitment addressed to him before going forward. If not, the initiative is stalled and you remain cornered in Ramallah.
The presidential envoy from Cairo will not have to spell out for Arafat that the new initiative was put together by Egypt, with the United States and Jordan in the background. None will argue if Arafat stays confined until he sees reason.
What no one is saying out loud is that Arafat may scatter promises right and left to escape from the Ramallah trap, but he will not renounce terror. Washington and Cairo floated the new initiative to buy a measure of calm while the United States wound up the initial stages of its Iraq campaign. The Israeli cabinet’s decision Sunday was sensible in that it paved the way for Egypt to take it forward, but the final decision over the Palestinian leader’s freedom stayed in Sharon’s hands.
Egyptian emissary Osama al-Baz put off his visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah Sunday afternoon, hours before they were due to take place Monday, February 24. President Mubarak, like prime minister Sharon, are clearly in no hurry unlock Arafat from his Ramallah confinement. Since the Egyptian President is due in Washington to see President Bush on March 6, anyway, he has evidently decided to check back with the White House first before getting back to Arafat. This will still leave plenty of time for Arafat to reach the Arab League summit on March 28. In fact, he may believe that the longer Arafat is kept on tenterhooks before the summit date, the more accommodating he is likely to be. The only problem is that while Arafat is left to stew, he may decided his fastest escape route lies in further raising the level of terror.

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