Arafat Plans to Torpedo US-Led Diplomacy

Now that Israel has released Yasser Arafat from confinement, American, European and Saudi sources are all talking fast in the hope of moving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict onto the diplomatic track. All that remains, they imply, is for Arafat to democratize his regime and transfer authority to non-violent hands – names of candidates for the succession are freely bruited about. The diplomats will then be free to get together for another Middle East peace conference and move the conflict forward from violent confrontation to discussion.
After receiving the Saudi crown prince last month, Bush hopes to start the diplomatic ball rolling this week when he sees the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and Jordanian monarch, Abdullah II. He will listen politely to the Israeli leader’s demand to cut Arafat out of any future diplomatic process.
None of this has much to do with the Palestinian leader’s plans. According to debkafile‘s intelligence and Palestinian sources, far from preparing to step aside, he is hatching new schemes for upsetting the Bush-Abdullah-Sharon program, aiming to time a terror spectacular to coincide with Sharon’s White House talks on Tuesday, May 7. It would not be the first time that a major terror strike has forced the Israeli prime minister to cut short his Washington trip and come rushing home.
Arafat appears to be considering three possible scenarios:
1. A fire or a bloodbath in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, for which Israel will be blamed;
2. A terrorist attack on the Jericho prison facility under American and British guard, to break the PFLP Secretary General Ahmad Saadat and financial adviser Fuad Shobaki out of jail.
The IDF has concentrated troops around Jericho to foreclose this threat.
3. A determined effort to overcome the back-to-back Israeli military counter-terror sweeps of West Bank towns and resume suicide attacks on Israeli buses and crowd centers.
Fearing an Arafat provocation in Bethlehem – and with the Orthodox Easter celebrated on Sunday, May 5 – the Americans and Israelis pushed hard to get the deadlocked negotiations restarted on Saturday, May 4.
No sooner did the parties get together, when chief Palestinian negotiator Salah Ta’amri resigned, furiously accusing an unnamed “Palestinian source” of passing to Israel the list of 20 wanted terrorists barricaded in the church.
debkafile‘s sources name the source as Mohammed Rashid, Arafat’s personal financial adviser who joined with the Israeli prime minister’s chef de bureau, Dov Weissglass, to negotiate the terms for Arafat’s release last Wednesday, May 1, from his Ramallah compound. Rashid fact arranged for the handover of the entire list of 123 individuals still trapped in the church after 90 came out and 6 were killed. Among them are 10-20 senior terrorists, who Israel demands for trial or exile to a third country.
The involvement of one of Arafat’s top men in the Church of Nativity impasse can be interpreted as one of Arafat’s circuitous ploys. He wants to keep the negotiating track open, but at the same time avoid being seen to surrender any more Palestinian militants after he was trapped into giving up Saadat and Shobaki.
Rashid is trying to deal with Israel on the basis of the complete list – all or nothing.
Certain intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the Vatican, took fright when Arafat turned his rhetoric to the Church of the Nativity, shortly after the IDF lifted the siege on his Ramallah compound three days ago: “The Nativity Church,” he declared”, is the Palestinians’ al Aqsa in Bethlehem.”
For many years, the Arab world used the arson attack on the al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem by an Australian called Michael Rohan, who was later certified as insane, as a stick against Israel.
On the night of Arafat’s release, the wanted Palestinian activists barricaded in the church for five weeks started three small fires in the church compound. They were put out before they spread or damaged the fabric of the church, but signposted a threat – particularly now that the Palestinian leader badly needs a face-saver.
To win his freedom, he had to eat crow and hand the head of the second most important member of the PLO, the Palestine Front for the Liberation of Palestine, over to foreign custody. Now he must mollify the Palestinian and Arab masses and regain their trust. A terrorist spectacular in Bethlehem or Jericho – especially if timed to coincide with Sharon’s meeting in the White House – might deflect their attention from his comedown. Even if the Church of Nativity negotiations end with a deal, Arafat is perfectly capable of vetoing it at the last minute or moving his confrontation to Jericho. In his case, even when it’s over, it isn’t.
Israeli forces have accordingly been beefed up in Bethlehem, together with substantial fire-fighting units. They are also standing ready in case of a Palestinian attempt to snatch Saadat and Shobaki in Jericho from their unarmed British and American wardens. Arafat loses face every moment the pair remains in American-British hands. He is not only accused of trading their freedom for his, but of a compound betrayal, planting the Americans and British in the heart of Palestinian territory, the powers the Muslims most hate for leading the war on the al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Arafat is also keeping a wary eye on his partners-in-Intifada, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Hizballah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, neither of whom will have taken kindly to his dealing with two nations committed to waging war against them. Both have staked heavily in the Palestinian struggle continuing. Saddam hands out stipends – $25,000 for the family of each suicide and $5-10,000 for the families of Palestinians who are killed or wounded in battle; the Hizballah sending over arms, terror experts and high explosives. At best, Arafat risks bitter recriminations; at worst, a physical threat – unless he moves fast to break up the Palestinian CampX-Ray in Jericho.
Putting the problem in the hands of the Palestinian General Prosecutor will not keep either of them or Saadat’s Damascus-based comrades at bay.
Informed Palestinian circles and Israeli intelligence sources estimate that Arafat faces a dilemma between taking action to break the two men out of confinement and rooting out the American-British presence, or letting his allies engineer the business from the outside.
The palaver in Washington next week may therefore be accompanied by the harsh sounds of violent action in Bethlehem or Jericho, or even suicides stalking Israel’s city centers.

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