Arafat Turns to Damascus to Get Egypt out of His Hair

Pushing hard against his failing health, isolation and weakened position in the Palestinian and Arab world, Yasser Arafat has gone into hyperactive mode to dodge international heat for reforms in the Palestinian security forces, fend off Egyptian dictates and, most importantly, to trip up Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan.
debkafile‘s intelligence and Palestinian sources reveal that a top-level Palestinian delegation has been in Damascus since the end of last week waiting to be received by Syrian president Bashar Assad. Their mission is to heal the twenty-year breach with Arafat that Bashar inherited from his father Hafez and so pave the way for establishing a Syrian-Palestinian front – with possible Iranian backing – to defeat Sharon’s plan and keep the Egyptians out of Palestinian affairs.
The delegation, led by Arafat’s personal secretary Rumsi Khouri, consists also of Palestinian culture minister Yihya Yahlaf, who is known for his good connections in Damascus, Samir Rifai a Jordanian Palestinian leader, Tawfiq Salaha from Bethlehem and Anwar Abdul Hadi from Nablus. They have met Syrian minister Farouk a Shara and handed him a four-page working paper in Arafat’s handwriting that lays out for Assad a plan for joint Syrian-Palestinian task forces who will have the job of negotiating and executing the unification of Palestinian “forces” – binding together Fatah and its suicide army, al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the fundamentalist Hamas and Jihad Islami, and the radical Palestinian groups based in Damascus. This united front would constitute a high political and security authority with the power, so Arafat believes, to neutralize the unified Palestinian security force that Egypt and the British MI6 with US backing are striving to create on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It would also throw a spanner into Sharon’s disengagement project.
The Palestinian visitors have asked for permission from the Syrian authorities to interview the head of the Damascus-based Hamas political committee, Khaled Mashal, while they are waiting. If given, it would be taken as a sign that Assad looks with favor on Arafat’s bid for an association. This would be an important breakthrough for Arafat after being persona non grata in Damascus since 1983.
Arafat is also working with some success to cool any willingness in Cairo to assume a security role in areas evacuated by Israel, especially in the Gaza Strip and its border zone. Intelligence minister General Omar Suleiman has again delayed his trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah until later in June. Arafat also believes that with patience and perseverance, he can wear down the eagerness of British MI6 to step into the breach.
In private conversations, he curses the Egyptians and the UN Secretary’s Middle East envoy Terje Larsen – in between long conversations with the Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Moratinos, an old friend from the time he served as European Union Middle East envoy, in which he explains how wrong Europe is to play ball with the Americans on Sharon’s disengagement plot. debkafile‘s intelligence and Palestinians also reveal that, last week, Arafat summoned Palestinian security chiefs and warned them he might have no option but to sack some of them. He asked them not to blame him; it was the fault of those plotting against the interests of the Palestinian people. The officers, accustomed to Arafat’s roundabout mode of expression, deduced two messages:
1. The whirl of activity in the United States, the UN, Europe, Egypt and Israel around the Sharon evacuation plan is injurious to the Palestinian people and must be thwarted.
2. It is permitted to accept alternative sources of income – for instance, for collaborating with alien forces such as the British secret service MI6. Arafat’s officers may accept the “operational expenses” the British are offering to defray for setting up operations centers with local Palestinian commands. They need not reject the fleet of new vehicles the British are laying on for their personnel. (Last week Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz licensed the delivery of hundreds of these vehicles through Israeli ports.)
Arafat is not averse to such associations as long as the Palestinian interest is uppermost in the minds of his followers. Anyway, it would not be the first time Palestinian security officers collect wages from two or even three parties. Until recently, $50,000 transfers were remitted by Tehran for suicide operations. Now, the money goes to Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah units standing by in Iraq for a terrorist offensive. So British money is now kosher, especially when no demand is made of Palestinian security personnel to actually crack down on Palestinian terrorists; a cursory show of intelligence-gathering and patrols suffices.
Arafat trusts these maneuvers to keep him afloat until opportunity comes round for him to apply one of his six levers for the coup de grace against Sharon and the enemies keeping him cornered.
A. Egypt is far from enthusiastic about getting embroiled in Palestinian affairs, whether in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.
B. Except for the British, this apathy is shared by the Europeans and the UN who are distancing themselves from Palestinian demands on their pockets.
C. Iraq is the cynosure of international attention at this moment. Every party with a Middle East interest is waiting to see how US-UK forces fare in their fight to put down Baath guerrillas and other insurgents during the transition to Iraqi sovereignty. Will the American side aim for victory or continue to back off halfway as it has done in the case of the Iraqi guerrilla and radical Shiite insurgencies which are still simmering after two months? Arafat will seek to transpose any indecisiveness in Iraq to the Israel-Palestinian arena.
D. Sharon’s disengagement strategy stands or falls by the same Palestinian trio supposed to have underpinned Palestinian-Israel security collaboration between 1995 and 2004: the Palestinian-Kurdish financial manipulator Muhammad Rashid, Gaza Strip strongman Muhammed Dahlan and his West Bank opposite number Jibril Rajoub. The last two served respectively as head of the preventive security forces of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. All three have always deferred to Arafat. He can still knock them over.
E. Arafat toys easily with his underlings’ fear of being purged; but he also generates an underlying threat of violence and assassination. Almost a year after his resignation as first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas – aka Abu Mazen, in an interview to Newsweek magazine, let it be known for the first time that his life had been menaced through Arafat’s Fatah heavies as long as he maintained relations with the Americans and Sharon. He was left with no choice but to step down.
F. In Arafat’s view, the Sharon government is growing progressively weaker and incapable of lasting full term, even if his coalition is stiffened by Labor.
To capitalize on these assets, Arafat needs time. More immediately, he faces two roadblocks:
One,should the Middle East Quartet decide to funnel reconstruction funding to the Gaza Strip directly and not via the Palestinian Authority, he will miss his rake-off and, even worse, the cash will end up with Dahlan, who will then become the single arbiter of the territory. Attempts to prevent this keep Arafat on the phone to Europe.
Two,he fears an American will be placed at the head of the group supervising Palestinian reforms. Arafat is determined to keep Americans out of his security organizations. He drove US agents out at the outset of his uprising in 2000 and will do everything in his power to keep them out in 2004.

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