Azzam’s Release Marks Mubarak’s Withdrawal as Palestinians’ Patron
In the first week of March, a senior Israeli intelligence official visiting Cairo collected a Note from president Hosni Mubarak informing prime minister Ariel Sharon that he had decided to let Azzam Azzam go. He was only waiting for the right moment to free the Israeli Druze textile engineer who was sentenced in 1997 to 15 years in jail on a charge of spying for Israel. Mubarak’s decision was first revealed by debkafile on March 11.
Azzam’s imprisonment was ever a sore bone of contention between Jerusalem and Cairo and an issue every Israeli official visiting Cairo never failed to raise. Israeli Mossad chiefs consistently denied he was a spy. Relations between the two peace partners, never warm, turned frosty in the four years of Yasser Arafat’s terror war against Israel. Shortly after it erupted in 2000, Cairo withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv.
The Egyptian president took ten months to carry out his promise but when he did it became a symbolic watershed: Just as Azzam’s incarceration put up backs in Israel, his release Sunday infuriated the Palestinians who caught the message. Egypt had stopped indulging the Palestinians and their “struggle;” Mubarak was no longer their patron; he had decided to join the Americans and Israelis in an effort to make them set their house in order with no nonsense about Arafat’s legacy.
The ten months leading up to that decision fall into two clear periods:
1. The nine months prior to Yasser Arafat’s death on November 4 during which neither Mubarak nor Sharon ventured to make a move against him or his policies. In those dark months, the atmosphere was far from conducive to a personal act of goodwill by the Egyptian president towards Israel.
2. The day after Arafat’s passing until December 5, when Azzam Azzam arrived home to an ecstatic reunion with his family in the Galilee village of Mughar after eight years of jail with hard labor. In that brief month, Mubarak came to a historic decision worthy of his predecessor Anwar Sadat: to sever Egypt’s constricting bonds with the Palestinian cause and reverse their former roles. The key to this reversal would be the return to the peace relations with Israel inducted by Sadat’s 1977 pilgrimage to Jerusalem and embodied in their 1979 peace treaty.
Azzam Azzam’s release betokened this about-face. From now on, Egypt’s government instead of keeping step with the Palestinians is determined to govern their fate by deploying Egyptian officers and intelligence agents in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in line with policies shared with the US and Israel. The CIA and Egyptian intelligence will work together in the field under the direction of Egyptian intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman. Sharon will instruct Israeli military intelligence and the Shin Beit to cooperate fully with the Egyptian force.
This cooperation will carry on discreetly so as not to impair the chances of the fourth wheel of the cart, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), of attaining office as chairman of the Palestinian Authority in the January 9 election.
The process kicked off by Azzam Azzam’s release has four faces – depending on the beholder.
Israel: The warming up of Egyptian-Israel relations will be dramatized by a deep thaw in their semi-frozen economic relations. Israel will become a channel for Egyptian exports to the United States, similar to the common free trade and industry zones operating between Israel and Jordan. President Mubarak will visit Israel (though not Jerusalem). Sharon’s stunted government will acquire a new allure; reluctant partners, especially Labor, will be eager to join his new line-up and so empower him to execute disengagement from Gaza plan.
Egypt: Cairo will appear to extend the Palestinians a lifebelt to rescue them from disintegration, restore their society to health and set it on the road to statehood. This feat will make Egypt the Number One Middle East power. Immediately after the January 9 Palestinian elections, an Arab summit will be convened – probably in Saudi Arabia. Mubarak and the new Palestinian Authority chairman will take the stage and ask for a pan-Arab seal of approval plus financing. Mubarak will be riding high at home and on the Arab front when the time comes to
transfer government to his son, Gemal Mubarak, at the end of next year or early 2006.
America: The revival of the peace model established by Sadat and Menahem Begin a quarter of a century ago – extended now to embrace a Palestinian partner – will go down as a stunning achievement credited to George W. Bush – and may even do some good in Iraq. Iraqi Sunnis, influenced by progress on the Palestinian front, may soften enough to go back on their boycott against the January 30 elections and support Iyad Alawi as prime minister.
Syrian president Bashar Assad will find himself backed up in a corner and made to choose between deepening his ties with radical Iran and jumping aboard the Egyptian-American cart.
The Palestinians: They will be told that Egypt’s presence in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and Cairo’s sponsorship of Abbu Mazen are their only hope of escaping from their woes; most of their cities and villages are encircled and blockaded by Israeli forces, more than 60 percent of the population live in desperate poverty. Accepting Egypt will be presented too as their passport to Palestinian statehood at the end of next year as promised by the US president.
But once the four faces are put together, at least four serious problems emerge:
A. Israel will be asked to pay the heaviest territorial, military, political and strategic price for the four-way settlement. It is hard to image Bush nor Mubarak – and certainly not Abbas – being satisfied with Israel retaining the largest part of the West Bank and relinquishing only its northern tip. Sharon will be squeezed hard for more substantial territorial concessions and larger settlement evacuations.
B. Anwar Sadat paid with his life for the great transformation he wrought in the Middle East. Fundamentalist Muslims assassinated him on October 6, 1981, three years after he signed
peace with Israel. Mubarak cannot be deaf to a similar threat to himself and his son from al Qaeda or its principal operational wing, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. It is worth remembering that the efforts of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad to protect Sadat were of no avail because the assassins had previously penetrated Egyptian intelligence.
C. Abbas faces danger on the Palestinian front. The murder of either Mubarak or Abbas would throw back Bush administration policy objectives across a broad front – from Iraq to its world war on terrorism and grant al Qaeda a striking victory.
D. None of Abu Mazen’s backers, American, Egyptian or Israeli, can swear that he is the right man for the epic tasks he will be undertaking. Yet they have all decided to gamble on him. No one can tell if the Palestinians will support him en masse on election day; or how they will react to Egypt’s commanding role in their midst.
From 2000, Arafat turned a cold shoulder to Cairo and snubbed Mubarak’s words of advice.
The coming days will see the results of the critical contest between Arafat’s legacy of radicalism and terror and the new spirit Bush, Mubarak and Sharon seek to bring to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East at large.