The new Middle East plan evolving in the White House would hand ninety-five percent of the West Bank to a future Palestinian state in a final settlement and dismantle the Jewish settlements east of the Israel-West Bank security fence. More than 100,000 Israeli inhabitants would have to be evicted.
(More details on this plan in separate article in this issue plus map)
But will the plan work?
The answer depends on the rationale behind President George W. Bush‘s apparent about-face in favor of the Palestinians. If the plan is meant to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian war, the answer would be no. If the idea is to work through the Israel-Palestinian issue to find a solution in Iraq, the answer is maybe, it’s worth a shot.
Bush is confronted with three major problems to clear up before the deadline of mid-2007 when the next presidential campaign gets underway: Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. So far, his administration has failed to win European and Arab cooperation in Iraq; his chances are slim even after winning a second term.
Cooperation on the Iranian nuclear bomb issue has only just begun and it is too soon to tell whether the Europeans and Arab governments will stick to Washington all the way until Iran’s path to nuclear weapons is blocked.
Until Yasser Arafat’s death in November, the US, the Europeans and the Arabs went their separate ways on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, partly because the US president stuck to the Middle East roadmap and his backing for the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon while his would-be partners in Europe and the Arab world opted for the other side.
However, Sharon’s relentless push to get his disengagement off the ground has given the US president a fresh weapon. Bush has seized on the withdrawal from Gaza plan as a lure to win European and Arab partners round. Whereas it was conceived by Sharon to serve as Israel’s last territorial concession, the US president has turned it into the starting point for a wholesale Israeli retreat from lands captured in the 1967 war in favor of the projected Palestinian state.
This reversal has thrown Sharon’s policies into turmoil.
Groundwork in place
However, by the reckoning of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East experts, if the Bush administration perseveres in this new plan and is able to foist on Israel major territorial concessions on the West Bank, the chances are good of the Europeans and Arab powers coming aboard and consenting to post military and intelligence units in the region to help bring the Israel-Palestinian conflict to an end.
This could evolve into a useful opening for similar forces to be sent to Iraq.
Our sources report that the groundwork for the process is in place.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was persuaded to work with Israel. He has also helped the Americans and British bring Saudi crown prince Abdullah, Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas aka Abu Mazen aboard.
This is how the Bush plan is supposed to work:
Stage One is already in motion. Egyptian-Israel relations have thawed noticeably with both sides gaining economic perks. Joint industrial zones have been created whose products will enter the United States practically tariff free. Large Egyptian-Israeli oil and gas transactions are in the works. Egyptian gas will boost Israel’s energy sources and the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline that runs parallel to the Suez Canal is to be reactivated for giant tankers unable to navigate the Suez Canal to bring Persian Gulf oil overland and out to Mediterranean ports at low cost.
This deal was discussed at length during Mubarak’s unannounced visits to Kuwait and Bahrain on December 8 and 9.
The two Gulf emirs, with the tacit approval of Saudi crown prince Abdullah, agreed that if Egyptian made progress in its effort to take control the Gaza Strip and West Bank – necessarily with Israeli assent – Kuwait and Bahrain would support Cairo’s economic deals with Israel and funnel part of their oil exports via Egyptian tankers through the Israeli oil pipeline.
This deal is already bearing fruit. Our Middle East sources report that two Egyptian tankers loaded with Gulf oil are due to dock at Eilat’s oil harbor in a few days for the first time in many years.
While Mubarak was deep in conversation with the Gulf rulers, the Palestinian leader Abbas made his own tour of the Persian Gulf emirates, including Kuwait and Bahrain, to raise funds for his election campaign, to keep the Palestinian Authority running and to cover the payroll for its security personnel. He returned to Ramallah with about quarter of a billion dollars, of which Kuwait shelled out only $150 million.
Egyptian, British and Jordanian officers ready to move in
Israel’s role in the Bush plan is as follows: To permit Egyptian military and intelligence officers free rein in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. In both places they will work with British MI6 agents who have undertaken to supervise a radical overhaul of the Palestinian security and intelligence apparatus. British prime minister Tony Blair was given the go-ahead for this project in his December 22 talks in Jerusalem with Sharon and Abu Mazen in Ramallah.
The British planners want to jettison the entire command level of the Palestinian organizations all of whom engaged in terrorist activity and replace it with a new generation of young officers the British propose to train.
The director of the British operation is Blair’s senior foreign adviser and confidant Sir Nigel Sheinwald, who also acts as the British prime minister’s contact with the White House.
Washington has demanded that Jordanian military and intelligence teams be co-opted to the British-Egyptian contingents operating in the West Bank.
This set-up will plant in the Palestinian Authority the first basic mechanism seen in the Middle East for Arab-European military and economic cooperation backed by Gulf financing, a model which Bush believes can be enlarged and transposed to Iraq.
With the first bricks in place, each party is now required to step into its assigned role.
Ariel Sharon must follow up his Gaza withdrawal with further pullbacks on the West Bank to oil the wheels of the process. Mubarak and King Abdullah must provide the pan-Arab face and backing, while Blair must bring the European Union aboard.
The entire process is still embryonic and many hurdles stand in the way of its full growth. As yet, Bush has no guarantee he can pull it off.
Terror: the perennial destabilizer
Palestinian terrorism has always been the constant impediment to progress. For the moment, the level of violence, including suicide attacks, has declined on the West Bank. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources attribute this mainly to the largesse Abbas’ aides are laying out for Fatah-Tanzim and al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades operatives. They are receiving handsome sums for pledges to keep their hands clean of terrorism. Fatah local branch secretaries are assisting in this operation. Local bigwigs whose names have never reached Western ears, like Issam Abu Baker of Nablus and Amin Makboul of Jenin, are passing handouts from Abbas’ office to heads of the suicide terror gangs. Some are even promised jobs in the new Palestinian services after January 9.
Mubarak has also persuaded Syrian president Bashar Assad to stop the flow of Iranian and Hizballah funding to the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades through Damascus – albeit for the time being.
This blockage hangs by a thread. The Syrian ruler, Iran or the Hizballah can at any moment feel resentful of being cut off from the budding Palestinian transformation and go back to pumping money, arms and explosives to the West Bank.
In the Gaza Strip, warfare is a daily occurrence. There, Iranian influence is strong through the presence of Hizballah cells. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Palestinian sources disclose that over and above outside meddling, the prime factor fanning the ongoing terrorist war in the Gaza Strip is… Abbas and elements striving to pacify the West Bank.
Abu Mazen is playing this double game for three reasons:
1. He is extremely weak politically and personally in the Gaza Strip.
2. Only this week, he pledged solemnly to carry on Yasser Arafat’s path. He can scarcely make a sharp turnaround away from terrorism after this promise and is therefore focusing on pacifying the important West Bank front while leaving the Gaza Strip till later.
3. Abbas is not sure that all the promises he has received from the Americans, British and Egyptians – some in Israel’s name – will in fact be honored. Terror in Gaza is his insurance policy in case the entire process goes awry.
The chances of the Bush plan taking off on the Israeli side are far from rosy.
Even if Sharon manages to cobble together a new coalition government and can lean on Labor led by his partner and confidant Shimon Peres, he is unlikely to be up to the titanic test of strength required to perform the massive surgery on the West Bank required by the Bush plan. So far, the prime minister has a long way to go before evicting even 8,000 Israelis from the Gaza Strip and four small northern West Bank villages. The evacuation of 100,000 is a feat beyond any Israeli leader on the contemporary political scene.