Bush, Sharon, Abu Mazen Start Marching in Step
The penultimate stage of the US-Iraqi Fallujah offensive and the final laying to rest of Yasser Arafat – though not necessarily of Palestinian terrorism – occurred on the same day, Friday, November 12. The two events prefaced democratic elections in Iraq – and now also for the Palestinians – both in January.
Palestinian voters go the polls on January 9; Iraqis elect a general assembly on January 27.
In between the two, on January 20, President George W. Bush is to be sworn in for his second term – that is provided the first two events take place on schedule. The apparent assassination attempt staged against Arafat’s designated successor Mahmoud Abbas aka Abu Mazen in Gaza two days after the burial does not promise a smooth transition.
If elections do go off as planned, Iraq will attain a parliament with a Shiite majority that will select a government dominated by moderate Shiites. Both institutions will rule under the rod of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najef, America’s foremost ally and its strategic planner in the powerful Iraqi Shiite clergy or – as Bush would put it – the architect of the Iraqi settlement.
It has been tacitly agreed that the first after-effect of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad will be a separate Kurdish administration in Irbil, a stepping stone to an independent Kurdish authority in northern Iraq. The two entities will preserve a measure of collaboration. Iraq will thus be effectively partitioned between the two, while the Sunni Muslims pressed between them will live under US military control until they are subdued. After the Fallujah operation ends this week, Sunni leaders will have to decide whether to stick by their decision to boycott the January election and leave their community behind the onward march towards the post-Saddam regime, or claim a role in government.
For the Palestinians, Arafat’s death has opened the way for regime change by the ballot after four years of crippling, suicidal terror which hurt Israel but left them in a hopeless mire of poverty and despair. Arafat was no sooner interred in Ramallah, when Mahmoud Abbas was informally designated Fatah candidate to succeed him in a general election.
If this process goes through and Abu Mazen is able to form a stable, normally-functioning government after long years of corruption and mayhem, Israelis and Palestinians can start talking peace the basis of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan and President Bush’s roadmap. The outcome of this process, Palestinian statehood will partition historic Palestine yet again – this time between Israelis and Palestinians. In 1947, the United Nations partitioned the country when established state of Israel. In the intervening years, war, armistices and peace agreements have moved the boundaries around. Now a Palestinian state is set to rise in eastern Palestine and the Gaza Strip, with the state of Israel situated in the west and the center.
No seasoned observer in Washington, Baghdad, Jerusalem or Ramallah expects these seismic geopolitical changes to cut off terrorism on the spot – certainly not before they are fully onstream. The difference will be that whereas the terrorists will not longer be allowed to dictate events in Iraq or enjoy free rein from Palestinian territory. After January, democratic-elected institutions will stand at the helm and hopefully bend all their efforts to exercise full control. Palestinians and Israelis fervently believe that America’s full military, intelligence, economic weight, if thrown behind the post-Arafat regime as it was in Iraq will eventually bring the level terrorism down dramatically.
Bush was therefore taken very seriously when he declared at his joint news conference with British premier Tony Blair at the White House on that same action-packed Friday, November 11:”I think it is fair to say that I believe we’ve got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the Unite States on such a state.”
In Fallujah, American forces are poised in Fallujah to draw the fangs of the Baathist insurgents and their Arab and fundamentalist allies before they can subvert the general election two months hence. To the west, Arafat’s passing creates the first chance in the last four years of neutralizing Palestinian terror, while at the same time thwarting its chances of aborting the election of the moderate Abu Mazen.
Have these trends begun playing out in practice? They have.
On Israel’s part, debkafile reveals that the Sharon government has secretly set in motion steps to enhance Abu Mazen’s chances of being returned as Palestinian Authority head.
Last week (before Arafat was officially pronounced dead), Israel released INS.140 million (equivalent to $31 million) to the Palestinian Authority as an initial operating fund. A portion was earmarked for paychecks for the armed Fatah-Tanzim terror operatives who subsequently lent a hand to Palestinian security forces who struggled to control the frenzied throng at Arafat’s burial in Ramallah. It is Abbas’s intention to hand out regular wages to members of this violent organization, including its suicide corps, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, for the purpose of absorbing them into official security forces. Israel and the United States will continue to put up funds if this project goes forward satisfactorily.
Also for the first time since 2002, Sharon allowed Palestinian policemen and security men to bear arms in Ramallah to keep the peace during the Arafat burial. Israeli forces remaining on high alert for any trouble are deployed outside the Palestinian towns and will stay there as long as no “ticking bombs” are reported. Arrangements for Arafat’s funeral will quickly and smoothly worked out in joint Israel-Palestinian security discussions for the first time in many months.
Sharon also tends to an arrangement that will allow 215,000 Palestinians who live (some 60-70,000 eligible voters) in East Jerusalem to take part in Palestinian elections, as they did in 1996. This concession would give Abu Mazen a bigger boost than Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip – even if voting stations were placed outside the city – because Jerusalem is so much more central to the conflict between the two nations.
The Palestinian leader-designate, Abbas, has also made moves regarded by Israel as positive:
1. He spent the last days of Arafat’s living putting together a new team better adapted to government administrative functions than his old cronies from Tunis. Many new faces are drawn from the medium ranks of the Palestinian security and intelligence men who served in Jibril Rajib’s protective security agency which stayed clear of terrorism.
2. He has invited General Nasser Yousef, harsh critic of Arafat’s authoritarian style of government and terrorist tactics, to become interior minister with charge over security and intelligence functions. Prime Minster Ahmed Qureia has been named to head the national security council.
4. He did not demur when Israel denied the Gaza Strip security chief Rashid Abu Shbak, Mohammed Dahlan’s former lieutenant, permission to cross into Ramallah for Arafat’s burial, although all of his peers were allowed to travel.
debkafile‘s Palestinian and Cairo sources report that Abu Mazen spent Thursday night, November 11, in two marathon conversations.
5. He achieved a ceasefire with Farouk Kaddoumi, his leading rival for Arafat’s chair. The radical Kaddoumi, who preferred staying in exile to accepting the 1993 Oslo Accords, was persuaded not to oppose Abbas’s election as president in return for his close supporter Hakham Balawi receiving the position of chairman of the Fatah central committee in Palestinian Authority-controlled territory.
6. An equally important encounter took place between Abbas and Hamas overseas leaders Khaled Mashal and Musa Abu Marzouk at the Meridien Hotel in Cairo. Our sources report substantial progress towards Hamas’s tacit acceptance a temporary ceasefire in a deal that with grant the Islamist terror group a share in government. Still to be worked out is the channel through which Hamas will exercise its share in national authority, existing Palestinian bodies or a new one.
Where these meaningful preliminary steps lead next depends on the answers to four questions:
A. Will Abu Mazan survive? The way ahead is less clear after the apparent assassination attempt staged against him in the mourning tent in Gaza Sunday, November 14, shortly after the ruling Fatah nominated him their candidate in the January 9 election. Masked al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades gunmen burst into the tent shouting: “No one can replace Yasser Arafat!”
A. Will Palestinian terror persist? – possibly fanned by outside Arab elements? Will the Hizballah, Iran or Syria decide to keep the confrontation alive by opening new, even unforeseen, warfronts?
B. Will the Abbas bid to take charge of Palestinian government gain the support of Arab governments, primarily Egypt and Jordan?
C. Will President Bush be able to involve the Europeans in his plans for Iraq and the Palestinians? This would entail the Europeans accepting the US leader’s order of events for the Palestinians, which is transition to democracy first, peace talks next – whereas the Europeans have been pressing for peace talks first.
D. How will the military and political sequence of events in Iraq affect the Palestinian issue – and vice versa?