History has come round full circle – almost.
Exactly twenty years ago, Vice President George Bush Sr., Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon, PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Lebanese super bomber-kidnapper Imad Mughniyeh faced each other in a confrontation that shaped the Middle East for years to come.
Thursday, April 4, just hours before DEBKA-Net-Weekly went to press, US President George W. Bush delivered a seismic speech in the White House Rose Garden, announcing he was assigning secretary of state Colin Powell to the region, for yet another attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire. He also slapped down demands for Yasser Arafat that the Palestinian leader will never be able to meet; he must halt terrorism and incitement to terror and stop calling suicide bombers “martyrs”.
“They’re not martyrs,” Bush said. “They’re murderers.”
The president did not spare Israel either. “I ask Israel to halt its incursions into Palestinian areas and begin withdrawing from Palestinian cities.”
Israeli forces are now engaged in counter-terror operations in most Palestinian West Bank cities in an operation launched seven days ago after last week’s Passover massacre by a Palestinian suicide bomber in a Netanya hotel.
Wednesday, April 3, Powell said both sides were locked in a no-win situation – a virtual stalemate in their bloody conflict. But just 15 minutes after Bush wrapped up his Rose Garden speech, the rapid-fire responses underscored the tremendous obstacles facing Powell in his truce mission.
The Palestinians brushed off the US president’s demands with a flat no. They declared that his comments added up to a White House carte blanche for Israel to rid itself of Arafat. Quick to pick out key omissions, they noted that the president did not stipulate that Israel lift its siege of Arafat or negotiate with him – only with “the Palestinian people”
The Palestinian attitude towards the US president and Powell’s mission has been predetermined. They reject the speech outright as dangerous to Middle East peace. A close Arafat aide, Hassan Asfour, said even before Arafat uttered that Bush’s remarks would set off a massive explosion in the region.
Arafat has issued a standing order that no Palestinian official except himself may meet Powell or exchange thoughts or words with him. Powell will be made welcome at Arafat’s office in Ramallah on one condition – that Israel first lifts its siege against him and Palestinian cities.
Sharon’s response was almost as angry. The Israeli leader said firmly that the military offensive against terrorist strongholds in Palestinian cities would go on. Those cities, according to intelligence data, are hothouses for breeding and sustaining terrorists. Sharon finds it impossible to bring the army out and leave the job unfinished.
Ample grounds for anticipating that the Bush administration’s attempts to forge a new Middle East policy departure will inevitably fall flat are contained in articles further down these pages.
One key factor is Arafat’s utter conviction, despite being marooned in three rooms in Ramallah, that he is winning the Palestinian-Israeli war. He regards himself not only as father of all Palestinians, but also the supreme leader of all Middle East Arabs, the head of a superpower, no less.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly readers will discover in the next article, Arafat is sure that the enlistment of elite suicide units he has collected from around the region – Palestinians, Saudis, Yemenis, Lebanese and Egyptians, under the al Qaeda-Hizballah aegis – has finally brought within his grasp his long-held ambition of crushing the Jewish state.
And it is at this critical juncture that the American president orders him to forego his ultimate weapon: the suicide terrorist!
There is not the slightest chance of Arafat taking this lying down.
Bush also made a point of denigrating Iraq’s stipends to the families of suicide bombers, terming the practice a fee for parents willing to sacrifice their children – and further proof of Baghdad’s role in international terrorism.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources comment that Bush missed the point. Saddam’s payouts come in response to applications from Arafat, who keeps a string of special emissaries running to Baghdad to plea for more funding for the suicide attackers.
The latest of those emissaries was Abbas Zakhi, a member of the Fatah’s central committee who lives in Amman. Zakhi saw Saddam in Baghdad on Monday, March 18 and handed him Arafat’s request, remarking that by enabling the bombers’ families to live in dignity, the Iraqi would be performing a noble Arab act, at the highest peak of the suicide offensive.
Saddam pledged $25,000 apiece for each “martyr’s” family.
Noble or not, Saddam took care to send the money to the families directly – not through Arafat or the Palestinian Authority.
The Iraqi president also pledged five million Euros to Jordanian hospitals treating Palestinian wounded and one billion Euros to cover all the medical costs of Palestinian casualties and their families.
Sharon, aware of the terrorist perils in store for Israel (as described below) in the weeks to come, dare not abort the IDF’s purge of terrorists in their lairs in mid-course, in obedience to President Bush’s demand to quit Palestinian cities. If he does, he risks going down in history as the leader who led the Jewish state to a holocaust and imperiled its existence. He is constrained from submitting to Bush’s wishes, even at the price of a second major confrontation with the White House in a quarter century.
Back in 1982, defense minister Sharon, spearheading Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, clashed frequently with the Reagan administration and vice president Bush.
In the end, Sharon was forced to step down. As the price for insisting on sending Israeli troops into Beirut, he was shut out of politics and public office for many years
Yet twenty years later, Sharon appears ready to butt heads with George W. Bush over the Israeli army’s presence in the Palestinians’ West Bank capital, Ramallah.
The aftermath of the 1982 Beirut episode was even more painful for the United States. After forcing the Israeli army to withdraw from Beirut, Sharon’s resignation, and Arafat’s forced exile from Lebanese shores with 4000 followers, President Ronald Reagan sent the Marines to the stricken country to assure the implementation of his policies – only to precipitate the most ghastly terrorist attack ever to be visited on American troops: the terror bombing of the Marines compound in Beirut, in which 241 US servicemen perished. That calamity was succeeded by the wholesale hostage-taking of Americans and other Westerners in the anarchic Lebanese capital. Eventually, the Reagan administration was rocked by the Irangate scandal, when it was caught violating US law by selling arms to the Revolutionary government of Iran in order to buy the lives of American hostages in Lebanon.
An unknown 27-year old Lebanese Shiite extremist called Imad Mughniyeh was the key figure in the terror campaign against Americans in Lebanon, and eventually drove them out of the place. Mughniyeh, who started out as a member of Arafat’s Force 17 in Lebanon, has now returned to that country, after many years in Tehran, and resumed his old ties with Arafat as the link man between him and al Qaeda, of which he is a senior operative.
Readers with a sense of historical irony will appreciate the bizarre fact that the leading figures in the contemporary Middle East crisis are almost identical to those who played out the Beirut drama of 1982: George Bush’s son, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat and Imad Mughniyeh.
The question of whether George W. Bush will be able to deal with these men where his father and Reagan failed ties in with his motives for pulling away from the support he extended Israel at the outset of its counter-terror military campaign seven days ago.
Those motives are the most intriguing aspect of his Rose Garden speech. A hint comes from the way it falls naturally into two parts – the first castigates Arafat and Palestinian terrorism; the second represents a classical diplomatic flip flop. In his first sentence, Bush says: No nation can negotiate with terrorists; you can’t make peace with people whose only goal is death. Arafat’s situation is of his own making, therefore he has betrayed the hopes of his people. The suicide missions could blow up any hopes for a Palestinian state.
In the second half, Israel is called upon to curtail its military operation to purge Palestinian cities of suicides and terrorists.
Why the presidential two-step? One explanation is the pressure coming from Western Europe and the threat coming from Brussels (referred to in DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue No. 54 ) that the European allies would break up NATO if the United States deployed nuclear weapons in its war on terror. Perhaps Bush was aiming at mollifying Arafat’s many pro-Palestinian friends in the European Union, by following them in demanding that Israel relieve the siege on the Palestinian leader and quit Palestinian cities.