Did Bush and Sharon Figure out How to Preempt a Hamas Election Victory?
The Bush-Sharon summit of April 11 at the presidential ranch near Crawford, in Texas, appeared amicable and informal. Before facing the press, both leaders had clearly armed themselves with appropriate answers to expected questions.
Neither admitted that the Palestinian Abu Mazen regime was a broken reed. They agreed that Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank was the key to progress towards the road map. But then came a polite parting of the ways. The US president continued to insist on a freeze on settlement activity, including the expansion of Maale Adummim east of Jerusalem. The Israeli prime minister stressed that settlement blocs would remain in Israeli hands in any future agreement, with all the attendant consequences.
The first one to mention “contiguity” – a favorite Bush administration locution with regard to a Palestinian state – was Sharon. He borrowed the term for the connection between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, whose expansion to link up with the Israeli capital Washington opposes.
Before advancing on the road map, Sharon reiterated the Palestinians must wage real war against terror, disband terrorist organizations and ensure full cessation of violence.
Like Sharon, the US president quoted himself when he repeated the formula he laid out exactly a year ago after his last summit with Sharon: new realities on the ground make it unrealistic to expect a full and complete return to the 1949 armistice lines in the final status agreement. These new realities must be recognized in negotiations on a final accord.
But the big dilemma that most exercised the two leaders, according to debkafile‘s Washington sources, did not come up in the news conference. What to do about the Palestinian general election scheduled for July in view of the mortal threat it poses for Mahmoud Abbas’s regime and the prospects of peace?
Regardless of dire warnings, Bush insisted on Iraq’s elections taking place on time on January 30. It proved to be the right decision. The US president is equally adamant about the Lebanese parliamentary elections being held on schedule in May, over the objections of major factions, including the opposition Druze party. He is also bearing down hard on the Mubarak regime for full opposition participation in Egypt’s presidential election at the end of the year. The result is a certain coolness creeping into Cairo-Washington relations and Egypt’s withdrawal from its assigned security role in Palestinian Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal.
Bush is utterly convinced that lack of firmness on this path will lead to the fledgling democratic process in the Middle East running into the sand. Therefore the July 17 date for the Palestinian vote has become an immovable fixture, even though it may exact the exorbitant price of toppling Abbas and bringing to power the Hamas Islamic terrorist group which is dedicated to violently eradicating the state of Israel.
The road to the July 17 vote has become a minefield from end to end.
The US president did not need the intelligence reports prime minister laid before him to tell him about the complete breakdown of Abu Mazen’s grip on authority. Some Israeli politicians are calling for efforts to save Abbas from falling. The only trouble is that the Palestinian leader is helpless to save himself. Bush also knew enough about the rapid rearmament of the Palestinian terrorist groups. He is briefed daily by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Tel Aviv-based US security coordinator Lieut.-Gen. William E. Ward.
Nevertheless, a fresh piece of intelligence was a shocker for both leaders. debkafile‘s Washington sources disclose it consisted of a Palestinian decision to resume the terror war against Israel in the second half of June – from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip simultaneously. The heavy mortar and missile assault inside and outside the Gaza Strip from Saturday, April 10, again Sunday and erupting again Monday night after the Bush-Sharon news conference was but a foretaste of the offensive to come.
What surprised the US president and his advisers was the news that the instigators of the June offensive were not the Hamas or Jihad Islami but Abu Mazen’s own Fatah and its Tanzim and al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades branches. In other words, the very forces cast as the strong backbone of the Abbas regime and its security reform program have slid back into the roles they played for Yasser Arafat.
The Fatah finds its justification in three circumstances:
1. Abu Mazen’s weakness, passivity and general “strange behavior” as it is described by his Fatah followers.
2. His incomprehensible indulgence of every Hamas demand. Fatah sees Abbas opening the door to a Hamas takeover of Palestinian government. Dominant Fatah figures find the slogan heard in Israel defining the choice as being “Abbas or Hamas” as wide of the mark. They are in it together.
3. Fatah concludes that the Palestinian general elections will give Hamas a landslide victory and must therefore be averted at all costs. By unleashing a war of terror a month before voting day, Fatah leaders hope to plunge the region in a bloody war that will dissuade all outsiders, American or European, from insisting on a timely ballot.
They are now calling Sharon’s Gaza evacuation scheme a dangerous trap, using it as their pretext for breaking out of the partial ceasefire and re-igniting the conflict.
For Bush it is a new experience – even in the Middle East – to find the very Palestinian entities on whom he counted to prop up his regional and Israel-Palestinian peace strategies announcing that they were reverting to terrorism in preference to a peaceful march forward to Palestinian statehood.
For Sharon it is a grave setback. He was not surprised when the Muslim radicals opposed his plan, any more than the Israeli factions which he lumps together as “right-wing extremists.” But he was taken aback by Abu Mazen’s Fatah adherents whom he had been treating as “moderates.”
Hizballah gave a graphic demonstration of its power in Lebanon and among Palestinian terrorist groups Monday. April 11, by flying an Iranian-made Mirsad spy drone over northern Israel at the same moment as Bush and Sharon began their talks in Texas. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Lebanese terror group stands foursquare not only behind the Islamic radicals but Fatah groups as well.
These new developments must have given the US president and Israeli prime minister plenty of food for thought. Any new decisions that may have been taken did not come to light in their news conference. It will take a couple of days until the real substance of their talks begins to surface.