French President Jacques Chirac was perfectly consistent when he followed up his veto against the dispatch of NATO troops to Iraq with a related move bound to rankle with Washington. Aiming a second snub at President George W. Bush, he defied the US refusal to deal with Yasser Arafat, arch-leader of Palestinian terrorism, and sent his foreign minister, Michel Barnier, to call on the Palestinian Authority chairman at his Ramallah headquarters on Tuesday, June 29.
However, erosion is also discerned in the attitude struck by certain groups in Washington towards the Palestinian leader.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington report exclusively that an American delegation will soon follow Barnier. Two years after the last Bush administration official, secretary of state Colin Powell, met with Arafat, a group organized by Edward Abington, the former US consul-general in Jerusalem who now works as a Palestinian Authority lobbyist in Washington, will visit Arafat in Ramallah. It will be comprised of former senior US diplomats; efforts are under way to gather in several pro-Arab Congressmen for the trip.
Abington hopes to draw a parallel between his delegation and the retired US and British diplomats and military men who recently posted manifestos against the Iraq and Middle East policies pursued by Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair. A meeting between a blue ribbon delegation and Arafat, organizers hope, will help persuade US public opinion that Bush is as wrong about the Palestinians and their veteran leader as he is about Iraq. The timing, they argue, is right: Bush has been taking initial steps to correct his policy in Iraq; so why not corner him into doing the same on Arafat. A White House about-face, Abington and his associates believe, would force Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to change course on the Palestinians.
The visit has not been coordinated with Democratic candidate John Kerry‘s campaign headquarters, but some of his advisers know of it, such as James Rubin, state department spokesman for Madeleine Albright during the Clinton administration and one of her closest confidants. Rubin is a member of Kerry’s foreign relations advisory team and is active in day-to-day campaigning. This explains the mixed messages emanating from the Democratic candidate’s headquarters: while his aides encourage and support a US delegation bent on breaking the Bush boycott of Arafat, Kerry has been publicly proclaiming his support for Israel’s West Bank barrier and pledging that as president, he will not apply pressure on Israel.
Sharon has seized on Kerry’s pronouncements as further proof of “unprecedented” US bipartisan support for his disengagement plan – while in reality something quite different is going on.
Our sources note that the disgruntled diplomatic and military veterans were content to publish their manifestos. However, the Abingdon delegation is planning to build diplomatic castles in the air on the foundation of its visit to Arafat. In the first instance, the group will be breaking through the Bush-Sharon boycott of the Palestinian leader; in the second, they hope to blaze a trail for more discontented US groups to travel to the Middle East in order to meet Arab opponents of the Bush Iraq policy.
This trend could undermine Israel’s strategic standing because of the symmetry between al Qaeda’s campaign of terror in Iraq and the Palestinian war of terror against Israel.
The car bomb and suicide killer tactics Al Qaeda assailants used in their first attacks in Iraq last summer, were innovated by Arafat’s Palestinians. Iraqi guerrillas copied roadside bombs, many activated by remote control, from Hizballah’s methods of warfare against Israeli forces in south Lebanon prior to their May 2000 withdrawal.
The Palestinians are also making more extensive use of roadside bombs against Israeli vehicles since Hizballah advisers began working with most West Bank and Gaza Strip terrorist cells. (The Shiite terrorists also provide crucial funding). Two of these roadside bombs hit Israeli armored personnel carriers in the Gaza Strip last month – one killed a crew in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood on May 11 and the second inflicted casualties in a convoy patrolling the Philadelphi border corridor between Rafah and Egypt a day later.
This week, with Hizballah expertise, a Palestinians team made up of Hamas and the al Aqsa Brigades arm of Arafat’s Fatah managed to blow up an Israeli position in the southern Gaza Strip by tunneling 12 to 15 meters underground. It took them more than a month to burrow and fill the tunnel with one and a half tons of explosives in barrels. Although 60 soldiers were on duty, they got away lightly with one soldier killed and five wounded.
The Hizballah signature was apparent from the painstaking tunnel-making to the hour-long video tape shown over its al-Manar TV station in Lebanon.
Now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources say it is only a question of time before the exploding tunnels are transposed to Iraq, where too Hizballah operatives are deeply engaged, circulating their bomb experts constantly between Fallujah in Iraq, Beirut and Gaza.
In a footnote to the attack, Israeli investigators believe the French supplied the Palestinians with tunnel-building instruction and digging equipment.
Israeli public policy utterances rarely reflect the true estimates of its national strategic planners. What worries these backroom experts most these days is the prospect of an American military withdrawal from Iraq in 2005 or 2006, or a drastic reduction in US troop deployment, leaving them with the limited mission of securing the oil fields of northern and southern Iraq. Either eventuality would leave Iraq’s central heartland and its western region at the mercy of Sunni militias. Israel is equally troubled by a possible pro-Iran Shiite autonomy rising south of Baghdad. Either development would create springboards for Iraqi and al Qaeda terrorists to leap into every corner of the Middle East.
Early signs of this trend may be discerned in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – the latter two on Israel’s borders – where certain logistic structures and local al Qaeda cells have established themselves and are operated by Iraqi guerrillas.
All in all, the boost Iran is getting for its aspirations in Iraq and the weakening of Jordan’s King Abdullah together pose great danger not only for American’s Middle East standing but for Israel’s strategic wellbeing to boot.