Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak telephoned George W. Bush Wednesday with an optimistic message on the Palestinian question: General Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief, and his team, said the Egyptian leader, had won the consent of Palestinian factions to a ceasefire.
He held up as a great achievement the fact that all the 13 Palestinian groups had agreed to come together to discuss a ceasefire – even the hard-line groups, including Iran-backed and financed Ahmed Jibril’s group was represented, as well as Hamas and Jihad Islami.
But, he added, all the factions were insisting that this time – unlike the unilateral truce they declared last June and which collapsed amid violence in August – the ceasefire had to be mutual. All of the factions had promised not to attack Israeli targets provided Israel stopped its strikes against them, Mubarak said.
The Egyptian leader drew Bush’s attention to the virtual ceasefire that has existed for the past two months. He claimed that Hamas has almost completed stopped its attacks, including the firing of Qassam rockets. He did not mention that Israeli forces had thwarted 25 suicide bomb attacks in November. Anyway, twelve hours after his conversation with Bush, Hamas fired a Qassam surface rocket at an Israeli town. The shooters kept their attack down to a single missile. This was in perfect line with the truce actually on offer, which was a lot less than the one outlined by Mubarak to Bush.
A Palestinian source described it to DEBKA-Net-Weekly as “terror on a low flame.”
But to achieve even this half loaf, the Egyptian president asked Bush to help persuade Israel to agree to the principle of reciprocity. If Washington can persuade Israel not to react to these low key terrorist attacks, he believed he could sell the ceasefire package to the Palestinians which even the most extreme would regard as an important achievement. Its significance for them would be that for the first time, Israel endorses the principle of parity in violence with Palestinian terrorists. This would translate into any Israeli retaliation for Palestinian terror warranting a violent Palestinian response that would be perfectly legitimate.
Mubarak presented another “feat” to Bush: a new Palestinian leadership institution to be established within the framework of the new hudna. It would incorporate for the first time the entire gamut of Palestinian terrorist organizations. The new institution would set Palestinian policy from now on, effectively replacing the PLO’s central committee, where supporters of Yasser Arafat make up the majority. The Egyptian president made it clear to Bush that the moment the ceasefire goes into effect, the Palestinian Authority will formally reaffirm its commitment to Washington’s Middle East road map, dispelling any suggestions that the Palestinians might opt for the unofficial Geneva Accord. He omitted to mention that Clause One of the road map, the dismantlement of terrorist organizations, was not on the agenda of any Palestinian ruling body, old or new. The option of resuming full-scale terrorism would always be retained.
But if the United States and Israel endorse the ceasefire and new body on offer, they will effectively recognize an all-terror institution as a legitimate negotiating partner for peace and the future of the Palestinian state. Both governments would be committed to working with terrorist representatives of avowed terrorist groups like Hamas and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades on day-to-day matters and accept them as future leaders of a Palestinian state
The other piece of news conveyed by Mubarak was that Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia had dropped his demand for Israel to stop building its West Bank security barrier as a pre-condition for the resumption of peace talks with Ariel Sharon’s government. Sharon had refused to see him if conditions were set. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources, it was Palestinian businessman Mohammed Rashid, once Arafat’s financial adviser, now based in Cairo, who persuaded Abu Ala to bend.
Rashid embarked on a secret mission to Ramallah this week after receiving guarantees from Arafat’s headquarters for his personal safety. Rashid, who hadn’t visited the West Bank or Gaza Strip for more than a year, held lengthy talks with finance minister Salam Fayyad and persuaded Washington’s favorite Palestinian cabinet member to accompany him to his talks with Qureia.
Our sources report that Abu Ala dropped his demands over the separation fence only after Rashid and Fayyad left him the option of applying to the international court of justice for a ruling on the barrier’s legality. The Palestinian prime minister said he had not yet decided whether to appeal to the court through the UN general assembly or one of the Gulf states.
Other points Mubarak made in his conversation with Bush:
No time limit will be set for any ceasefire.
The draft agreement with the Palestinian factions includes clear rules of conduct, such as a ban on the presence of armed men, except for Palestinian security personnel, on city streets and inter-urban roads in Palestinian areas. In addition, no faction will be allowed to set up roadblocks or manufacture weapons, especially Qassam rockets.
All of the factions, including Hamas, agreed their main goal is to calm things down enough to soothe Washington into deciding the time is right to declare the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders.
The Egyptian president knows he needs all the help he can get from the US president to pressure Sharon and Israeli defense chief Shaul Mofaz to agree, even tacitly, to the deal.
But he felt able to promise Bush that he and his people would do their utmost to get the agreement signed by Tuesday, December 9, and said he was sending Suleiman that night to Washington with a draft of the accord to seek US approval. Once this was forthcoming from the White House, Abu Ala would start implementing the agreement, Mubarak said.
For his timetable to “tick over smoothly”, the Egyptian leader said, he would keep Qureia in Cairo until Washington’s reply was delivered. Once he had American endorsement behind him, the Palestinian prime minister would publicly announce a truce and consent to join peace talks without making prior demands on the security fence. The Palestinian leader would also ask Sharon to set a time and place for the start of negotiations.
Abu Ala, Mubarak said, would not wait in Cairo for Sharon’s answer but leave immediately for Ramallah to take the first practical steps to set the truce in motion.
Our sources in Washington report that Bush told Mubarak US officials would be happy to meet with Suleiman.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian and Cairo sources, Mubarak forgot to mention one small detail in his conversation with the US president – the secret presence in the Egyptian capital of an Arab Liberation Front delegation at the ceasefire talks taking place in luxury Cairo hotels and in a military camp, part of the Egyptian intelligence headquarters’ complex south of the capital. ALF is the Palestinian branch of the Iraqi Baath party and its members remain loyal to Saddam Hussein. The group used to act as conduit for Saddam’s payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. It also set up and planted secret cells in Israel and Jordan on behalf of Iraqi military intelligence.
Egypt was cool at first to the idea of inviting ALF delegates to the talks, but Fatah representatives – Arafat’s men – and Hamas insisted. They argued that without ALF on board, it would be impossible to declare that all the Palestinian factions had signed the ceasefire agreement. Suleiman passed on the warning to Mubarak, who decided to issue the invitation. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that four ALF representatives – one from the Gaza Strip, one from the West Bank and two from Damascus – arrived in Cairo secretly early this week.