Peace Process Thrown Off-Track As Two Middle East Leaders Fall Ill
The name of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was frequently bandied about in the talks between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday, July 6 – and again when they met with journalists. He figured as a key partner in the Israeli-Palestinian indirect negotiations which are to morph soon into face-to-face diplomacy.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that both leaders had learned from recent intelligence briefings that Abbas had contracted cancer and would be out of action in the coming weeks while hospitalized for urgent abdominal surgery.
Until then, his doctors will not be able to diagnose the severity of the disease, how far it has spread and decide how to treat it. Our sources cite the medical staff in Jordan treating him for months as terming his condition as "serious."
On the day Obama and Netanyahu expressed the hope for face-to-face talks to begin soon, Abu Mazen issued his own statement in Ramallah. He insisted on progress first in the proximity talks mediated by the US.
According to our sources, the indirect track run by an American team headed by Special US Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is no more than a charade.
Although Mitchell has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, talking to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas or Palestinian Prime Minster Salam Fayyad, he has scarcely touched on the issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians. They have mostly been extinguishing brush fires around the Gaza Strip rather than clearing the path to an accord between Israel and Fatah-ruled West Bank.
Core issues await Abbas' recovery from surgery
Agreement has been reached on ways to improve living conditions for the Palestinian West Bank population and boost its economy, for instance. Responsibility for more large areas has been transferred by Israel to the Palestinian Authority. However, borders, the distribution of water, control of West Bank air space, Palestinian refugees of 1948, the future of West Bank Jewish settlements and Jerusalem have been held over for direct negotiations between the parties.
The progress made meanwhile in the easing of Israel's siege on the Gaza Strip was achieved mainly by Quartet Middle East envoy former British prime minister Tony Blair in direct contacts with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian prime minister Fayad. Mitchell has had his hands full in recent weeks trying to defuse military tensions between Israel and its northern neighbors, Syria and Hizballah, with little time for Israel-Palestinian peace-making.
Therefore, Abbas' demand for more progress before direct talks are broached was seen in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah, as a tactic for buying time for surgery while meanwhile keeping the indirect process and settlement construction freeze in place. Negotiations can be restarted in earnest after his recovery, or so he hopes.
In consideration of the Palestinian leader's medical condition, Obama and Netanyahu set aside their differences on this issue and agreed only to give peacemaking a "robust push" while each handed the other fulsome compliments.
Filling in the pause with a proposition for Syria
It also gave the Israeli prime minister an opening for his proposal to use the pause in talks with the Palestinians for another attempt to get negotiations going again with Syria.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 450 of June 25: Preparing for Obama – Netanyahu Ready to Cede Most of Golan to Syria).
The upshot of the Netanyahu plan would be an Israeli withdrawal to the Ridge Line overlooking the Sea of Galilee, ceding the bulk of the enclave to Syria – provided President Bashar Assad proves he has broken with his country's violent record by emulating the late Anwar Sadat, who made an epic peace pilgrimage to Jerusalem in November 1977 with an offer of full peace and Egypt's transition from its Soviet alliance to the West.
To regain the Golan Assad would need to shake off his bonds with Iran and the Hizballah.
The Netanyahu peace plan for Syria has been kept under tight wraps in Jerusalem and Washington. Its chances of getting anywhere are practically nil. For more than a year, Barack Obama has made intensive efforts to woo Assad; he has sent 14 US delegations of politicians, diplomats and business leaders to Damascus with attractive lures for winning Syria over (after his predecessor tried and gave up on this quest).
Assad not only refused to play, but drew closer to Tehran and the Lebanese Hizballah.
Still, in the absence of any other peace avenue open for exploration at this time, Obama told Netanyahu that he had asked Mitchell to sound Assad out once again for his response.
For now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report Washington and Jerusalem are keeping a close watch on Abbas and his medical treatment.
Abbas' proposed successor rejects peace talks
He is now selecting the team of surgeons for his operation and deciding on the hospital for it to take place. He is widely expected to choose the main military hospital in Amman, Jordan, where he can be sure of maximum secrecy and security and where a team of mainly European surgeons will be assisted by Jordanian physicians whom he trusts.
Only a few members of the Palestinian leadership, including Fayyad, have been let into the secret of Abu Mazen's illness. The furious jockeying for position to take his place should his condition deteriorate and the inevitable power struggle has so far been avoided.
In fact, Abbas named his successor back in September 2009, when he brought Abu Maher Ghanem over to Ramallah from Tunis, where he headed Fatah's organization department with control of the Palestinian organizations' secret stash of money. So far, Fayyad has not been able to lay hands on these funds.
The main difficulty with Ghanem as future Palestinian leader is his fervent opposition to peace negotiations with Israel under any circumstances, especially the track initiated by President Obama.
Since Abbas tabbed him as successor, Ghanem has gone to ground. His whereabouts are a mystery, as are his intentions. But should Abu Mazen's health worsen and Ghanem step forward, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will face a very different Palestinian Authority in Ramallah from the entity they referred to at the White House Tuesday as Palestinian peace partners.
Abbas and Mubarak – both committed to peacemaking
Politically, the effects of Mahmoud Abbas' indisposition tie in closely with the deterioration in Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's health. Both have kept an active hand in the search for a Middle East peace. The Egyptian president, now 83, has long been trusted by several Arab rulers and a succession of Israeli prime ministers for advice and discreet intervention for defusing crises and bridging differences.
The people of Egypt recently learned that their president is very ill, but no one has so far dared to name his illness.
On March 19, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 437 disclosed that he had cancer and had set the transfer of power to his son, Gemal Mubarak, in train. On March 6, the Egyptian president underwent surgery at a hospital in Germany. In fact, he was treated for cancer of the esophagus, the tube through which food passes from the mouth to the stomach. Since returning home, he spends most of his time at the presidential retreat in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. There, unlike in Cairo, his physicians can fly in and treat him unobserved.
For some months Mubarak has been unable to work more than two or three hours a day.
A further decline in his health sent him Monday, July 5, to Paris where, after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri, our sources report he was admitted to the exclusive Percy military hospital in the Paris suburb of Clamart for tests which should determine the urgency of surgery for temporarily arresting the progress of the cancer.