Prospect of Bush-Arafat Handshake Is Far from Firm

As part of a fresh policy posture on the Middle East, President George W. Bush is reported to be preparing to receive Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for a long-awaited first encounter on the occasion of the UN General Assembly session next week. US, European, Palestinian and Israeli sources report that Bush or Secretary of State Colin Powell will deliver a policy statement at the session, announcing US support for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
The Bush administration will not be breaking new ground. In 1997, when Binyamin Netanyahu was Israeli prime minister, President Clinton publicly committed the United States to supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state. He not only shook Arafat by the hand, as Bush may do, but he and Hillary hugged and kissed the Arafats on a number of occasions. Yet after he left office, Clinton accused Arafat of being the cause of his presidency ending in fiasco.
His successor will therefore tread more carefully.
According to debkafile‘s sources close to the White House and the National Security Council, the president is not proposing to unveil a new Middle East plan or a formula for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In any case, the United States, European diplomats and even Israel foreign minister Shimon Peres, Arafat’s co-Nobel Peace Prize laureate, have failed to bring the Palestinian leader round to the slightest letup in the wall of terror with which he has engulfed the region for 14 months.
One high-placed UN source told debkafile: He won’t give an inch – not even a clue to his intentions. Everyone has tried without success to talk him round – German foreign minister Joschke Fischer, European Union foreign executive Javier Solana, even British prime minister Tony Blair. He turned them all down and practically laughed in their faces. The only thing he would say- in the hearing of Blair – was that he objected to Osama bin Laden’s every word and action, which is more than any other Arab or Muslim leader dares say out loud.
On Friday, November 2, at a Middle East economic cooperation conference on the Spanish resort island of Marbella, Peres tried to tempt Arafat into lowering the level of violence by offering a fast Israeli troop pullout from Ramallah. Israel forces withdrew from Bethlehem and Beit Jala last week. Ramallah is one of the remaining five Palestinian towns the Israeli army is holding on to since Palestinian terrorists assassinated the Tourism Minister on October 17.
Arafat’s answer was not slow in coming. That same night, his Tanzim militiamen shot dead an Israeli soldier, Raz Mintz, 19, from Kiryat Motskin, and injured the soldier with him at a roadblock north of Ramallah. By that incident, the Palestinian leader administered a calculated brushoff to the Israeli foreign minister and his attempt to do a deal.
As for President Bush, he cannot hope to achieve more in Middle East peace currency by meeting Arafat than did Bill Clinton. The encounter is rather intended to provide a photo op with Arafat in order to ease America’s difficulties in mustering Arab and Muslim support for the increasingly unclear US war moves in Afghanistan. The Europeans are keen on this meeting, believing it has the power to still the anger in the Muslim world over US-UK bombing raids over Afghanistan and the loss of civilian life. However, it is very doubtful that Arab and Muslim leaders will be so easily mollified.
In the view of debkafile‘s experts on terror, a Bush-Arafat handshake, rather than easing Bush’s difficulties, will serve to weaken Arafat and enhance bin Laden’s standing in the eyes of the Muslim masses.
Arafat and bin Laden in their separate arenas are both at war with America and Israel. Arafat adamantly refuses to abate by an iota his campaign of terror, turning away all the supplicants knocking on his door, because he fears that if he slows down, bin Laden will outperform him. The Palestinian leader is determined that he – not bin Laden – will go down in Islamic history as the supreme leader of the war to liberate Jerusalem from the Jews.
Hence his speech last week claiming for himself and the Palestinian struggle the role of authentic al Qaeda.
Hence too Bin Laden’s riposte. In a videotaped statement aired on Al Jazeera television Saturday, November 3, the al Qaeda leader condemned as hypocrites and infidels those claiming to be Arab leaders who cooperate with the United Nations. “The United Nations is a tool of crime”, he thundered, because it stands aside from Muslim suffering, especially in Kashmir. But the world body’s gravest crime, in the Saudi terrorist’s view, was its resolution to partition Palestinian in 1947 and “surrender the land of Islam to the Jews.”
Bin Laden’s purpose was clearly to cut the Islamic ground from under Arafat’s demand for international observers to monitor his conflict with Israel – or, for that matter, any other settlement he might achieve with “the Jews” in Palestine. Either would prove him a priori an infidel. In the same breath the Saudi renegade linked the Palestinian and Kashmir conflicts, indicating in typical oblique fashion that the India-Israel strategic pact was now in his sights for terror.
debkafile‘s analysts take this as meaning that bin Laden is already counting the Musharref regime a dead duck. He fully expects it to buckle under the pressure coming from the Pakistan army, military intelligence and the fervent religious and political street opposition to Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan war on the American side. That will force Washington to fall back on the Indian-Turkish option, with Israel in the background.
In his second videotaped speech of the Afghan war, Bin Laden laid down the resistance ideology for this eventuality, scripting the Muslim masses’ uprising against the new US-led alliance and solid stand behind him.
This script may well deter Arafat from heading towards New York and the UN General Assembly, or shaking hands with US President Bush, lest he be branded an infidel on both counts.
The Islamic epithet-hurling contest between the ex-Saudi and Palestinian terrorist leaders is hardly the appropriate scene for the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who decided Saturday night to call off his trip to the United States and his date with President Bush. He had a more compelling reason to stay away. Ten days ago, he sent Peres to Washington with fresh intelligence for President Bush, US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of state Colin Powell and national security adviser Condaleezza Rice.
According to debkafile‘s sources, the foreign minister carried information attesting to increasing collaboration between Arafat and one of bin Laden’s top operational associates, the notorious hostage-taker of Beirut, Imad Mughniyeh. (See separate item on this page.)
Sharon calculated that if, irrespective of that information, the Bush team is still bent on appeasing Arafat, then he might as well opt out of that game too.

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