Incoming US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice will spend a busy week in the Middle East between Christmas and New Year’s Day working on the agenda and drafting the resolutions for an Arab summit that DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources report is planned for shortly after the Palestinian January 9 election.
The event’s star turn will be Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) – provided he realizes his promise as frontrunner to succeed Arafat as chairman of the Palestinian Authority.
The probable summit venue, according our Middle East sources, is Saudi Arabia. Washington will be there behind the scenes to urge the following actions:
A. A pan-Arab vote of support for Abu Mazen.
B. Endorsement of Abu Mazen’s policy goals in facing Israel.
C. Arab financial assistance to shore up Abu Mazen’s government and finance the establishment of a Palestinian state.
D. Pan-Arab sanction for Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi‘s national reconciliation initiatives – even before the January 30 general election.
(See separate Iraq article in this issue).
To chart his objectives, Abu Mazen is in close touch with incoming US national security adviser Stephen Hadley, Egyptian officials and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
In a telephone call to Abu Mazen Thursday, Nov. 25, Hadley promised to visit the Palestinian territories immediately after the January ballot and before the Arab summit.
In the summit preparations, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is acting as facilitator between the Palestinians and Arab governments.
Abu Mazen and Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Quriea (Abu Ala) were in Cairo for talks with Hosni Mubarak last Saturday, Nov. 27. Two days later, Bashar Assad hopped over to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for two hours of conversation with Mubarak. Next day, Wednesday, December 1, Suleiman spent a day in Jerusalem, one whole hour of which was held tete-a-tete with Ariel Sharon.
Abbas has also opened up communications with Iraq’s Iyad Allawi via Jordan’s Abdullah.
Friday, December 10, Abu Mazen is due in Damascus – to seek Bashar Assad’s endorsement for his policy outline and leadership. Speaking to his close advisers, Abu Mazen has described his post-election plans – outlined in HOT POINTS below.
Abbas’s win is not in the bag
While most policy-makers in Washington and the Middle East are treating Mahmoud Abbas’s election as a foregone conclusion, the fact is that three of the 10 candidates who put their names down by the Wednesday midnight deadline will give him a run for their money and may even snatch victory.
Abu Mazen’s strongest rivals are:
Marwan Barghouti, the popular Fatah-Tanzim chief of the West Bank, convicted by an Israeli court of murdering five Israelis in terrorist attacks and serving five life sentences. Were he a free man, he would hammer Abbas into the ground. Even so, many Palestinian voters may vote for him as Palestinian Authority chairman – not because they expect Israel will let him walk free to take up Arafat’s mantle, but in order to spoil the much less popular Abu Mazen’s chances.
Barghouti decided to run for election in a last minute reversal one week after he threw in the sponge and endorsed the Fatah’s nomination of Abbas. He explained his flip flop to his wife Fadwa and Palestinian ministers Kadoura Fares and Jamal Tarifi, as follows:
Abu Mazen’s candidacy is in grave danger. “I have concluded that he cannot win the election because Hamas has set an ambush to overturn him on the day. So hurry and put my name down. I won’t be running against Abbas but saving him from Hamas scheming.”
That scheme, he said, is already working. By calling for a boycott of the election, Hamas hopes to lull the Fatah into the false illusion that its followers will abstain from voting and thus promise Abbas a narrow victory. But on the day, Hamas plans to use its internal communications system to bring members out en masse to vote for one of Abu Mazen’s rivals.
The two most promising contenders aside from the jailed terrorist are Dr. Mustafa Barghouti (a distant cousin of Marwan), who was put up by the 85-year old veteran Palestinian left-wing activist from Gaza, Dr. Hader Abdel Shafi, and acting Speaker of the Palestinian legislature Hassan Khereisha.
Since turnout is not expected to be high, mainly because of lack of voter enthusiasm for Fatah and its candidate, Barghouti figures that either of the two may well walk off with the election. But if he, Marwan, runs from his prison cell, he will draw enough Fatah votes to give Abbas a good chance of victory. “All I am trying to do,” he insisted, “is to save Fatah from a debacle.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Palestinian experts confirm the jailed Palestinian leader’s reading of Abu Mazen prospects against his three rivals.
A Communist and a Mr. Clean
Dr. Barghouti, 46, a communist, always kept his distance from Yasser Arafat and politics in general. But the network of clinics he set up offering free medical care in Palestinian towns and villages has gained him a strong grass roots standing. His close association with Dr. Shafi, who could have beaten all the other candidates if he had not declined to run because of his age, is a campaign asset. Shafi has laid his extremely good connections with West European communist and left-wing circles at the service of Dr. Barghouti.
Hassan Khereisha, 52, from Tulkarm, attained some prominence in the last two years from his crusade – often solo – against the corruption eating into every corner of the Palestinian Authority. He dared call for probes against Arafat’s closest aides and the exposure of his secret accounts. Because of this campaign, the Palestinian legislature placed Khereisha against Arafat’s will at the head its reforms commission.
Khereisha is known to the ordinary Palestinian for his honesty, commitment to democracy as a philosophy and guideline for political action – an extremely rare trait among Palestinian political figures – and his nationalist extremism.
From the moment he decided to run for office, he cut himself off from his large circle of Israeli acquaintances and associates. “From now on,” he said, “I don’t talk to Israelis.”
Abbas, 69, in addition to his narrow popular base is weighed down by the bad name his son Yasser Abbas (named after Arafat), has gained for corrupt dealing. It is said that some of the son’s most egregious transactions used the father’s inside information – although this has never been proved.
Unlike Abbas, who opposes violence, these two rivals are acceptable to Hamas because, although ready for talks with Israel, they do not favor first breaking off the war of terror against the Jewish state, as required by the Middle East roadmap. If Marwan Barghouti is right and Hamas pulls out a last-minute rabbit by tapping one of these candidates, Abu Mazen may not prevail notwithstanding all the backing granted him by the Bush administration, the Egyptian president, the King of Jordan and the prime minister of Israel.
They are all staked heavily in Abbas carrying off this crucial poll. Any other victor will present them with a grave dilemma and possibly force them to lay aside laboriously crafted plans.