Rice’s Twin Middle East Missions Impossible

The US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice undertook tough, some would say impossible, missions in the first stops of her current Middle East tour – Ramallah and Jerusalem – although her projected trip to Cairo will not be a bed of roses either.
She held heart-to-heart talks Saturday, June 18, with Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia and chairman Mahmoud Abbas to demand that the Palestinians stick to a state of “partial calm” for the duration of the Israeli pullback from the Gaza Strip in August. She sought their promise to cooperate with Israel to ensure it takes place in a “secure environment.”
Later Saturday, she also arranged to see Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz.
debkafile‘s Washington and Cairo sources say that her work will really be cut out in her second mission: to haul Egyptian-Israeli relations out of the mud. This issue will be broached in Jerusalem Sunday June 19, in her second round of talks with prime minister Ariel Sharon, vice prime minister Shimon Peres, foreign minister Silvan Shalom – and later in Cairo.
The temperature between Jerusalem and Cairo has dropped so precipitously that Rice decided to place this crisis near the top of her travel agenda.
Last Tuesday, June 15, visiting Egyptian intelligence minister Omar Suleiman set out to please reporters in Jerusalem by promising Hosni Mubarak would pay a presidential visit to Israel after the Gaza withdrawal.
The promise was made cynically because Cairo does not expect the disengagement to go forward. In the privacy of their conference rooms, Suleiman informed Israeli officials in no uncertain terms that Egypt had gone back on its promised role in securing the Gaza Strip and Philadelphi border strip. He thereupon laid out a series of harsh terms to buy Egypt’s re-entry to the process.
One group of Egyptian demands would effectively annul the military clauses of the 1979 Israel-Egyptian peace treaty under which the Sinai Peninsula was restored to Egypt against an irrevocable pledge that it stayed demilitarized.
1. Egyptian troops must be deployed not merely along the Gaza border strip known as the Philadelphi Route, but the full length of the Egyptian-Israel border south of the Gaza Strip, i.e. from the Mediterranean up to the Red Sea. This deployment would bring thousands of Egyptian troops up to Israel’s border in direct contravention of the peace treaty.
2. Egypt wants to further contravene the treat by introducing soldiers armed with helicopter units which would be allowed freedom of flight over border areas.
3. Egypt also sought to bring tanks to the border region (on the pretext that infra-red instruments were needed for night surveillance).
4. Egypt is claiming sweeping control of all the border crossings in Gaza (contesting the Palestinian demand) and denies Israel the right to post security personnel or carry out security screenings of arrivals. Egypt thinks Israeli customs officials should suffice.
The second group endorses Palestinian demands for full sovereignty over the land, sea and air space of the Gaza Strip (where terrorists would continue to remain armed and at large) as well as a sovereign Palestinian land link to the West Bank.
The Egyptian official turned down the offer to build a rail link as “an Israeli ruse to buy time.”
As long as Jerusalem refuses to pay Cairo’s price in full, Suleiman declared, Egypt will abstain from any security or stabilizing role in the evacuated Gaza Strip.
Egypt’s hard-line posture has produced some unforeseen untoward effects:
1. It has shorn Israel’s disengagement plan of the security safeguards that were built into the process on the strength of Egyptian pledges. Israeli officials warned Sharon after Suleiman left that Cairo decided to opt out of its undertakings after discovering that control of the Gaza Strip had passed out of Abbas’ hands to those of his opponents, primarily the violent Hamas and the Fatah-al Aqsa Brigades. At most, Cairo may repeat for the secretary’s benefit token gestures that were never kept, such as an offer to train a few Palestinian security officers.
2. Egypt’s withdrawal also topples the US-British security plan for the CIA and the British secret service MI6 to train and set up new Palestinian security and intelligence bodies for the Gaza Strip. The two agencies have invested work and funds in the project on both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an effort that has gone to naught.
debkafile‘s Washington sources point to the advance guard Rice sent to the Middle East as indicative of the tough challenges ahead. Director of the state department’s Middle East department David Welsh is a former US ambassador to Egypt with long experience in grappling with often confrontational relations the Mubarak regime. He arrived with Rice’s former aide, the deputy head of the national security council Eliot Abrams.
Welsh was first assigned to carry out a shuttle mission to iron out the issues between Jerusalem and Cairo before she landed. This mission did not come off. Cairo is also at loggerheads with Washington over administration criticism of the inadequacy of its democratic reforms. Both issues landed therefore squarely in the secretary’s lap.
In Ramallah, Rice found herself making demands of Palestinian leaders whose authority had been usurped by armed lawless terrorist chiefs and local warlords.
Her appeal to Palestinian prime minister Qureia, Abu Ala, for a secure environment in Gaza was made on the very day that the Palestinian legislative council demanded his resignation.
She talked to him two days after his sumptuous winter villa in Jericho was broken into and thoroughly vandalized by Fatah-al Aqsa Brigades thugs. They slashed curtains, smashed furniture and extinguished burning cigarettes on every surface, venting their fury on the prime minister for daring to denounce the mayhem paralyzing the Palestinian government in a speech earlier this week.
Jericho was transferred to Palestinian security control only a few weeks ago as a personal gesture from Mofaz to Palestinian interior minister Nasser Yousef. Rice met the Palestinian minister Saturday, knowing he was helpless to halt even that one incident in Jericho and therefore did not try.
Jericho is usually calm compared with most other Palestinian towns. The Americans must be aware of how far law and authority have collapsed across the two territories. They know that Abu Mazen, Abu Ala and Yousef have as little say on the ground as the Jaafari government has in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. This does not stop Washington leaning hard on the Shiite-Kurdish dominated government for gestures to Sunni factions in the effort to stifle the flames of Iraqi guerrilla and Arab Islamic terror in Iraq, although it is an open secret that the roots of the violence and its controllers are located elsewhere.
And it will not stop Rice demanding Israeli concessions and “confidence-building” gestures as a lifebelt for the lifeless Palestinian Authority – at least to smooth things over until the evacuation is over.
Israel’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz has pledged the Israeli pull-back will not take place under Palestinian fire – but insists that it will take place. He explains: if they shoot, we’ll shoot back.
On the Palestinian side, preparations, training and an injection of weapons are going forward at a hectic pace for a bloodbath planned for the pull-back in Gaza and across the border in Israel. The terrorists intend to put Israeli military, police and intelligence forces under the strain of having to divide their strength between evicting reluctant Jewish evacuees and fending off Palestinian attacks.
This Palestinian plan is going forward on a separate planet from Rice’s talks in Ramallah and from US security coordinator General William Ward’s assurance Thursday, June 16, that both sides are making efforts to prevent the disengagement taking place under Palestinian fire.
Halutz, however, must look to realities beyond the evacuation process. His job must then focus on the threat the Gaza Strip as an out-of-control terrorist hotbed presents to southern Israel and its strategic centers, in the absence of a government in Ramallah willing or able to assert its authority. debkafile‘s military sources do not rule out a major Israeli military operation to root out the terrorists, destroy their bases and arms caches and break the stranglehold gang chiefs maintain on the Gaza Strip.The Israeli military has developed advanced technology for an operation of this kind that will not demand substantial ground strength. But Palestinian fire on the pull-back may well bring this operation forward – to be carried out on the spot.

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