Saudis, Egyptians, Arafat Join Hands to Derail US Peace-Cum-Free Trade Plan for Middle East

The Israeli-Palestinian peace front remains stalled in defiance of the US secretary of state Colin Powell’s generous assertion of progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian accord for the transfer of security responsibility on the Gaza Strip. He also commended the Palestinian Authority for its hard work to bring into place a cessation of violence on the part of Palestinian terrorist groups. That was on the morning of Monday, June 23.
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Monday evening, Hamas leaders took back the promise they gave the world media Sunday to say where they stood on a truce within 24 hours. Again, they upped demands. And again, it was said, an answer would be forthcoming tomorrow… maybe.
Monday afternoon, a meeting at the Israel-Gaza Strip Erez checkpoint between Israel’s military commander of the West Bank and Gaza Strip Lt. Major Amos Gilead and Palestinian internal security minister, Mohamed Dahlan, failed to reduce differences. There might be progress… tomorrow.
Gilad said after the meeting: “As long as Arafat pulls their strings, we’ll get exactly nowhere.”
debkafile‘s political sources reveal a large roadblock on the path to progress which no one is yet admitting, a Palestinian stipulation that Israel withdraw from all the Palestinian areas its troops entered after Arafat declared his confrontation on September 28, 2000. Until that happens, the Palestinians will not consider implementing Clause One of the Middle East road map, of which Powell is co-author, calling for the disarming and disbanding of terrorist groups.
Arafat has ordered Prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and Dahlan to stand fast on this pre-condition because turning the clock back will empower him to proclaim himself victor of the Palestinian-Israeli war and the Israelis vanquished.
But that is not all. Before permitting the Abu Mazen-Dahlan duo to make any security commitments, Arafat is demanding what he regards as the Palestinians’ due for their suffering in the coin of hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States, euros from the European Union and shekels from the Israelis. They all owe it to him to “rehabilitate the Palestinian Authority”. Anyone familiar with Arafat’s ways will know the destination of those funds as soon as they are handed over. In the meantime, Arafat has no objection to Abu Mazen and Dahlan conducting truce negotiations with the Hamas, the Jihad Islami, the Fatah-Tanzim and the al Aqsa Martyrs (Suicides) Brigades, as long as his hand is on the lever to make sure they roll on aimlessly accompanied by terrorist attacks.
“Palestinian security forces consist of two parts,” says Israeli negotiator Gilad: “70 percent is controlled by Arafat and the rest by Dahlan. Perhaps we erred in not taking into account an Arafat veto nullifying any accord. Before talking to us, Palestinian leaders invariably present themselves to Arafat for instructions.”
How did this “error” come to be? Arafat’s iron grip on the talks with Israel is no secret to Israeli intelligence or even the media. And what about Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s assertion Monday, June 23, week: “Abu Mazen is a leader we can negotiate with.”? Negotiate, perhaps, but no accord will come out of these negotiations because Arafat will not let it.
As Sharon spoke, a booby-trapped car was fortunately intercepted on Jerusalem-Modiin Highway 443 carrying a huge quantity of explosives. The vehicle was traced to the Ramallah district where Arafat reigns supreme. Ten days ago, on the same road, two terrorists were caught on
their way to a shooting-grenade attack in downtown Jerusalem. One was killed escaping Israeli police pursuit; his partner was captured.
Jerusalem and its environs and highways have again become a killing ground for Palestinian terrorists and suicides dispatched from Ramallah. But is anyone willing to take Arafat on?
Not as long as the true hierarchy of Palestinian terror is carefully screened, so as to keep the Abu Mazen-Hamas ball rolling however ineffectually at center stage, and obscure the impact of the US-Israeli-Palestinian stalemate on the broader diplomatic arena in which Washington is engaged.
Washington took the opportunity of the World Economic Forum held this week in Jordan to administer another push to its free trade plan for the Middle East – the other half of its program of democratic reform. US Trade representative Robert Zoellick acknowledged that President George W. Bush’s free trade initiative was part of the concept behind the invasion of Iraq. “…it is important to have a secure environment not only in military terms, but also to use that as a foundation for building opportunity that we hope brings empowerment to the region,” said Zoellick. Washington envisages free commerce with Arab nations within a decade linked to calls by Arabs themselves for internal reforms and greater political openness.
Only Jordan and Israel have free trade pacts with the United States. The reception by other Arab governments to the American economic plan is far from enthusiastic. Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher questioned the timing and venue for the plan to be “given precedence”. The least welcoming are Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly explained in its last issue on June 20.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has tried often to wean US leaders away from their overall design, formed before the Iraq war, to lead the Middle East toward a democratic future amid free trade – DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported from its Persian Gulf and Middle East sources. For Egyptian and Saudi leaders, this is an alien and radical concept whose application they believe would compel Arab nations to abandon their nationalist-religious ethos in favor of economic and civic progress.
Mubarak sees it as a recipe for toppling Cairo as number one power in the region, which would not deflect the Bush administration from its path. Egypt has attained its pride of place in the region, he is convinced, by combining roles as center of Arab nationalism and fountainhead of Islamic learning. The post of Arab League secretary is traditionally held by an Egyptian official – former foreign minister Amr Mussa is incumbent – while Cairo’s Al-Azhar University has been esteemed for centuries as the pre-eminent seat of Islamic studies and home to great sages. Bush’s campaign to push the Arab world out of its traditionalist mold into the world of market economies, free trade pacts, economic cooperation and democratically elected institutions, strikes at the core of everything the Egyptian president has worked for in thirty years and confronts the country as he knows it with the danger of extinction.
Forced to adjust to open forums and Western economic mores, poverty-stricken Egypt, the second largest recipient of US foreign aid, would make a poor showing at the new Middle East and Persian Gulf forums. Egypt and Arab nationalism, which dominate Middle East politics today, would be pushed to the fringes by the multiethnic platforms envisaged by Bush. Non-Arab regional participants like Turks, Kurds and Israelis would be raised level with Arabs and Egypt downgraded as Arab nationalist exemplar.
The Saudis would lose their Islamic primacy as Guardians of the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina and be demoted from the position they enjoy as paramount Arab power by virtue of their great oil wealth.
Both Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah have warned President Bush that his free trade zone would shake their governments, with no guarantee that their successors would fit American plans any better. The Egyptian ruler warned of the danger of Al-Azhar University and its relatively moderate Sunni administration falling into the hands of radical Shiites, granting them a point of vantage for whipping the Muslim world into an anti-Western frenzy that would make the Khomeinist Islamic Revolution in Iran look tame. That frenzy would blow away all America’s holdings in the region, he warns.
According to our sources in Cairo, the Egyptian ruler is above all determined to avoid confrontation with Muslim extremists of all stripes. He sees Egypt’s role as broker and moderator between the two great schools of Islam who must on no account challenge the Shiites and other extremists.
This philosophy governs Cairo’s Palestinian policies. Resisting the US president’s call for a universal fight against the Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their suicide killers, Egypt is working hard to bring the two Palestinian terrorist groups into reconciliatory dialogues. Mubarak spurns Bush’s attempts to neutralize Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, who is working to defeat the Bush administration’s plans by keeping the level of Palestinian terror high whether or not Hamas accepts a ceasefire. Saudi Arabia is also keeping the Hamas in funds, because neither Riyadh nor Cairo views the group as terrorists.
Washington has little chance of shifting any of those leaders from their entrenched postures. Bush was sharply rebuffed when he asked Arab leaders meeting him at Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this month to sever relations with the Hamas, establish normal relations with Israel and link themselves to free trade accords. Mubarak and Abdullah said they wanted no part of any of these policies. The three leaders finally agreed to disagree,DEBKA-Net-Weeklyconcluded.
It is hard to see Mahmoud Abbas and Dahlan safely picking their way through the minefields they are negotiating between the leading Arab rulers and Arafat, on the one side, and the Americans and Israelis, on the other. Hamas leaders can afford to frustrate them by keeping up their protracted game of tease over a ceasefire.
However, debkafile reveals that the American secretary of state drew on his colleague’s symbolism to put the Middle East manipulators and schemers firmly in their place by a quiet piece of advice to Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Send your ambassador back to Tel Aviv, he said. Don’t wait for the Egyptians. They belong to the Old Middle East; you’re in the New Middle East.

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