Sharon in dialogue with Arafat

When he launched the Likud campaign for the January 28 general election on
Wednesday, December 25, prime minister Ariel Sharon said cryptically: “I believe peace with the Palestinians is nearer than thought.” He went on to promise “I won’t let any opportunities get away.”
Needless to say, this was not what his party wanted to hear. A majority is up in arms about his firm advocacy of a Palestinian state, albeit a limited and demilitarized one.(See also debkafile December 5 “Sharon’s Palestinian speech may backfire”).
In his latest contribution to the subject, he said a Palestinian state was not his heart’s desire, but it was bound to happen. Asked in a televised interview if he would invite Likud ministers who oppose a Palestinian state (the majority) to join his post-election government, Sharon replied elliptically that he would tackle each one singly and was certain he could talk them round.
Thus far, he has not confided his Palestinian state plan to any of those ministers. In the meantime, the scandals swirling around vote-selling and corruption allegations occupy the center of Israel’s political stage. Sharon obviously has his mind on other things and may even welcome the media’s inattention to his main pursuit, which is, according to debkafile‘s American and Palestinian sources, a hush-hush, informal discourse with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the outline of a peace accord for creating a Palestinian state and shaping Israel’s final borders.
This settlement would be part and parcel of the Bush administration’s moves on Iraq and their regional corollary and is based on the US President’s Middle East blueprint of June 25.
The exchanges between the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian leader are being carried back and forth by Arafat’s unofficial deputy, Mahmoud Abbas aka Abu Mazen. This PLO veteran is respected in Washington and accepted in Jerusalem. The Palestinians’ most skilled diplomat, Abu Mazen has never been part of their terror machine and has publicly denounced the Intifada as a gross blunder.
Last week, members of the Middle East Quartet – secretary of state Colin Powell, Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, EU foreign affairs executive Javier Solana and UN secretary general Kofi Annan – on a visit to the White House, heard from President George W. Bush that their “road map” was incomplete. They were asked to delay its presentation.
Bush was impelled to make this request by his knowledge of the Sharon-Arafat channel.
What is the Israeli prime minister offering? debkafile‘s sources reveal some highlights of the still ongoing dialogue.
1. A Palestinian state consisting of West Bank Areas A and B. Israel would keep as sovereign territory Areas C plus around 10 percent of the land as well as the Jordan Rift Valley. The Palestinian state would thus rise on little more than 50 percent of the West Bank, leaving Israel just short of half.
2. Israel would likewise retain control of the main latitudinal highways running through the West Bank from the Israeli border in the West to the Jordan River in the East.
3. All the West Bank settlements, like the Jewish communities along these routes, such as Yitzhar and Tapuach, will remain in place under Israeli sovereignty.
4. A second road network would be tunneled underground at right angles to the first, providing territorial continuity between Palestinian locations under full Palestinian authority
5. This peace settlement would be implemented over 10 years. It would be contingent on the Palestinians calling off in the first stage all terrorist activity against Israel, disbanding the militias engaged in terror – including the al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the Hamas and the Jihad Islami and expunging all forms of anti-Israel agitation and incitement from Palestinian education programs and mass media.
6. Jerusalem is not under discussion. As far as Sharon is concerned Jerusalem’s fate is non-negotiable and the city will continue to be the undivided capital of Israel.
Bush and Sharon both seem to believe that this secret interchange can end positively, encouraged mainly by the fact that Arafat has not vetoed the Israeli proposals out of hand and has in fact sent Abu Mazen back with some of his own. They are:
1. The Palestinians must have 65 percent of the West Bank.
2. The West Bank’s lateral routes must also come under Palestinian sovereignty, but may be leased out to Israel for 25 years together with the roadside settlements.
3. The transitional period must be cut down from ten to two years.
4. Like Sharon, Arafat has not raised the Jerusalem issue. Abu Mazen is working on a compromise formula for transferring Temple Mount and some of Jerusalem’s Arab districts to Jordanian control. A joint Palestinian-Jordanian authority would be set up as a formality.
Sharon has advised Abu Mazen to withdraw his candidacy for prime minister in the reformed Palestinian Authority, believing that Arafat alone has the authority to negotiate a deal on behalf of the Palestinian people. debkafile‘s sources add that the prime minister obtained approval from the US president for this move, which also effectively recognizes the suspension of the Palestinian governmental reform program. In effect too, Sharon who once proclaimed Arafat irrelevant, has now restored his relevance.
Next week, when Arafat’s Fatah and Hamas go back to their on-again off-again Cairo parley, our sources report Abu Mazen will take the seat occupied till now by Arafat’s financial adviser Mohammed Rashid.
Despite the winds of hope blowing in Washington and Jerusalem, debkafile‘s Palestinian experts say that, outside the secret diplomatic interchange between Sharon and Arafat, nothing has changed in Israel-Palestinian relations. The new defense minister and chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz and Lt. General Moshe Yaalon, are conducting an intense crackdown against the spreading blight of suicidal terror, with initial results. So far in December, three Israelis have died in terrorist attacks compared with 44 in November and 22 in October. In the last three months, some 80 Palestinian terrorist homes were demolished, although attempts to deport their families to the Gaza Strip failed in appeals to the Israeli High Court.
Mofaz, Thursday, December 26, called army and Shin Beit chiefs together and instructed them to hunt terrorist operatives down wherever they are, in the light of fresh intelligence that Palestinian terrorist groups are planning to open a second front in the US war on Iraq. Arafat and his clique appear to believe that Saddam Hussein will come out on top of the conflict with the Americans and that his confrontation with Israel will likewise end in victory.
As long as he cherishes that belief, our experts do not believe the Palestinian leader will sign or endorse any settlement – certainly not one on the minimalist lines offered by Sharon. He is simply exploiting the dialogue to open up a line of communication with the Bush administration which has long ostracized him. Even if he does enter into some form of peace accord, he will repudiate it in the same way as he reneged on the 1993 Oslo Framework Accord.
Sharon, for his part, believes he can wear down Palestinian resistance to a peace plan while grinding their terrorist machine small.

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