Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas reaches the White House on July 25 seriously unempowered by Yasser Arafat, the very man whose authority he was appointed to curtail in order to stamp out Palestinian terrorism. His function is now openly described by Palestinian officials as “Arafat’s messenger”. The process of incapacitation was capped at was billed as a reconciliation meeting – a sulha – on Wednesday, July 16, under the aegis of head of Egyptian intelligence General Omar Suleiman, the indefatigable peacemaker of Palestinian squabbles.
debkafile draws on DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 117 for the first disclosure from Palestinian sources of exactly what happened at that meeting.
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Abbas arrived in Arafat’s office expecting to bury the hatchet and turn over a new leaf of cooperation. He realized at some level that Arafat was after a respite from the infighting for his own purpose, which was peace to restore and retrain the more than 70 percent of Palestinian security and intelligence forces he has kept back from Abbas and internal security minister Mohamed Dahlan.
Still, though shorn of almost all the troops he needs to disable the terrorists, Abu Mazen was optimistic that this time his power struggle with Arafat would end in a handshake. He had also been assured by the Egyptian security chief that he would not be wasting his time traveling to Ramallah without an advance guarantee from Arafat’s people that a real reconciliation and a different relationship were intended. Suleiman was encouraged by Arafat’s invitation to the meeting to the pro-American Palestinian finance minister Salim Fayyad, whom the Palestinian leader calls in private an “American puppet” and keeps away form the real records of the Palestinian Authority’s finances.
Even Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, came out of a private luncheon with Arafat on Tuesday, July 15, bucked up and assured Abu Mazen before flying back to Moscow that “from now on everything will be all right between you and Arafat”.
But again Arafat pulled a fast one.
As a senior Palestinian official present put it to DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “The Ra’is typically said one thing and did another. He promised a new page and cooperation, but did he say what would be written on that page or what he meant by cooperation? Like a great film director, he bowled Abbas and Suleiman over with a surprise script.” Abu Mazen found himself confronted and then browbeaten by his most vocal adversaries in the ruling Palestinian bodies, whom Arafat had assembled for the fateful meeting. None of his allies were invited. After being abused and humiliated by what turned into a quasi-revolutionary tribunal, the Palestinian prime minister ended up bowing to Arafat’s dictates. The Egyptian general bowed out.
That shift of authority was solidified in bureaucratic measures dictated by Arafat and endorsed by the meeting. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Palestinian sources report the formation of three new committees:
Supreme Palestinian Negotiating committee
This body determines Palestinian negotiating strategy and issues directive binding on Palestinian representatives in all diplomatic contacts with the United States and Israel. All decisions will be approved in advance by the committee.
Committee Chairman: Yasser Arafat.
Supreme Palestinian Military and Security Committee
This body gives Arafat ultimate authority over every part of the Palestinian security system.
All Palestinian security agencies are subordinate to this committee, which comprises chiefs of security, intelligence and police agencies, along with internal security affairs minister Mohammed Dahlan. As committee members, the security chiefs are promoted to the same rank as Dahlan thus leaving him stripped of authority over them. If the minister wants to hire or fire, he must first get the committee’s endorsement. This panel is also empowered to fire him.
By this move, Arafat neutralized Dahlan, depriving Abu Mazen of his “security and intelligence bite.”
Committee Chairman: Yasser Arafat.
Secret Arbitration Committee on Premiership Powers
The committee will censor Abu Mazen’s actions as prime minister. Its small composition is secret to prevent exposure to outside interference or pressure. Whenever Arafat deems the prime minister to have overstepped his authority or initiated unsanctioned policies, he will ask the committee for a ruling, against which there is no appeal. This panel is not mandated to examine Arafat’s actions or powers.
Committee Chairman: Yasser Arafat.
Abbas’ closest associates strongly advised him to turn down these measures and throw off the shackles Arafat locked on him as the price for reconciliation – or at least procrastinate until the end of summer. Abu Mazen turned a deaf ear, saying anything was preferable to the constant strain of Arafat’s threats. He also counted on the Americans and Europeans to bring all their weight to bear on Arafat and rein him in and set him free to get on with his job.
But the Supreme Negotiating Committee – chaired by Arafat – took care to convene in time to set forth Abu Mazen’s tactics in his July 20 meeting with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and talks at the White House with US president George W. Bush on July 25. The panel instructed him what to say – or more precisely how best to present Arafat’s demands.
The Palestinian prime minister who dared to talk peace on behalf of the Palestinian people on June 4 in Aqaba has in less than two months been reduced to a cipher empowered only to read from Arafat’s script. Because he is accepted in Washington, the role assigned him is to solicit the Bush administration to wring more and more Israeli concessions, claiming they are needed to bolster his popularity and strengthen his hand against Arafat. Sharon will thus be manipulated into continuing to pull troops out of West Bank towns and making enough “confidence-building” gestures to keep the diplomatic process alive. Meanwhile, territory vacated by the Israeli army will be instantly turned into Palestinian staging areas for building and training new and stronger terrorist units and better arms manufacturing facilities. The truce will keep them safe from Israeli attack.
Middle East policy-makers could not have foreseen an unexpected event outside the region that appears to have little immediate bearing on the Israeli-Palestinian issue – but only on the face of it.
The Blair government in London lapsed into an Iraq war-related crisis sparked by the suicide on Thursday, July 18, of Dr. David Kelly, 59, the British ministry of defense bio-arms expert who found himself in the eye of a scandal over BBC reports alleging that Alastair Campbell of the prime minister’s office had hyped the WMD dossier on Iraq to justify the Iraq War. The BBC later admitted Kelly was the prime source of the reports – though not necessarily the allegations contained in those reports. Kelly had meanwhile been thrown to the wolves of a parliamentary committee by his bosses at the defense ministry.
Blair, pushed to the wall in the middle of a Far East tour, set up a judicial inquiry commission and promised to give evidence. He moved quickly- but not as fast as the crisis hurtling forward and threatening his premiership and government and beginning to send shock waves out to the White House in Washington. Lesser waves may be on the way to Jerusalem.
Last Thursday, July 17, Blair, unaware of the hurricane at his door, was given a standing ovation by the United States Congress when he declared that history would prove it was right to go to war against Iraq. This was two days after he received Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon at 10 Downing Street. He also told American lawmakers that victory in the war on world terror would be achieved only after peace in the Middle East. He did not stipulate victory over Palestinian terror as a pre-condition for Middle East peace – as President George W. Bush has done. Blair’s position is clearly that it is incumbent on Israeli, not the Palestinians, to make the running for a Middle East settlement.
As the British premier spoke, British police were closing in on the body of David Kelly, a key figure in the pre-war compilation of intelligence on Saddam’s unconventional weapons at Downing Street. Kelly, a former UN arms inspector in Iraq was preparing to take up a position in Baghdad on the Pentagon-led Special Survey Team set up to find Saddam’s unconventional weapons.
His death was quickly laid at many UK government doors – Blair, Campbell, defense minister Geoff Hoon who approved his conversation with the BBC program producer Andrew Gilligan others. Finally the BBC, which may or many not have misquoted Kelly in smearing the prime minister’s office, was targeted.
While all this was going on, the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem leaked a report that the British and Israeli prime ministers offices had agreed to exchange sensitive intelligence data. These days, sensitive intelligence almost by definition covers terrorism and Iraq. The leak occurred on the day that Dr. Kelly was reported missing.
This is the point that should set alarm bells jangling in Jerusalem. When he arrives in Washington on July 29, Sharon may be dragged into certain actions by circumstances outside his control.
1. The fringes of the Kelly scandal will have touched the Bush presidency. With one foot ready to step out for a long summer break and Iraq at the forefront of his mind, the US president will have scant patience with the niceties of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute
2. Blair will lean hard on Bush for a dramatic initiative to divert attention from the Kelly scandal andits fallout as regards the credibility of the two allies’ intelligence ahead of the Iraq war. To this end, Sharon will be handy for pressure to leapfrog concessions to the Palestinians and drum up a telegenic peace drama.
3. The list of concessions expected of Israel will be waiting for him on the US president’s desk, deposited there four days earlier by Abbas. They will have been drawn up by the Supreme Negotiating Committee headed by Yasser Arafat, for which Abbas will have served as messenger four days earlier. Even the Palestinians now call Abu Mazen “Arafat’s Scout.”
These circumstances give Arafat the big breaks he never dreamed of. Sharon might therefore do well to cast about for a convincingly diplomatic pretext to put off his trip to Washington.