Following the Likud leader’s election victory Tuesday Feb. 6, Yasser Arafat took tangible steps to prepare the ground for the liquidation of the Palestinian Authority established under the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel and the transfer of himself and close clique to Baghdad. He will leave behind him a newly created “Independent Palestinian authority” that he will rule from the Iraqi capital as PLO chief. In this capacity he will revoke all the American-brokered accords he signed with Israel and accept only the UN’s 1947 Resolution 181 partitioning Palestine, as the sole basis for talks on a settlement.
A week later, the Palestinian leader issued a directive to his minions to speed up the preparations for moving to Baghdad. The existence of this deal colors much of Sharon’s strategy; it has become a factor in the new Bush administration’s decisions and a spur to outgoing prime minister Barak’s Labor and other parties to join Sharon’s national unity coalition.
The Effect on Palestinians:
According to debkafile‘s Palestinian sources, the notion of an independent Palestinian authority seated in Gaza, as outlined in Amman by the chairman of the Palestinian Council, Salim Zaanun, was not conceived as a challenge to Arafat’s authority; it is rather his own brainchild. A document for its establishment came out of a series of meetings Arafat and Zaanun held with PA foreign minister Farouk Kaddumi, who refuses to set foot in PA territory in protest against the peace process with israel. Publication of the document is a step towards dissolving Palestinian Authority institutions and setting up an “independent authority” in its stead. That body would come under the aegis of PLO-Baghdad (on the model of PLO-Tunis before 1993)), freeing Arafat to turn the clock back and revoke all Palestinian commitments signed with Israel and the US, including the 1993 Oslo peace framework (for which Arafat with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres received Nobel peace prizes) and everything concluded in the intervening seven years. He would never be called on to accept a demand he consistently dodged anyway to negotiate a final, irrevocable peace accord with Israel entailing compromises on a refugee settlement and total sovereignty in all parts of Jerusalem. From Baghdad, his PLO would declare that the 1947 UN Partition Resolution is the single basis for talks with Israel.
For the Palestinian leadership, the “independent authority” is additionally useful as a measure for muzzling the clamor of protest in all Palestinian walks of life against the spreading corruption in high places. As a sop to the protesters, Arafat and his cronies, who are the main targets of these protests, promise the new body will spearhead an anti-sleaze campaign.
However, Arafat’s plans have run into a snag:. Kaddumi has planted a clause in the “independent authority”‘s charter, providing for it to be headed not by a figurehead as Arafat had intended, but by an officer with executive powers, a sort of provincial Palestinian prime minister who will govern Gaza and the West Bank in practice. Arafat views this provision as a challenge to his authority. He fears that if the “independent authority” turns out to be genuinely independent, he might find himself stranded powerless in faraway Baghdad. More evidence of the swelling anti-Arafat protest movement surfaced on Friday Feb. 9 when the respected veteran Palestinian statesman, Khaider al Shafi, issued a rare statement in Gaza city demanding that the Palestinians set up their own national unity government.
Effect on Israelis:
For Israel’s prime minister-elect, the sooner the Palestinian leader leaves for Baghdad, the better. Sharon can also live with Arafat revoking all the accords he signed with Israel and reverting to UN partition resolution 181. He will not then have any trouble in persuading world and domestic opinion that Arafat and the PLO are the enemy and must be thwarted. Arafat’s deal with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein serves the welcome purpose of solidifying Israeli and the new Bush administration’s common interests and giving the Sharon government a useful starting point for its relations with Washington. And a final boon from Gaza: Arafat by removing himself – especially if he steps up Palestinian violence first – clears a major obstacle for Labor, led by Oslo accord co-architect Shimon Peres – and even left-wing Meretz – to enter Sharon’s national alliance.
The two major tasks still facing the newly-elected Israel prime minister are, first: Getting Arafat out without Israel and its army being dragged into intense local and regional combat. Before he exits the scene, Arafat will do his utmost to present Sharon in the ugliest possible light. The other is quelling the comprehensive massive terrorist campaign Arafat is preparing for the Israeli populace, betokened by a car bomb in a Jerusalem district Wednesday, Feb. 8, only 48 hours after Sharon was elected. The 15-kilo charge was big enough to wreak much death and destruction; only by good fortune was no one killed. Ten people were hurt, none seriously. Its size indicates the Palestinians have smuggled enough war materiel into the West Bank to replenish falling stocks. Israel’s security services are on high alert after being warned a major Palestinian bombing campaign is in preparation against Israeli urban centers – not merely as a message to Sharon, but to divert attention from popular Palestinian complaints at the spreading corruption in the Palestinian Authority and its leader’s close circle.
The greatest help in establishing a national unity government has been extended to Sharon by his defeated rival Ehud Barak. The outgoing prime minister appears anxious to reconstitute the national unity agreement with the Likud leader from which he backed off at the eleventh hour three months ago. He is doing everything in his power to make the transition smooth. Ironically, although Shimon Peres maneuvered every way he could to sabotage a Barak-Sharon partnership and bring about Barak’s defeat in Tuesday’s election, Barak’s efforts since he was routed are leading directly to Peres, his foe, being co-opted to the Sharon lineup. While committed to retiring for now himself, his efforts are bearing fruit. After the first round of coalition talks Thursday night, Labor’s dovish elder statesman appears ready to grasp the line thrown him by the two generals and “accept” a senior cabinet post under a leader he has long vilified. Once Peres goes in, the floodgates are open and a crowd of political swimmers will follow from every corner of Israel’s political spectrum – doves, hawks, ultra-religious and anti-religious, moderates and radicals, Jews and Arabs, new immigrants and veterans. All of a sudden, no one is talking about an early general election or a narrow-based, right-religious cabinet as not robust enough to last beyond the summer. The way things are going, Sharon will be hard put to find jobs all round for a government that could well go full term.
A substantial boost in his fortunes was applied by caretaker prime minister Barak, who called his good friend Bill Clinton with a reminder: The Israeli prime minister, after last September’s summit breakdown at Camp David, stated that all Israeli concessions there null and void. He repeated this declaration after further rounds with Arafat in Paris, the White House and Taba. Barak therefore asked the former US president to affirm to the new president that none of Israel’s proposals on those occasions put Ariel Sharon under any obligation. Barak conveyed the same message Thursday night to the British prime minister, the German chancellor, the French president, European Union leaders, the Egyptian president and Yasser Arafat.
Hours after receiving Barak’s call, ex-president Clinton phoned Sharon with congratulations. That was soon followed by a statement from the US state department spokesman that the Israel-Palestinian understandings referred to by Barak are indeed invalid.
Barak not only cleared the decks for Sharon, he scoured them.
He also placed himself alongside Peres to negotiate Labor’s entry to Sharon’s government and make sure it goes through.
Barak, for all his failings, is a man of his word. He promised Clinton, who aided his bid for office, to work hard for peace, and he did. He promised to help Sharon create a broad governing alliance – and he is doing just that. He has also promised to return – without saying when. By bowing out with grace, he is building up a store of political assets and credibility against that day.
The Effect in Washington:
Saturday, Feb. 10, the Bush administration laid down three new guidelines for its Middle East policy, all powerful props for the future Ariel Sharon government:
First: The Bush administration would adopt a broad regional approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This was the burden of an announcement by the state department spokesman of the itinerary for “the General’s” forthcoming Mid East trip. Colin Powell begins his first overseas tour as secretary of state on Feb. 23 and visits in addition to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. In Kuwait, he will attend the 10th anniversary celebrations of the end of the Gulf War on Feb. 26.
Second: Responsibility for future talks will lie with the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
Third: Secretary Powell did not leave this one to his spokesman but stepped forward himself for emphasis: Top priority would be assigned to enforcing the United Nations’ efforts “to deny Iraq the opportunity to purchase weapons or material” for weapons of mass destruction and “keep the missiles under control”. Administration policy toward Iraq aimed at “protecting the children in the region”.
The Iraqi problem, as debkafilerepeatedly forecast, has been placed at the top of the Bush administration’s scale of priorities and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demoted, to be addressed not directly from the Oval Office but state, defense and the national security council, on a par with other regional problems. This switch also pink slips Egypt as Washington’s senior regional broker between Palestinians and Israelis. The “broad regional approach” to the conflict tells Yasser Arafat that the Palestinian problem will be viewed in the regional context, so that he cannot play ball with Saddam Hussein on a separate channel from his relationship with the White House.
At 3.40 pm local time Wednesday, Feb. 8, Yasser Arafat received his first phone call from the new US president, George W. Bush. It came through after the Palestinian leader complained to the US Jerusalem consul that the US president had phoned every other leader but himself. Arafat, as is his wont when talking to world leaders, spoke movingly to Bush about his efforts to hold back terrorists and promised to cooperate in every way possible to promote peace and calm. Exactly one hour after the conversation, a car bomb exploded in a religious Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, detonated on orders from Arafat. The new US president learned what Clinton Madeleine Albright, Dennis Ross, George Tenet, the late Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak discovered the hard way over the years. Arafat talks out of two sides of his mouth – words of reason one side, terrorism the other.
The new White House is already divided over the Middle East. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who are onto Arafat’s plan to move to Baghdad, favor a pre-emptive US military strike against Iraq before this happens. This might keep Arafat pinned down in Gaza, which neither is sure is a good thing. Sharon would certainly prefer to see the back of him. However, the Saddam-Arafat axis is perceived by the two Americans officials as a military problem to be addressed by military means.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the other hand, views the Saddam-Arafat partnership as a diplomatic problem; likewise its solution. Powell groups Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and long- range missile arsenal under the heading of Arms Limitation and Control. He views Arafat’s terrorist activity as an “intelligence problem”, although he is not completely happy with this definition.
Three Arab nations are adding their voices to the dispute. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait, ostensibly in the midst of restoring their relations with Baghdad, are whispering entreaties into American ears to lose no time in cutting Saddam down. Powell is responding by paying visits to Kuwait and Riyadh at the end of this month. Friday, Feb. 9, he added Israel as a destination. When he returns home, he will be better equipped to give advice on urgent White House decisions regarding the Saddam-Arafat partnership and its effect on Middle East stability.