The “Madrid Quartet” – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – slid into diplomatic deadlock in New York this week over a joint Middle East policy and what to do about Yasser Arafat. At the same time, secretary of state Colin Powell demanded attention for what he called “a very good” CIA security plan for protecting Israel against Palestinian terrorism, while refusing to reveal its substance.
Powell adheres faithfully to the White House policy calling for the removal of Yasser Arafat as having reached the end of his political usefulness. This does not mean he likes it. His real feelings are closer to those of the Europeans and UN secretary-general Kofi Annan that Arafat is the elected Palestinian leader and cannot be dismissed from peacemaking.
Security, as the only issue all four members of the Quartet agree upon, has therefore become the catchword. After Powell announced the new CIA plan, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer reported positive developments. While setbacks were always possible (in the Middle East), President George W. Bush was generally satisfied. EU chief Javier Solana then came forward with the news that a US task force of security officials would be traveling to the Middle East in two weeks to pursue the plan with the Palestinians, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
This optimism was quickly shot through by dissenting voices from the Middle East. On Thursday, July 18, Egypt announced it would not be sending military or police forces to Palestinian Authority territory, after all. Jordan followed suit, after King Abdullah and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak conferred urgently. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Cairo and Amman advise ignoring these public utterances. On the quiet, Egypt and Jordan will go ahead and cooperate with the United States in establishing the security force.
As for the content of the security plan on which Powell was so cagey, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources reveal that the CIA has begun setting up and training new security forces for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These contingents are not tied to Israel, Arafat or to any existing Palestinian security agency – certainly not those headed by Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, although both had past associations with the CIA.
As one senior US security source in the field told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “The new agencies are completely autonomous and run – at least in the preliminary stages – by US security personnel.”
Another US security source in the field said: “It’s (CIA director) George Tenet’s new baby in the region and he’s convinced that President Bush will go for it.”
Tenet, the source said, has already sold the president on the view that the CIA’s 1990s program to set up a CIA-supervised mechanism for security and military cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians was correct. It would have worked had not Arafat torpedoed the plan by opting for the path of terrorism. That threat has evaporated now that Arafat is hanging on to power by a thread. It is time therefore to build a security model on the same lines as the failed one.
Tenet plans to create a Palestinian security force controlled totally by the CIA on the model of the local militias now operating in Afghanistan and the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. He has slotted Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan into the venture as the CIA’s partners, and will ask Israel to jump in later in a limited capacity.
He is reported to have convinced Bush that his plan is the best way to get an effective Palestinian security force into Palestinian towns with responsibility for security and the prevention of terror, and allow Israeli troops to pull out. Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence and security elements attached to the force will lend it operational ballast and pan-Arab legitimacy.
Our source described Tenet as passionate about the project and devoting much of his time to its details. The CIA director hopes its success will validate what many believe was his failed Palestinian program in the Clinton presidency.
Asked about the scope of the new security forces, our source said: “They will be much smaller than the existing Palestinian security and police forces of 50,000 men – no more than 12,000 to 15,000,”
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, CIA officers have begun offering jobs to Palestinian intelligence officers, working off lists pre-approved by CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Candidates are being invited to serve in a new security apparatus run by “US civilian security personnel”. Their conditions of employment include severance of every tie with any existing Palestinian security or intelligence services and willingness to serve in any capacity anywhere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Originally, the CIA planned a first-stage complement of 300 officers for the West Bank and 200 for the Gaza Strip. But the Palestinians rallied to the recruitment campaign much more enthusiastically than expected; economic conditions in Palestinian Authority-controlled area are harsh and no one knows how long the existing services will survive or meet their payrolls. The US agency accordingly upped its figures, so far signing up some 1,000 applicants.
Most have been trained in anti-terror tactics, close combat, policing and security duties in densely populated urban areas. The costs of retraining will therefore not be high. The lesson American instructors will hammer home is that terrorism against Israeli targets is a thing of the past. Their primary mission is to fight radical groups like the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Arafat’s Fatah, the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has further discovered from its sources that, by way of an important though discreet step to support Tenet’s security plan, the Bush administration has begun to pressure banks in Europe and the Far East to stop releasing the funds in Arafat’s accounts — an unofficial move that is gradually freezing his cash flow. By law, the banks cannot close Arafat’s accounts or stop all activity, but they are piling up technical obstructions to the transfer of funds.
Because of these difficulties, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that Arafat this week quietly ordered his personal money wizard, Mohammed Rashid, to leave his safe refuge in London and come back to Ramallah without delay, even though his life is under threat from elements in the Palestinian Authority and its security services. Arafat needs Rashid at his side to cut through the technical barriers blocking access to his accounts in European and Far Eastern banks, especially Singapore.
Tenet’s security plan is still in the fledgling stage and vulnerable. While Egypt and Jordan have agreed to play ball, Arafat could decide to counter the monetary and personal pressures heaped on him by targeting recruits to the new force and their families for terrorist attack and assassination. If enough recruits are frightened into deserting, the CIA security force could fold.
Endorsement by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon is likewise essential to the new force’s survivability – and it is not a foregone conclusion. If he sees any sign of Powell using the time lag before the new force is fully formed to partially rehabilitate Yasser Arafat as a stopgap or token figure of authority, Sharon will back away from the Tenet plan. In the air over Washington last weekend was talk of making Arafat a figurehead president of the Palestinian Authority while a prime minister would assume real powers with the backing of the new security force.
The Israeli prime minister is also watching out for signs that the new CIA-led Palestinian force, if it is devoid of Israeli influence, will be a tool in the hands of Powell, the State Department, the Europeans and Egypt, for “internationalizing” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a goal long cherished by Arafat and anathema to Israel.
In a move that may reassure Israel, the vice president’s daughter, deputy assistant secretary of state Elizabeth Cheney, has been put in charge of the security task force due in the Middle East in two weeks. As a diplomatic figure, she will counter-balance the security officer, George Tenet, and also perhaps his not too happy record in Jerusalem.