The Misunderstood Foreign Minister

In an explosive article headlined “Shimon Peres’s death sentence”, the French weekly L’Express quoted Israel’s foreign minister as remarking recently in a private conversation in Paris, “To end this (conflict) Yasser Arafat must die by the bullet. But it should not, of course, be ours” (meaning Israeli bullets)

The Israeli embassy in Paris promptly denied that Israel’s leading dove had said any such thing. The editor of L’Express said the newsmagazine stood behind its report. It refused to say to whom Peres had made the purported remarks. In an Israel Radio interview, Peres persisted in his denial. He explained the whole affair arose from a misunderstanding. The L’Express reporter mistook Peres’s English phrase. “I told him that Arafat was setting the entire Middle East on fire and the L’Express man simply did not understand the word ‘fire’. He thought it meant gunfire,” said the foreign minister.

The report coincided with a visit Peres paid on French president Jacques Chirac in Paris before setting off for a White House meeting with US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. President George W. Bush, in an unusual gesture, given his frosty relations with Peres, “dropped in” on the meeting and they chatted for 20 minutes.

Returning to Israel, Peres was invited out of the blue to Cairo by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak has refused to receive the Israeli foreign minister for nearly a year since Peres last visited the Egyptian capital in June 2001. Mubarak never stopped fuming over a remark Peres made at their joint news conference in Cairo then, that the Egyptian leader had been mistaken in asserting that Israel had come to an agreement with the Palestinians. After that gaffe, Peres added insult to injury by saying in subsequent press interviews that Mubarak had misunderstood what was said. After that, Mubarak refused to see Peres or even accept his phone calls until this week, when the ice suddenly broke and he graciously received the Israeli foreign minister.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Paris, the leak of Peres’s hostile remark about Arafat to L’Express was no coincidence. Very senior political officials in the French capital made sure the newsmagazine carried it without any later retraction. The Peres-Chirac conversation, they said, had focused on threats scattered by Arafat in the first half of July. Arafat had been telling European officials calling on him that he would spill dark, embarrassing secrets against Middle East and European leaders unless they rescued him from the isolation to which Israel and the United States had condemned him.

When this discreet threat was unavailing, Arafat appeared at a Palestinian cabinet meeting in Ramallah on Friday, July 12, and declared: “If they try to attack me, I will reveal secrets that will shake the entire Middle East.” Arafat made deliberate use of a large audience and Israeli listening devices to ensure his threat was made public and achieved the desired effect.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East and West European sources disclose that certain intelligence services advised their political masters to treat Arafat’s remarks seriously, and take steps to restrain him from acting recklessly.

One such step was the leak to L’Express of Peres’s apparent slip of the tongue. It was meant as a signal to Arafat on behalf of certain European and Middle Eastern quarters of what might be in store for him if he goes through with his threats.

Senior political sources in France declined to say who was responsible for the leak. But it led to Peres being invited at last to the presidential palace in Cairo. Mubarak was curious enough to want to hear the story first hand and not merely from dry intelligence reports.

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