US Middle East Road Map Goes Well Beyond Palestinian Dispute

US secretary of state Colin Powell’s forthcoming Middle East tour starting in Cairo on May 1 has evoked two responses in Israel: Depression in one camp at the all-too familiar prospect of crushing pressure for “confidence-building” gestures to encourage peacemaking in the face of spiraling terror. Perkiness in the opposite camp – a minority in Israel, but powerful in Europe – over Yasser Arafat’s return to center stage and the prospect of the old peacemaking machinery idled and discredited by the same spiral being hauled out again. It is Israel’s big chance, says this faction, to make concessions to the Palestinians and so help the Americans buy back the Arab favor they lost by overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
Most of all, this opposition group and its European sponsors seek concessions from the Sharon government to crown the kudos Arafat deserves for his “magnanimity” in giving way to the Palestinian prime minister designate on the makeup of his government. Arafat is being held up as having made it possible to release the Middle East road map promoted by Powell by letting the Abu Mazen lineup stand. The fact that he continues to pursue his campaign of terror at full blast is not the point, it is argued. The point is that he has earned the right to be a partner in the Middle East road map – even though it was designed to purge the terror and corruption he instituted and make the Palestinians fit for statehood by replacing their leaders, chiefly Arafat himself.
The weeks of relative freedom from terror Israel has enjoyed have come about thanks to round-the-clock counter-terror operations by the Israeli armed forces, police, special units and intelligence, aided by curfews and closures. Palestinian attempts to send suicide killers into Israel are unrelenting. Israel’s efforts to stem them are costly and exhausting. Remove those forces from Palestinian towns and lift those precautionary measures and the Palestinian suicide bombers, funded and sanctioned by Arafat in person, will break through in force.
However, the removal of these restraints is exactly what insistent European voices, including British leaders, are demanding, eagerly supported by the minority pro-Oslo factions of Israeli politics, who have found their voice to rejoice over Arafat’s recovery. Although opposed to Bush policies, including the Iraq War, these groups cannot wait to see US President George W. Bush pinning Ariel Sharon to the wall.
This does not mean that the European Union’s senior diplomat Javier Solana is willing to let Washington walk away with all the credit for extracting gestures to the Palestinians from the Sharon government. He pointed out this week that the road map was not an American creation but a joint European, Russian, UN venture. The White House should release it after the Abu Mazen government is confirmed next Tuesday, April 29 – but only in consultation with its co-authors.
According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the Europeans and their Israeli following are running ahead of themselves. The White House is in no hurry to accept the surface changes in Ramallah as the genuine reforms President Bush stipulated first last June and repeated since.
In an attempt to cool the diplomatic hype surrounding Yasser Arafat, Washington asked world leaders on their way to Ramallah to confine their visits to Abu Mazen and stay away from Arafat’s door. US policy-makers took careful note of the statement the Fatah West Bank secretary Hussein al-Sheikh made to Israeli news television viewers last week after the controversy over the composition of the Abu Mazen cabinet was resolved. Speaking fluent Hebrew, this senior Arafat aide declared: “Now that the Palestinians have done their share, it is up to the Israelis to do theirs by withdrawing from all Palestinian towns and lifting the siege over the Muqataa (Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters).”
Hussein al-Sheikh has been revealed by Washington’s intelligence sources as the Palestinian terror network’s new “minister of finance”, Arafat’s paymaster who distributes operational funds to the Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs (Suicides) Brigades, Jihad Islami and the Hamas.
Intelligence assessments reaching Washington explain Arafat’s impatience to move Israeli forces out of his way in Ramallah. Quite simply, he is in the middle of a major reorganization of his terrorist resources, drawing command centers in from West Bank towns to Ramallah so as to place them directly under his hand and bring his suicide killers within easy reach of Jerusalem six miles away. US intelligence analysts conclude that neither Abu Mazen nor his internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan has the slightest hope of restraining Arafat. All they can do is try and develop parallel instruments of government to Arafat’s rule and stay afloat by blaming the continuing Palestinian terrorism on Israeli’s refusal to play its part in the road map.
In any case, the Bush administration has more urgent fish to fry than the unfounded hopes of true reform in Ramallah. The road map charting its Middle East policies is also assuming a different shape from the one drafted by the Quartet. Powell’s most important Middle East stop will be Damascus, not Jerusalem or Ramallah and he will be preceded in the region and the Persian Gulf by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld who will touch down five days before him – although his itinerary has not been published for reasons of security.
The three-point US ultimatum to Syrian president Bashar Assad, revealed last week by debkafile, stands today more firmly than ever. Most Europeans and Israelis underrate Washington’s determination to make him hand over the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction he has hidden in Syria. It is therefore worth repeating that the Bush administration views the Syrian president as deliberately concealing the proof that would fully justify America’s war on Iraq. Washington will not be denied. If the banned arsenal is not surrendered publicly or discreetly (surfacing for instance on the Iraqi side of the frontier with Syria), the United States will take action to recover it. Rumsfeld’s visit to the region followed by Powell’s is a demonstration for Assad’s benefit that the American ultimatum has teeth.
Even ahead of those two demonstrations, on Saturday, April 26, Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and member of the House International Relations Committee, spent 90 minutes with Assad in Damascus. This was not his first sensitive mission on behalf of a US president – Clinton and later Bush. Lantos is also a firm friend of Israel and his choice as emissary to Damascus to prepare Powell’s visit was deliberate.
Coming out of his interview with the Syrian president, Congressman Lantos said: “I told (Assad) that Syria’s position in the US dropped dramatically as we saw the transfer of military equipment from and through Syria to Iraq, and a large number of Syrian fighters joining a doomed and dying regime in Iraq. This was a very bad and historic mistake, and the time is long overdue to correct the course of Syria’s policy.”
Lantos went on to point out that Saddam’s ouster gives Syria “a historic opportunity for the beginning of a new relationship” with the United States.” However, Lantos added, “We find that there should not be headquarters of terrorist organizations in Damascus. These should be closed… Secondly, the ongoing support and supply of Hizballah military activities through the airport in Damascus must end.”
The US congressman thus laid stress on two of the three points contained in the ultimatum handed to Assad. He warned the Syrian ruler to stop sponsoring terrorists. debkafile‘s intelligence sources add that he also noted that while the US government appreciates Syria’s steps to return fleeing Iraqi leaders to US forces in Iraq, it is not satisfied with the pace of this process and would like to see it speeded up. Syria has handed over only four high-ranking Iraqis of the 11 in US hands. The demand to give up Iraq’s banned arsenal was left to Powell.
Washington’s real, updated Middle East road map, the one guiding its current policies, is thus revealed. Clearly, Abu Mazen will not be let off more lightly than Bashar Assad. This does not mean that Israel will escape demands for concessions, even painful ones, but not before the blight of terror is seriously addressed by the two Arab regimes. The Syrian president must take tough action against the Hizballah, as well as the Jihad Islami, Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups headquartered in Damascus; the Palestinian prime minister and his government will be required to actively beat down the Fatah, the Al Aqsa Brigades as well as the Jihad Islami and Hamas organizations in Palestinian areas. Assad will not be let off the hook. If the Palestinian “reformists” fail, they will be denied US backing for Palestinian independence and statehood. The Bush administration did not extinguish Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror in order to tolerate and treat with terror-sponsoring regimes in Damascus and Ramallah. If that message does not register, then another two regime changes lie ahead.

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