Washington and Tehran Fight It out on Palestinian Turf

The Bush administration was poised Tuesday, Jan 31, for the final touches to its strategy for sidelining the Hamas terrorist group, despite its election win in last month’s Palestinian legislative elections. The plan was to force its triumphant leaders to accept that a parliamentary majority was not automatically the ticket to government.

It was based on the following compilation of polling analyses placed before US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and director of the national security council Stephen Hadley:

The Hamas party took 74 of the 132 seats available at the Jan. 25 general election. This is equal to 56%. The seats were divided between 29 won on the national list and 45 from the district lists.

But the hidden statistics paint a different picture.

On the national list Hamas won 43.82% of the vote which means that 56.06% of Palestinian voters did not opt for Hamas on this list. Furthermore, on the district lists Hamas gained 68.18% of the seats, while non-Hamas candidates took 31.82%. But in reality, Hamas district candidates received 36.45% of the votes, while non-Hamas contestants ended up with 63.54%.

According to this reckoning, a clear majority of Palestinians voted against Hamas!

That it won the election, nonetheless, was thanks to its unified lists in each district in contrast to Fatah and the smaller parties, which ran a multiplicity of lists, so fragmenting their support.

While this calculus does not change the election results, it demonstrates to those in need of comfort that the Palestinian electorate did not after all give Hamas such massive support as appeared.

For the Bush administration in Washington, this breakdown was better than a source of comfort; it was the key to a plan for arresting the Hamas dash to government and scoring points in a battle of wits with the ayatollahs of Tehran.

This week, a strong reciprocal tie-in surfaced between the steps to prevent the Hamas takeover of the Palestinian Authority and moves to stall Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

The link was clinched for US strategists by an ominous arrival in Damascus.


Help for Hamas arrives from Tehran


DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal the man who slipped in from Tehran was Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pour, chairman of the Iranian Commission for the Support of the Palestinian Uprising and an old hand at anti-American terror machinations.

His mission now is to punish the United States should the IAEA emergency board meeting in Vienna Thursday and Friday, Feb. 2-3, vote to refer Tehran’s nuclear activities to the UN Security Council. His claim to notoriety dates from the 1980s when as Iranian ambassador in Damascus he invented the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah as Tehran’s surrogate for action against Israel. He retains the title of Hizballah’s supreme commander on behalf of Iran for emergency situations.

The Iranian terror master arrived in Damascus with two guidelines:

1. Through Hizballah, he was to design terrorist attacks against US and Israel targets in the Middle East and Europe for execution immediately after the UN nuclear watchdog votes for referral. Hizballah will also strike at targets deep inside Israel from Lebanon.

2. To employ countermeasures for defeating US-Israeli moves to block Palestinian government against Hamas rule. Installing a Hamas government in Ramallah to rule a pro-Iranian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be fitting retaliation for America’s campaign against Tehran’s nuclear program. This state would connect with Iran’s proxy arm in Lebanon.

Instead of sending a high-level official to the Middle to handle the new situation, the White House decided to let Rice and her top team run the moves against Mohtashami-Pour from Washington, enlisting Egypt and Jordan for the field work.

President Hosni Mubarak and his intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman are deemed useful by virtue of their close ties with Hamas and also their strong motivation.

The Mubarak regime knows that the rise to power of a Hamas-led entity in the Palestinian areas would give its parent, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an undesirable boost and increased leverage against the government.

Saudi Arabia, despite its equally intimate ties with Hamas, was ruled out as point man by Washington because Riyadh remits to the Islamic terrorists an annual stipend running into tens of millions of dollars. Its motivation is the reverse of Cairo’s. The Saudis believe it is in their basic interest to have a strong Hamas-led state established in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. They want the same thing as Tehran – but from the opposite perspective: the wish for a radical Sunni counterweight to the Hizballah’s Shiite power.

The Americans built their Hamas maneuver against this background and in close consultation with president Mubarak and General Suleiman.

It was scheduled to go into effect Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.


The Jordanian factor


Jordan’s King Abdullah was the first player on the scene.

When Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) arrived in Amman Tuesday, the king opened a discussion on joint action to isolate Hamas (while offsetting Iran’s scheme) and also to prevent Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, known as the Muslim Jordanian Action Front, from getting together with the victor of the Palestinian election.

The two leaders had enough concerns in common to engage them.

Because Hamas is weaker on the West Bank than in Gaza, the Americans as well as Abdullah and Abbas fear the Islamic terrorists will recruit the Jordanian Brethren to bolster their West Bank wing. The Jordanian Action Front is sufficiently well-connected and influential on the West Bank to represent Hamas. Abu Mazen has no wish to boost Hamas’ strength on the West Bank, while the king is deeply reluctant to see Hamas and Iranian influence seeping across the West Bank border into his realm.

Therefore, the Hashemite king willingly acted at Washington’s behest to seek a pact with the Palestinian leader in three areas:

1. He persuaded Abu Mazen to back away from his earlier stated intention of entrusting Hamas to lead the next Palestinian government. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Amman sources disclose that the king said to him: “What’s the hurry? Don’t let Hamas make you run scared. Your policy should be to shrink the Hamas lead, to reduce it to a parliamentary majority instead of a majority for government.”

This in a nutshell was Washington’s master plan for limiting the damage wrought by the Hamas contretemps. Formally, US officials declared Hamas disqualified from government by its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce terror. But the truth is that even if Hamas disavowed its principles, Washington would find another way of keeping the terrorist group from attaining power because of the tactical advantage that would accrue to Tehran.

2. The Jordanian king assured Abu Mazen he would not let Hamas open a mission or even a liaison office in Amman lest permission be taken as royal recognition of the radical Islamic organization. Abdullah himself certainly has no interest in facilitating access between Hamas and the local Muslim Brethren.

3. Abdullah guaranteed the Islamic Action Front would not be permitted to organize any activity to aid Hamas in Jordan, be it fund-raising, demonstrations or sponsoring support groups in the Palestinian camps.

His business in Amman finished, Abu Mazen moved on to Cairo Wednesday.


The Egyptian factor


According to the original American plan, Suleiman was to have used the time of Abu Mazen’s tete-a-tete with Abdullah, to fly aboard a special plane to Damascus and collect the Hamas senior operational chief Khaled Mashaal after roping him in for a deal.

The Egyptian intelligence minister and the Islamic terrorist executive were to have conferred on terms for the launch of talks in Cairo with Abu Mazen on forming a new Palestinian government and determining Hamas’s share.

Suleiman was supposed to have flown back to Cairo with Mashaal aboard together with the entire Hamas operational leadership: Mussa Abu Marzuk, Osama Hamdan, Imad Alami, Intifada commander Mustafa Lidawi and Muhammad Nazal.

Once on Suleiman’s plane bound for Cairo, the entire Hamas leadership would have been lifted out safely out of the clutches of the Iranian terror master Mohtashami-Pour and transferred to the Egyptian-US aegis.

That was the immediate goal.

But behind the tactic was the assumption that the negotiations between Abu Mazen and Hamas entailed so many tough issues that they would drag on for long, weary months before anything was agreed. They would need to settle such questions as Hamas’ attitude on future negotiations with Israel, whether to continue the informal ceasefire, who would control Palestinian security and intelligence services, future policy vis-a-vis the United States and Europe. At some point, Hamas would give up and abandon its hopes of heading a government.

At the same time, the Egyptians explained that Hamas holds genuine positions that are far more realistic than its public statements. They claim, and this is borne out by British and French interlocutors, that the organization’s leaders have grasped that their victory at the polls is not an unmixed blessing. They understand they are high and dry in three respects:

First: They have no independent sources of funds sources excepting aid remittances from Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf emirates, which do not cover their needs. If European and other revenues dry up as a result of the US and Israeli campaign against a Hamas-led Palestinian government, they will be badly short of the wherewithal for running a government administration.

Second: Hamas is outgunned by the defeated Fatah. Therefore, Hamas would have to depend heavily on its rival in its very first steps in office.


Hamas cannot assume power without Abu Mazen’s support


Third: Assuming Mahmoud Abbas assigned Gaza’s Hamas leader Ismail Haniya the task of forming a government and the legislative council endorsed his line-up that would not be the end of the road. Under Palestinian law, the president, namely Abbas, must sign the government’s mandate for it to be legitimate.

That is why Hamas is pressing for Abu Mazen to select the ministers of the new government. Both agree to appoint experts rather than party representatives. This formula would serve to alleviate the enmity between Hamas and Fatah and keep foreign assistance revenues flowing to the Palestinian government. While foregoing ministerial portfolios, Hamas wants to reserve the ministerial directors-generalships, so controlling the day-to-day conduct of ministerial business.

The Palestinian Islamic radicals are not asking for control of the Palestinian Authority’s security bodies either, accepting the president’s role as commander in chief. It is asking for one ministry, internal affairs, to gain control of the Palestinian police force and the Gaza Strip’s Preventive Security service.

Suleiman assured the Americans that Hamas’ positions were not carved in stone. They were amenable to negotiation, for which purpose he had sought to collect the entire Hamas leadership in Cairo to kick off talks with Abu Mazen.

But the Egyptian minister never did take off for Damascus. There was no point.

The Iranian envoy, Mohtashami-Pour, who was standing by in Damascus, checkmated the US-Egyptian plan in two moves:

A. He pledged sufficient Iranian funds for Hamas to set up a government and exercise control over the Palestinian Authority, provided the group jumped into the pro-Tehran camp and turned its back on any American-Egyptian orientation. The funds would not match the $1 billion plus pledged annually by the European Union, the Americans and others, but several hundred million dollars would be made available, enough if prudently managed to meet “honorable Islamic” standards, as the Iranian official put it.

B. Mohtashami-Pour brokered a pact between Hamas and Jihad Islami leaders in Damascus after chairing several bargaining sessions between them. Mashaal and Jihad chief in Gaza Muhammad al-Hindi agreed to put their hatchet on ice and work together to place Hamas in government.


Iran can afford to replace Western aid to the Palestinians


The Americans were at a loss to explain how al-Hindi, who tops several lists of wanted Middle East terrorists, managed to slip out of the Gaza Strip and reach the Syrian capital.

A brief investigation by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources disclosed that Egypt’s intelligence chief, who was supposed to be assisting the American plan to keep Hamas out of Palestinian government and block Iranian maneuvers, had ordered Egyptian border officials to let the Jihad chief through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. From there he had no trouble catching a plane to Damascus.

That was the point at which the Bush administration team understood that Iran was not the only obstacle to its plans. Egypt too made a habit of keeping several aces up its sleeve for action independent of Washington.

But meanwhile, American Iran experts were employed for some fast number-crunching this week to see if Iran could on its own meet the expense of supporting Palestinian government for any length of time; and, if so, how the ayatollahs profited from the deal. They were surprised to find that Iran can well afford to bankroll Hamas in government. For an investment of no more than $400 million, a drop in the Islamic Republic’s ocean of petrodollars, it can pick up its second territorial sphere of influence after Hizballah and its second outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. The further benefit for Tehran is the chance to drive wedges between Israel and Jordan to the east and Israel and Egypt to the south.

Because Suleiman had lost the ball to his Iranian adversary, who had got to Hamas leaders first, he had no news for Abu Mazen and Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni when they arrived in Cairo Wednesday.

The Egyptian intelligence chief contented himself with a warning to the Israeli minister that if acting prime minister Ehud Olmert chose to freeze funds to the Palestinian Authority because of the Hamas victory, Iran would make up the difference. In no time, the government in Jerusalem would find it had a new neighbor next door in Ramallah.

Washington and Cairo have not thrown in the towel after their initial setback and further moves are in store shortly.

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