Washington, Jerusalem and Amman Prepare for Abbas’ Exit

Israeli and Palestinian officials are still bent on going through the motions to keep up an appearance of normal diplomatic momentum, the former egged on from Washington. Palestinian foreign minister Nasser al-Qidwa said Saturday, June 11, that disarming armed organizations is not on the table because they are legal as long as “the occupation” exists. Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz met Palestinian minister for civilian affairs Mohammed Dahlan Friday afternoon, June 10, to discuss Palestinian coordination for Israel’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip which is just over two months away. Earlier this week, he held talks with the Palestinian interior minister Nasser Yousef. He then phoned Palestinian authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to place both meetings on the record.
This chronology will be put before US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, when she arrives on June 18, as evidence Israel has done all it can to secure active Palestinian assent for its withdrawal.
But none of this motion is any longer pertinent.
Rice’s overriding interest in Israel is to keep the Sharon government moving along its assigned track of disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank and make sure it takes place on schedule. But on the Palestinian scene, her role is more like a fire extinguisher. In his daily reports, US coordinator General William Ward, backed up by Middle East Quartet coordinator James Wolfenson, will have informed her that that Abbas is in big trouble, and in no shape to coordinate anything at all.
Hence the latest notice from Jerusalem to Ramallah asserting that Israel will go ahead and evacuate 21 communities with or without Palestinian coordination.
debkafile‘s Palestinian sources offer an eyehole into Abu Mazen’s world to explain why he is on the point of washing his hands of a thankless job.
1. As head of the Palestinian Authority, he and his ministers have lost active control of the Gaza Strip or West Bank to lawless armed gangs who respect no authority.
2. Gunmen use the homes of Palestinian leaders in Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank for target practice to make sure they remain non-functioning and understand who rules the Palestinian roost.
3. His attempt in Gaza Wednesday and Thursday, June 8 and 9, to halt the Hamas-Jihad Islami missile and mortar barrage on Israeli targets exposed him to extreme mortification. His appeal was met by more shooting – and not only at Israeli locations and military. Now they are gunning for Rashid Abu Shbak, whom Abbas would like to name director of the national security apparatus in the Gaza Strip to shore up his authority there. For the time being, the would-be troubleshooter is staying under cover in Ramallah.
4. In Gaza, debkafile‘s counter-terror sources reveal Abu Mazen was informed that his negotiations with terrorist chiefs had been upstaged by a synchronized summit in Beirut between Hamas and Hizballah leaders Mousa Abu Marzuk and Hassan Nasrallah. Hamas was goading him by holding up its cordial relations with its Lebanese ally in preference to working with Palestinian Authority chairman, Abbas.
Before he got away, Abu Mazen had to promise the Gaza Council of the Heads of National and Islamic Organizations – a powerful umbrella of the main terrorist leaders – a seat on future Palestinian leadership counsels and a virtual veto on decisions for the Gaza Strip. This knocks on the head any chance of a deal to coordinate Israel’s August withdrawal.
5. In any case, a Palestinian Central Security blueprint drafted jointly by the CIA, the Palestinians and the Israelis for this very purpose was blown out of the water. It had hinged on the formation of a new national security force manned by 5,000 young Palestinians to take over West Bank and Gaza Strip locations vacated by Israel, before Hamas and the Fatah al Aqsa Brigades made a grab.
With Rice due on June 18, Abbas had hoped to present her with this force as an accomplished fact.
What happened was that no sooner had the recruiting offices opened for business last week, when they were overrun by a horde of some 100,000 Palestinian applicants. Most were desperate job-seekers, but at least 30,000 were terror activists under orders to stampede the recruiting offices and shut them down. The entire plan therefore fell through – and with it the last chance of Israel-Palestinian security coordination.
6. While Abu Mazen and the Sharon government weave back and forth hoping ambivalence will disguise the crisis, Hamas freely states that the de facto ceasefire it accepted is a one-way street, there to be breached unilaterally whenever its leaders see fit. Hamas’ overseas, political and military Izz e-din al Qassam arms have pulled together to exploit the partial truce for building a new 10,000-strong army, replacing the force the IDF broke up with the most powerful military contingent the Palestinians can field. Its troops are sent home from training with new weapons and passwords for their call-up. Their commander-in-chief is Sheikh Hashem Jaabari.
Saturday, June 11, two days after Abu Mazen’s left Gaza City, a firefight erupted outside the various Palestinian command centers in Gaza City.
With the Americans sitting on his tail and his authority breaking down, debkafile‘s Palestinian sources quote Abbas as confiding to his close advisers that he has had enough. This does not mean he will formally resign – he never has, any more than prime minister Ahmed Qureia. But, like him, the chairman will fade from the scene, become unavailable to pressure and protest. He may absent himself for months in Jordan or the Gulf emirates.
The Bush administration sees the Palestinian crisis in the context of its troubles in Iraq, where the situation is worse, and setbacks in Lebanon, where the far-from-democratic electoral process has yet to produce stable government. Rice will still be in the Middle East on June 19, when the last round of the Lebanese election takes place. It is still not clear if Damascus will hang on to a measure of clout in Beirut or whether the Hizballah can be disarmed.
Two days earlier, June 17, Iranians vote for a president.
In a single week therefore, US officials will be preoccupied with studying Tehran’s likely actions under a new Iranian president – Hashemi Rafsanjani is the most widely tipped to win in a second round, contemplating Bashar Assad’s continued rule as Syrian president, and deciding how to handle the defiant Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Abbas’ future and the launching of a few Qassam missiles which mostly misfire will not be at the forefront of American concerns at this time. But they would prefer that he stay in office to provide, with Ariel Sharon playing along, a show of business as usual on the Palestinian-Israel front.
To make the show convincing, preparations have begun in Washington, Jerusalem and Amman to proceed with the Israeli evacuation as though the Palestinian Authority were still a working administration and Abbas functioning normally.
This week, Sharon dispatched senior defense ministry official Maj-Gen (Res.) to the Jordanian capital to confer on ways the Israeli and Jordanian armies and intelligence services can work together in the face of a takeover bid of the West Bank by a Hamas-Jihad Islami-al Aqsa Brigades coalition for terror, which already dominates the Gaza Strip. This consultation followed an initiative from Washington.
The Israeli public is being prepared for the prospect of evacuation under Palestinian fire.
The media have begun receiving tips from anonymous officials who are saying that in order to bring the pull-backs to fruition, Israeli troops may have to re-occupy large sections of the Gaza Strip. Israeli is also preparing the ground for Palestinian shooting attacks from Gaza spreading to the West Bank and targeting central Israel.

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