While quarreling with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the substance of future negotiations with the Palestinians, the Obama administration showed first cracks in the long US certainty that the two Palestinian leaders, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad, were "strategic assets" deserving of Washington's undivided championship.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington quote senior administration officials suddenly discovering this week that whereas Netanyahu is Problem Number One, Abu Mazen (Abbas) is Problem Number Two.
This may have inspired one of the Washington Post's senior writers Jackson Diehl to describe Abu Mazen in an article on March 22 under the heading of "A Familiar Obstacle to Mideast Peace: Mahmoud Abbas," as "someone who has taken Obama's public assault on Israel as a cue to boycott" the American proposal for indirect negotiations.
Even confronted with a draft deal that would have been cheered by most of the world, Abbas balked, he wrote. "Behind that obstacle (of Netanyahu), lies another – the recalcitrance of Abbas – that the new administration has been slow to recognize."
His meaning his clear: It will not be enough to "bend or break Israel's current government," unless the United Stats metes out the same treatment to the heads of the Palestinian Authority. Otherwise, each time the Netanyahu government bends, Abu Mazen will continue to say "no" to every proposal or plan – even if it goes to unprecedented lengths towards meeting Palestinian demands.
Abbas' "yes but" invariably means "no"
This week, Abbas took this tactic to a new extreme when his aides were told to fabricate a story about how he slipped and sprained his ankle and because of his age (75), was so traumatized that he had to withdraw from his Ramallah home to recuperate in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
Washington understood Abu Mazen was intent on avoiding the Arab summit opening in Sirte, Libya on March 28 in Sirte, because Muammar Qaddafi had insisted on inviting his rival, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, also to attend with a large Hamas delegation from Damascus.
However, his other reason showed how much he had made himself an obstacle to administration plans: In Amman, he planned to stay out of the way of US presidential envoy George Mitchell and so avoid having to answer Washington's proposal of proximity talks with Israel under United States sponsorship.
When he refused to meet Mitchell in Ramallah, the US envoy was compelled to travel from Jerusalem to Amman in a closely-guarded convoy to collect it and salvage his mission.
Even then, the US official was thwarted.
Instead of a "yes" or a "no" on the negotiations, the Palestinian leader laid down fresh preconditions, topped by the demand for Israel to free 2,000 jailed Palestinians serving time on terrorist convictions. This list included 323 hard-core prisoners, whose release the Netanyahu government had already vetoed in negotiations with Hamas for its soldier Gilead Shalit. Israel's security chiefs argued that once free, they would set Israel's counter-terror achievements back by decades.
Abbas' new demand was therefore a non-starter, as he knew perfectly well and therefore amounted to another "no."
Fayad sets a deadline for US withdrawal
Washington's relations with Prime Minister Fayad, who from the days of the Bush administration was "our man in Ramallah," are not what they used to be either.
Washington was especially vexed, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, by a confidential 90-page report penned by Fayad, which wants all US-British-Canadian military personnel removed from Palestinian soil by 2013 and their responsibilities handed over to 240 Palestinian officers.
US Lieut. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, the US Security Coordinator for the Israel-Palestinian Authority in Tel Aviv, working in conjunction with a team of American, British and Canadian officers, has invested considerable effort into slapping Palestinian security forces into shape.
He has supervised the American company DynCorp International's long-term training program and the joint mechanism's efforts for recruiting manpower, creating operational frameworks (battalions) and field operations.
The main objects of the Fayad report are setting a time frame to dismantle that foreign mechanism, end American oversight of the West Bank Palestinian force and bring it under his own control rather than that of the PA chairman Abbas.
Just how critical control of this force is for West Bank security was seen vividly last week when Palestinian disturbances spread out from Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the West Bank and were quickly contained by a buffer set up by the Palestinian security forces on the orders of their US commanders to separate the violent Palestinian rioters from Israeli troops concentrations in the Ramallah and Hebron districts.
Without this buffer, the incidents would have quickly deteriorated into bloody clashes with casualties on both sides.
A major incident of this kind would have further set back Obama administration attempts to get indirect negotiations at the very least off the ground.
Administration officials were particularly peeved to read Fayad's bottom line: The three-year price tag for replacing American military personnel with Palestinian officers was estimated at $210 million, a sum which the United States was naturally expected to cough up.