Israel Report

December 2001         

Arafat at Bay Is Still Dangerous

By DEBKAfile Political Analysts - December 10, 2001
The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will not go quietly. Faced with crushing pressure from across the Atlantic and the Israeli military, DEBKAfile's political experts believe he will vent all his destructive energies and guile for before he is consigned to history.

Yet another Palestinian suicide bombing, this one in Haifa Sunday morning, killed only the bomber, leaving 40 with mostly light injuries. But it brought swift responses, showing dramatically how the cards are stacked against him.

US Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC television on Sunday December 9 that there was no question Arafat's actions had set back the cause of Palestinian statehood. He said the Palestinians "are led by someone who can't control terrorists... It's not surprising given that level of violence and those repeated attacks that the Israelis take steps to defend themselves," said Cheney. "They have a right to do so."

US secretary of state Colin Powell, as he flew into Moscow Sunday night, said, "I think the burden right now is on Mr. Arafat to do more to get the violence down to zero... The Palestinian people ought to be asking their leaders, ...Where does this take us?... The answer is nowhere." He referred to the string of recent bombings as "destroying his (Arafat's) authority and credibility."

Both US leaders stressed that continuing violence raised questions about Arafat's ability to exercise control.

US loss of patience was manifest in the ultimatum issued by Powell's special envoy, Anthony Zinni to Israeli and Palestinian security officials meeting for yet another fruitless encounter: If there were no progress in 48 hours, he would consider leaving the region.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak claimed that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had been willing to grant Arafat's request to attend the Arab League foreign ministers session Monday, December 10, in Doha, Quatar, on one condition: that he did not come back. The Palestinian leader later withdrew his request.

Arafat is currently pinned down in Ramallah, the West Bank hub town, unable to move out - even to the Gaza Strip - without Israeli permission.

But rather than back down, he is scattering new threats to cast his entire police force into the fray. On top of the terror strikes, they will wage frontal battles against the Israeli army, presumably in Israeli urban areas and mixed towns like Jerusalem. His terrorist groups will continue to operate at full blast as special units behind "enemy" lines.

In orchestrating this final bloody confrontation, Arafat will count on the support of Israeli Arabs. Recognizing the Palestinian call for backing, Israeli Arab Knesset members Ahmed Tibi and Mohammad Barakeh declared in emotional speeches to a Ramadan rally at the Israeli-Arab village of Tiblin that there were no frontiers between Arabs living in Israel and their Palestinian brethren. Barkeh informed his audience that they owed no loyalty to the State of Israel; on the contrary, the state must be loyal to its Arab citizens.

Saturday night and Sunday, Israeli forces combed through two strategic Palestinian villages near Tulkarm for Palestinian terrorists and installations. Sunday, they rounded up 25 detainees in an action in which four Palestinian policemen were killed and an explosive belt factory for suicide bombers was destroyed.

Israel's security cabinet meeting Sunday night approved stepped up military action, promised by Sharon after the Haifa bombing. As the ministers deliberated, an Israel motorist was seriously injured in a shooting attack north of Ramallah.

Four militant groups - Hamas, Jihad Islami and two associated with Arafat - offered a conditional 5-day truce Sunday night, then just as abruptly withdrew the limited offer.

DEBKAfile's political experts rate Washington's top-level showdown with Arafat as more crucial in many ways than its campaign in Afghanistan, with key regional implications. As the opening shot of the second US world front against terrorism, it sends strong signals to Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Syrian president Bashar Assad, Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom who is cooling Riyadh's traditional friendship with Washington.

According to DEBKAfile's sources in Washington, president Bush has initiated his move under the influence of four developments:

1. Fear that the terrorists will carry out a nuclear operation in the United States or the Middle East - or pull off a second conventional strike on the scale of the September 11 terrorist strikes in New York and Washington - that will eclipse America's feats in Afghanistan.

2. The surfacing of Arafat's Hizballah connection and the hand of the notorious former Hizballah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in both the September 11 attacks in America and the suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa on December 1 and 2.

Intelligence information of Arafat's plan to launch an operation jointly with the Hamas and Hizballah of unprecedented proportions and ferocity.

3. Another downturn in US-Saudi relations. The Bush administration feels it has been short-changed by Riyadh. The Saudis, like the Egyptians, made their support for Washington's anti-terror coalition conditional on its focusing on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. To meet that demand, President Bush made the unprecedented US gesture of voicing public support in late November for a Palestinian state. Nevertheless, the Saudi crown prince is taking steps to have US troops expelled from the kingdom.

4. The realization of 1., 2. and 3. would set the scene for Iraqi's Saddam Hussein and Hizbollah's Nasrallah to go into military action - either against Israel or US Middle East targets, possibly inspiring Iran's fire-eating spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and Syria's Bashar Assad to rethink their wait-and-see positions. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak went to Damascus Sunday, December 9 to try and persuade Bashar Assad to jump aboard the US drive against Arafat.

The Syrian president declined, grasping that this switch would entail also cutting off the Hizballah and ordering the Hamas, the Jidhad Islami and the Popular Front to pull the stakes up from his capital. Assad has evidently decided to take his chances with Saddam and Nasrallah, rather than join the Middle East camp backing the American war against terrorism.

The Bush administration is reported looking ahead to the day after Arafat. Among several plans its members are looking out is this one, as revealed for the first time in last week's issue of our intelligence newsletter, DEBKA-Net-Weekly:

Egypt and Jordan will send their armies into Palestinian-ruled areas to take the place of a collapsed Arafat regime or a Palestinian Authority stripped of powers. The Jordanian army, including its intelligence arm, would re-locate itself in the West Bank instead of the Palestinian security and intelligence services, while the Egyptian military would re-occupy the Gaza Strip.

None of those plans have been seriously addressed by Israel or any of the parties as yet. However, the first people to read the writing on the wall for the Palestinian leader, according to DEBKAfile's Palestinian sources, are some of Arafat's own associates. They have signaled their interest to the US and Israel, cautioning however that the task of finishing Arafat must be accomplished with care and prudence. If it is done abruptly, no Palestinian leader will dare step into his shoes. They advise arranging the matter in such as way as to force Arafat to take the final move himself.

It is hard to see this happening any time soon. It is far more likely that Arafat, like a wounded lion, will strike out in all directions against the forces holding him at bay, thus increasing the prospects of war.

©2001 - DEBKAfile


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