The Mid-East Before Explosion

What the Palestinian leader heard in Cairo was President Hosni Mubarak's objection to his acceding to President Clinton's request to sign a peace framework with Israel in Washington on January 10. The Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams left Washington Saturday night with a request from the president for their answers by Wednesday, Dec. 27. The Egyptian President advised Arafat not to sign at this stage.

Clinton is furious, but Mubarak is not bothered; he has his eye now on the incoming US president. Neither does he want to see Ehud Barak re-elected prime minister on Feb. 6, and so he prefers to deprive him of the boost of a deal signed and sealed with the Palestinians. Barak would like to get himself invited to Cairo, but understands it will be a touchy proposition.

Why did Mubarak advise Arafat not to sign the document? Why is Arafat pretending to take it seriously? And what lies behind Barak's apparent eagerness to hand over so much of Jerusalem and the West Bank - even the Jordan Rift Valley - as long as the document spells out the end of the Palestinian-Israel conflict?

The answer is that they are all playing their peace roles to the hilt in order to deceive the public eye while the hands are busy with far grimmer business.

Since April 2000, the Egyptian ruler has followed the intelligence reports, of which he is an avid reader, uncovering his displacement as Arafat's favorite ally by Saddam Hussein. DEBKAfile's Persian Gulf sources have repeatedly referred to this deepening relationship in the last two months.

Arafat sent one of his most trusted aides, Azam Azam Al Ahmad, to Baghdad as liaison agent between him and Saddam and military coordinator between the Palestinian and Iraqi armed forces. Mubarak knows that Arafat paid an unwonted two visits in two weeks to Amman - not to see King Abdullah but, according to DEBKAfile's intelligence sources, for secret meetings with Azam Azam al Ahmad.

He even knows that Israeli intelligence suspect that the assassination attempts against two Israeli diplomats in Jordan in the last few weeks were the work of Iraqi agents - not Palestinians. It is not lost on any Middle East old-timer that it was the murder of Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov in London in 1982 by Iraqi army intelligence agents that touched off a series of Middle East calamities: the 1982 war, Israel's invasion of Lebanon, the Israel-Syrian military clash and the annihilation of Syria's Bekaa Valley missile deployment guarding Damascus by the Israeli air force.

The consciousness of Iraq's looming presence in the current violence evoked an unusually strong warning from King Abdullah on Sunday Dec. 23 that the Jordanian army was fully prepared to stand up to any foreign or domestic element seeking to destabilize his regime. He was making it plain that he would not stand by while Saddam and Arafat between them crushed his kingdom.

None of these players were surprised therefore by the banner headline in the Monday Dec. 25 issue of Al Hayat Al-Jedida, the Palestinian Authority's mouthpiece: "The first Shot in a Full-scale Middle East War Will be Fired by Saddam Hussein."

A few hours later, the Baghdad press published the Iraqi ruler's Christmas call on the world's Christians and Moslems to rise up in holy war against Israel and the "Zionist conspiracy", which aims at "Judaizing (Jerusalem) and other areas of Palestine and annihilating its indigenous population with the backing of America."

Arafat is exercised less by whether or not to sign Clinton's framework document than by weighing its pros and cons, as regards protecting the Palestinians from being trampled by the warring armies after Saddam fires that first shot, and saving himself from American reprisals as Saddam's ally.

Barak is likewise maneuvering between steps against Iraq's threatened entry into the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, the fight to survive an election and keeping his peace posture intact. Hence the dual function of the announcement Monday Dec. 25, that the prime minister had allocated NIS100 m ($25 m) for erecting a 74-km barrier from Tulkarm and Wadi Ara to Latrun on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway.

On the one hand, it was hailed as the restoration of the pre-1967 Green Line and a partition separating the Israeli and Palestinian entities, when in fact its purpose is quite different: according to DEBKAfile's military sources, the new structure is planned as a defense system of barriers and trenches to hold back Palestinian military movements, in the early stages of a war, and foreign armies crossing the Jordan river into the West Bank, in later stages.

When Deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, inspecting the site of the new barrier, said, "We shall not allow any foreign army (to take up a presence) west of the Jordan," it was no slip of the tongue.

Source: Gamla

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