DEBKAfile Special Report
Nominating his most outspoken critic, Mahmoud Abbas, 68, the veteran PLO secretary general usually known as Abu Mazen, as first Palestinian prime minister certainly stuck in Yasser Arafat’s throat. Yet he went through with his presentation to the PLO Central Committee and the Central Council in Ramallah, on Saturday, March 8 and Sunday March 9.
To make sure the Palestinian leader did not back out at the last minute, Israel conveyed a hint that he may be closer to deportation than he thinks.
Monday, March 10, the Palestinian Legislative Council is due to determine what authority the new position will carry.
The showdown between Arafat and Abu Mazen over the division of authority between them is the focus of heated deliberations in these labyrinthine institutions. But a senior Palestinian source reported to DEBKAfile that at this stage, Abu Mazen has been neatly outmaneuvered. The nominee insists that without real powers, he will not take the job. He is demanding authority to lead any negotiations with Israel and choose his ministers. He is thinking in terms of a cabinet of apolitical technocrats and he hopes for majority backing at the Legislative Council meeting on Monday, March 10. However, on the way to the Council meeting, our Palestinian source reports a decision rammed through by Arafat’s backers leaving him in full command of all Palestinian security and police organizations. Any authority conferred on Abu Mazen to negotiate with Israel or achieve a ceasefire is valueless as long as the power to halt Palestinian terror is out of his hands.
Mahmoud Abbas has long been Arafat’s official deputy. Decades ago, they established the Fatah together, but their relations are complicated. Abu Mazen is one of the group’s few surviving founders. Born in Safed in British-mandated Palestinian in 1935, he studied law in Egypt before taking a PhD in Moscow. Usually a background figure, he has built up a network of powerful political contacts in the Arab world and Israel and is generally regarded as the architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Abu Mazen is described by visitors as being deeply depressed since his son was killed in a road accident in Kuwait last year and because of the long and agonizing treatment he is receiving for cancer. Despite his poor health and the fact that he is not a charismatic figure, he is acceptable to Fatah power brokers, who would not consider any non-Fatah candidate for the post of first Palestinian prime minister.
Abu Mazen strongly disputes Arafat’s basic precepts, the mainsprings of the Intifada he launched against Israel 30 months ago, to which he clings even amid his wrecked fortunes. Arafat is still utterly convinced that Palestinian violence, especially his campaign of suicidal terror, will destroy Israel once and for all. He is equally sure that his ally, Saddam Hussein, will beat the Americans. When that happens, he believes the anti-war world bloc ranged against Washington – France, Germany, Russia, China and Belgium - together with Syria and the Hizballah, will swing their support behind the Palestinian cause, the pro-American Arab regimes will be swept away and the new Arab rulers will put Arafat back on his pedestal.
Abu Mazen regards Arafat as deluded. He sees no sign of Israeli cracking under the Palestinian campaign of terror. Rather, in private conversations with Israelis and outside contacts, he fears the Palestinian people is on the verge of breaking down and the emblems of independence won at Oslo are slipping away. He views the all-out support for Saddam Hussein as a repetition of the disastrous blunder Arafat committed in the first Gulf War in 1991. He fears the Palestinian people will lose everything they ever hoped for by Arafat’s mistake and his persistence in maintaining his terrorist offensive against Israel. Abu Mazen therefore publicly advocates a one year general truce, during which Israelis and Palestinians will try and forge common denominators as a basis for resumed peace negotiations.
With Arafat and Abu Mazen poles apart on goals, principles, as well as character and personal traits, DEBKAfile’s Palestinian sources were not surprised when the two leaders came away from their meeting Thursday, March 6, at Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters, at odds over the relegation of powers to the incoming prime minister.
Yet Arafat did put the nomination forward and Abu Mazen did not demur.
DEBKAfile’s sources report that Arafat, for one, had no option. Since last year, Washington has demanded the appointment of a prime minister, the key to sweeping reforms, as a pre-condition for sponsoring any peace process. The Sharon government has steadily refused to treat with Arafat until he renounces terror. Arafat was unmoved. But last week, the Palestinian leader was finally cornered by his last remaining supporters, the Europeans. The European Union emissary, Miguel Moratinos, and UN Middle East Envoy Terje-Larsen, bearded Arafat in his Ramallah office and issued a blunt warning. “If you don’t appoint a prime minister with real authority, by next week you’ll find yourself in Cyprus!”
This was the second reference to his impending deportation to reach Arafat.
Three weeks ago, “sensitive intelligence data” reached him that prime minister Ariel Sharon had ordered a special forces unit to be regrouped, retrained and standing by in case of a decision to storm Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters. He was to be separated from the 30 or so terror chiefs living under his protection since last year and put aboard an outgoing flight. Moratinos evidently knew what he was talking about.
At the same time, after Sharon was returned in Israel’s last general election on January 28, Abu Mazen came to Arafat and reported his impression that the new prime minister would be willing to accept President George W. Bush’s road map as formulated by the Quartet (US secretary of state Colin Powell, UN secretary Koffi Anan, the EU and Russia). In other words, the Palestinians may have finally recovered a potential peace partner.
Arafat heard his deputy out and told him to carry on with his informal exchanges with the Israelis. But, in private, he never for a moment abandoned his conviction that his fate vis a vis Israel and Saddam’s fate opposite the Americans were inextricably linked. To his close aides, he confided his belief that “they” – meaning the Israelis and the Americans - were pushing the Abu Mazen appointment forward as a vehicle for getting rid of him and effecting a regime change in Ramallah analogous to their goal in Baghdad. But he promised to fight with all his might so as not to let “them” get away with it.
To preserve his standard weapon, Arafat torpedoed Egypt’s painstaking efforts to bring Palestinian terrorist factions round to a ceasefire. The Hamas quickly followed Arafat’s lead. And Abu Mazen, sensing which way the wind was blowing at the Cairo conference, stayed clear.
Arafat was moved to prevent the Cairo conference from tying his hands with a ceasefire by three considerations:
1. He felt bound to keep his terror campaign escalating in order to provide Saddam Hussein with a second warfront.
2. He was determined to deny Egypt and its president Hosni Mubarak, supporters of the US offensive against Iraq, the kudos of achieving a ceasefire. Since his August 2000 encounter with President Bill Clinton and prime minister Ehud Barak at Camp David, Arafat has had nothing but contempt for Egypt and Saudi Arabia and acknowledges only Iraq, Iran and Syria as regional powers.
3. A ceasefire would serve Abu Mazen as a springboard for leaping into the prime minister’s seat.
He responded to European pressure therefore on two levels. While taking the formal steps for nominating a prime minister, he stoked his terror machine, making sure it coincided with
the run-up to the American assault against Saddam Hussein.
In three terrorist strikes in three days – one foiled – Palestinian terrorists murdered 18 Israelis - sixteen on an Egged 37 bus carrying mostly students and pupils from well-to-do backgrounds. The target was deliberately chosen to hurt youngsters belonging to the established classes – unlike the last attack two months ago in the foreign workers’ district of Tel Aviv. For this operation Arafat fielded for the first time in the 30 months of his Intifada, an elite terror unit under the mixed command of Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades officers living under his protection in the Ramallah headquarter and the field operatives of the Hamas and Jihad Islamic trained by Hizballah instructors imported from Lebanon. This unit stood ready for special emergencies and back-up action during the war against Iraq. It represents the pro-terror coalition that will back him against the incoming prime minister Abu Mazen and disrupt any peace moves he may initiate.
In an earlier article on this page, DEBKAfile exposed the background of Mahmoud Adnan Selim Kawasme, the bomber who blew up the Haifa bus last Wednesday and the identity of his Hizballah trainer. Kawasma was supplied with intelligence and logistics for the attack from Nablus.
Two days later, the same elite outfit murdered Elie and Dinah Horowitz in the Kiryat Arba suburb of Hebron, but failed to reach Negohot further west. Four terrorists were shot dead in the two attacks.
Saturday morning, March 8, four Israeli helicopters rocketed the car carrying the Hamas military commander in Gaza, Ibrahim Maqadma, a shrewd blow against the inner workings of the terror network since, aside from his senior position in Hamas, Maqadme was Arafat’s liaison man with Iran, the Hizballah, as well as the Hamas and Jihad Islami commands in Damascus. Israeli forces have also take over several square miles of the northern Gaza Strip to put a stop to the Qassam rocket attacks against southern Israel.
Israel thus drew a line in the sand, warning the two Islamic groups they would not be allowed to become Hizballah’s operational arm in Palestinian-controlled areas against Israel, nor would Arafat be permitted to deploy his special elite terror unit.
Abu Mazen himself may bargain hard for more authority, but is unlikely to turn down the historic opportunity of becoming the first Palestinian prime minister. In any case, he would not want to give Arafat the chance of saying with a shrug that he did everything he could, but Abu Mazen refused the offer. His duel with Arafat over powers will continue after he takes office. He will strive to build his support in the moderate wings of the Fatah for his pro-American posture and his attempts to achieve a cessation of hostilities and open the door to talks with Israel. Arafat will pull against him by political maneuvers and violent terror.
The European rationale for bullying Arafat into accepting a Palestinian prime minister fits in with its campaign to stop the United States from going to war against Iraq. If Arafat can be induced to embark on regime change by relegating powers to an advocate of non-violence, the Eurocrats will argue that Saddam too can eventually be persuaded to voluntarily dismantle his unconventional arms and step down. Ergo, there is no need for war.
The hole in this argument will only emerge when it is too late to mend, emanating from the failure to take account of the two men’s inborn predilections. Arafat will no more renounce terrorism than Saddam Hussein will give up his unconventional armory. There is as much chance of Arafat meekly standing down as of Saddam offering to be sacked. Washington is therefore staying out of the Ramallah spectacle, aware that what is happening there has little to do with the two events rushing forward relentlessly: More Palestinian terror and a US-led offensive against Iraq.