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June 03, 2003

A Bleak Week for Ariel Sharon. Or Was It?

DEBKA-NET- WEEKLY reports

The atmosphere was thick with tension in US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice’s office on Wednesday, May 21, as she and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, sat and talked to Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon’s right-hand man, Dov Weisglass.

Before long, the encounter became a ding dong between two very different personalities. Unassuming and unpretentious, Rice is a Russian affairs expert with a brilliant, analytical mind, whose self-discipline and probing mind have won her admirers among Washington’s jaded political establishment. A self-made, prominent Tel Aviv lawyer, Weisglass is today a top-notch powerbroker who smoothly mixes his social and personal connections with his business interests. A longtime confidant of Sharon, he is also close to the New York-based former Israeli tycoon, Aryeh Genger, who often carries out discreet services for the prime minister in America.

Weisglass, appointed this year director general of the prime minister’s office, acts as Sharon’s personal emissary to the White House in between the prime minister’s own frequent visits since he took office two and a half years ago.

When in town, Weisglass always stops by to chat with Rice. But the story reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly from political sources in Jerusalem is that this time their conversation was not just stormy. It was said that no Israeli official has received so sharp a dressing-down in the White House since 1976, when President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger decided to punish the prime minister of Israel, the late Yitzhak Rabin, for refusing to go along with Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Syria. The price paid for this defiance was the suspension of US economic assistance funds to Israel under the euphemistic designation “reassessment”, a punitive measure that brought Israel to the brink of bankruptcy, with nary a dollar to buy wheat.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources paraphrase her words to Weisglass:
We know you’re here only because Sharon took advantage of a wave of terrorist attacks as an excuse for not turning up here himself. (On the weekend of May 16-18, 12 Israelis were killed and more than 100 wounded, a quarter of them critically, in six Palestinian suicide bombing and shooting attacks.)

But it won’t do Sharon any good. Here in Washington and in Riyadh we have gone through terrorist attacks just as deadly and that is exactly why we wanted Sharon here. But he chose to stay away and that was a huge mistake. With terror on the rampage in the Middle East, there’s no more time to waste.

The Bush administration has kept all its promises, Rice stressed, done what you wanted. Saddam Hussein has been thrown out with not a single Iraqi missile dropping on Israel. You asked for Arafat to be internationally isolated – and we did that for you. You said Hizballah threatened northern and central Israel, and we neutralized that threat. You said that if a moderate Palestinian leader were to be found with whom you could talk, you would work with him on a plan to solve the Palestinian problem. We asked you (Weisglass) if you had a leader in mind and you sat right here in this office and said ‘Abu Mazen’. So we delivered Abu Mazen and forced the Palestinians to choose a prime minister and what did you do? Nothing. You didn’t lift a finger to help him. The whole time you kept on hitting the Palestinians – but we didn’t interfere or hinder you in any way. And now it is time to act, Sharon doesn’t bother to come here and talk.

The president’s adviser concluded: That being the case, whether or not Sharon comes, the president wants him to accept the road map, without conditions, prevarication, amendments, or arguments. He will have to sign onto the plan when a joint declaration is published at the end of the summit in Aqaba with Bush, King Abdullah and Abu Mazen.

While no changes would be accepted, Rice told Weisglass that the administration recognized that Sharon heads a coalition government the majority of whose ministers are vehemently against the road map. Due consideration would therefore be given to Israeli reservations on sensitive issues, without any promise to accept them.

Sharon orders total compliance – and hush
The security adviser then turned the screw. If Sharon rejected the road map on those terms, the US president would seriously consider carrying out a reassessment of US-Israeli relations.

The Israeli prime minister recalled perfectly the pain of the first “reassessment” meted out a quarter of a century ago. And, while times have changed and no such high-profile retribution as meted out by President Ford is contemplated in 2003, still the precarious state of the Israeli economy today makes it vulnerable to the sort of measures the United States has administered in recent months against China, Syria and Russia.

Washington could simply target a number of Israeli high-tech companies or defense contractors, hold back orders and future contracts, defer payments or cut off exchanges of information. Such sanctions would be enough to knock off balance an Israeli economy badly battered by the 32-month confrontation with the Palestinians and gravely mismanaged by the Sharon government and its previous finance minister Silvan Shalom, now moved into the foreign ministry.

So when the prime minister’s top adviser returned from Washington with grim tidings, his first piece of counsel was to go all the way with the Bush administration.

Asked what he meant by the whole way, Weisglass translated what he had been told by Rice into political language. He said Israel would have to accept the whole Bush deal, lock, stock and barrel, because what was really at stake now was the 2004 presidential campaign. He had been given to understand that the guidelines handed to Israel were vital bricks in the Bush re-election strategy and therefore immovable.

Whatever really passed between Rice and Weisglass in Washington, the account appearing above was the one the Israeli prime minister disseminated among his close circle. DEBKA-Net-Weekly is not entirely sure that it is the truth and nothing but. However, the posture Sharon has taken up for domestic and foreign consumption says that he is indeed toeing the Bush line but it was forced on him under duress.

The report put out week from putative “circles close to the US Congress” that Bush has demanded a list of American weapons in the Israeli military arsenal in order to ban their use against Palestinian targets is part of this implied duress.

In keeping with his act, Sharon hurried to demonstrate his compliance with the guideline handed down from Washington and make sure no Israeli official agency stepped out of line. He issued a blanket prohibition to top level officials and ministers, security and military chiefs and officers of the Mossad and Shin Beit, forbidding anyone to take any initiative on the Israel-Palestinian track, publicly discuss the road map or enter into contacts with US representatives engaged in its applications. They were not allowed to release any information or comment but dry facts.

Everyone obeyed the Israeli prime minister’s injunction to the letter. No one wanted to be accused of torpedoing the latest Middle East peace effort; even inter-agency chatter on the road map fell silent. Sharon managed to muzzle Israel’s right wing opponents of the road map, including his main Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu.

After setting the stage for a major exercise in obfuscation, Sharon fell silent himself, free now to operate solo in the dark away from any critical gaze.

Abu Mazen offered on a platter
In Washington, some of DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources still believe the Israeli prime minister, a former super-hawk, walked voluntarily into what looked like a trap. Time after time, he and Weisglass were heard lamenting that, had Mahmud Abbas been Israel’s Palestinian negotiating partner instead of Arafat, the peace process would have been well advanced by now.

Hearing this, George Tenet, Director of the CIA, went to the president with a plan. According to our sources in Washington and Jerusalem, he proposed letting the Israelis have their wish. Mahmud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, is considered a weak and vacillating character who cannot stand on his own feet with being propped up either from Washington or by Arafat. The CIA Director proposed having him appointed to achieve two objectives: First, as a tool to milk Israel for concessions to the Palestinians, on the pretext they were needed to keeping the Abbas administration from collapsing; second, Abbas’s presence in office would act as a constant constraint on Arafat and force him to reduce his sponsorship of terrorists and their supporters in the Palestinian street.

The dynamic set in motion would, in Tenet’s view, substantially cut back Palestinian terrorist violence even if it were not brought to a complete standstill.

A similar proposal came from a Palestinian, the controversial Mohamed Dahlan, internal security minister in the Abbas government. Two years ago, Dahlan exploited his job as head of Palestinian Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip to orchestrate deadly waves of terror in the service of his old mentor, Yasser Arafat. Then he turned against his master. Today, Arafat blocks him on the West Bank and from its hub in Ramallah thwarts the effort to reform the Palestinian Authority’s security and intelligence apparatus and purge it of terrorists. Arafat is the power on the West Bank by virtue of his control of the Fatah-Tanzim militia and al Aqsa Martyrs (Suicides) Brigades.

Dahlan has therefore returned to his natural habitat in the Gaza Strip, where he has begun working to talk the Hamas terror group round to accepting some sort of gradual ceasefire albeit without a formal declaration. His chances are judged by Palestinian experts as better than those of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who spent long months last year trying to obtain a ceasefire and failed.

One advantage Dahlan has going for him is the Saudi Arabian cutoff of funds to Hamas and other groups, ordered after al Qaeda’s attacks on Riyadh on May 12 (reported in the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue, No. 110, May 23.). Hamas is already feeling the pinch and has embarked on a fundraising campaign.

However, there are difficulties for the Gazan strongman to overcome first:

1. He has been able to muster a large enough force of loyalists in the Gaza Strip to forcibly disarm Hamas. This force numbers some 4,000 men and is financed and armed from US and Israel. However, neither he nor Abu Mazen seeks a violent showdown with Hamas, preferring peaceful palaver to reach negotiated understandings.

2. The Hamas leadership is divided against itself into three camps – one wants to continue its campaign of terror; one is willing to stop the violence while the third, led by its spiritual leader in the Gaza Strip Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, says it is willing to forego violence but sets prohibitive conditions. From Ramallah, Arafat has been able to persuade the wheelchair-bound Hamas sheikh not to heed Dahlan’s arguments and to remain committed to terror

The high dollar cost of peace
The Abu Mazen- Dahlan’s operation in the Gaza Strip does not come cheap. It is sustained by four main sources of revenue: The Bush administration transfers funds through the pro-American Palestinian finance minister Salim Fayad; the ruling families of the Persian Gulf oil emirates are personally close to Abu Mazen and back him; and the fund-raising efforts around the Arab-Muslim world of Arafat’s former financial adviser, the Kurdish-Palestinian Mohammed Rashid. The two parted company eighteen months ago and now Rashid works with Dahlan. The last source is the Israeli government, which two years ago froze Palestinian Authority tax receipts to prevent the funds being used for terrorism.

On Wednesday, May 28, Sharon secretly handed over to Fayad, without notifying any ministers except for finance minister Netanyahu, a hefty slice of those funds, releasing an estimated $200m, in the hope that the cash will help Abu Mazen buy the loyalty of substantial sections of Hamas and Fatah and wean them away from Arafat in time for the summit the two prime ministers are scheduled to attend with President Bush next Wednesday in Aqaba.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Jerusalem describe this payout as the climax of Sharon’s secret strategy to win an accommodation with the Palestinians, for the sake of which he drew a thick curtain over his actions and forced the better part of the national body politic to stay mute.

Sharon’s three-step plan
Acceptance of Israel’s total conformity with the Bush plan of action for the Middle East as laid out for Weisglass by Condaleezza Rice on May 21.

Far-reaching concessions and gestures to pacify the Palestinians. When the Israeli prime spoke out to his own Likud parliamentary party on May 26 against “maintaining 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation,” he knew he was horrifying many Israelis, but it was no slip of the tongue. He reiterated the offending phrase at the top of his voice to make sure it registered in certain international quarters and reached Muslim-Palestinian ears.

Sharon is bending over backwards to demonstrate his extreme care not to place obstacles to the consolidation of Abu Mazen and Dahlan in power. He is willing to hand over the entire Gaza Strip – excepting the Jewish communities of Gush Katif and the Israel-Egyptian border crossing - and even allow them to reopen one or two Palestinian offices in Arab Jerusalem.

In all, Sharon has bought the Bush proposition that the Middle East is at a unique juncture in its history, opening up a window of opportunity that may never recur. After the Iraq War, the Bush priorities are eradicating Iran’s nuclear capability and deducting the United Nations and European Union from the Israeli-Palestinian equation.

Recognizing this, both international bodies quietly withdrew any claims for a role in the monitoring body the Americans are creating to supervise the implementation of the road map,

Sharon has no illusions about Arafat falling meekly into line. He remains the outstanding obstacle to the plan’s implementation and fully capable of inflicting lethal waves of suicidal terror. Sharon and Israeli security experts see a danger of Arafat setting up Abbas and Dahlah for physical harm.

At the same time, the Israeli prime minister has decided to give the US-backed Mahmoud Abbas experiment a chance – if not for peace, then for an Israeli-Palestinian accord and cooperation. He is clearly averse to going down in the history books as the man who alongside Yasser Arafat defeated a peace initiative. He would rather appear as its great champion.