by DEBKAfile, 19 March 2002

"When US Vice President Richard Cheney began his whirlwind Middle East tour, only one regional leader was under US ultimatum. When he left, on Tuesday, March 19, there were two: Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein.
Neither is expected to surrender.

DEBKAfile’s US and Israeli sources report that, as Cheney headed for his broadcast joint news conference with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, US envoy Anthony Zinni sped to Ramallah. He was instructed to give Arafat due warning: Take a week to toe the US line - or face the consequences.

The US line is embodied in the Tenet work plan, which both the Palestinians andIsrael formally accepted last year after its formulation by CIA director George Tenet. Its acceptance bound the Palestinian side to cease all acts of war and terror, to disband Palestinian terrorist organizations–his own Fatah-Tanzim and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, as well as the Hamas, Jihad Islami and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and arrest their terror activists. Arafat is also required to round up all illicit weapons, including explosives, mortars and rockets, sever his ties with fellow-terrorist bodies overseas, such as the Hizballah, and the terror and intelligence groups sponsored by Iraq and Iran, and staunch the outpouring of anti-American and anti-Israeli hate propaganda over their media.

These steps would destroy the political, military and intelligence power bases on which Arafat’s regime stands. Giving him a week for the project is therefore unrealistic. However, if Anthony Zinni, who will be watching over his shoulder, reports to the US president and vice president that a serious start has been made, there will be rewards. Cheney is willing to return to the Middle East especially to meet the Palestinian leader and confer with him on steps for developing the US-Palestinian relationship and talk about the passage from Tenet to the Mitchell peace plan and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Arafat will also be allowed to travel to the Arab League summit opening in Beirut on
March 28.

DEBKAfile’s Palestinian sources explain that following the American script may be beyond Arafat, because it would entail tearing down the elaborate edifice he built up over many years for his Intifada against Israel. He would also have to write off what he regards as substantial gains in the 18 months of struggle. Should he decide nonetheless to cross that river, his external operational mainstays, the Hizballah, Iraq and Iran, would not let him walk away.
But for the first time, Arafat has been given an American deadline – and a tight one at that. Defiance will bring him into a frontal clash with a determinedly anti-terror Bush administration. Even giving in with good grace may not bring him much more than a helping hand from Washington to step down off the world stage and end a forty-year career of almost uninterrupted terror with dignity.

Cheney broke new ground in yet a second key respect: He was presented by most world media as facing heavy inter-Arab and European insistence on action by the Bush team on the Palestinian issue, as their price for supporting America’s war on Iraq. Had the US leader given in, Arafat would have cheered and the Iraqi campaign receded into an uncertain future.

However, the vice president turned this equation round; he hitched the Arafat-Palestinian problem to the Iraqi issue. This put Saddam on the spot. Now, if Arafat meets America’s truce demands, Iraq stands to lose its forward line of defense against a US offensive and the option of opening a second front to ease US pressure.
In Cheney’s hands, the two ultimatums tacitly merged into one.

Sharon responded to Cheney’s tactic by sacrificing one of his most precious precepts, the refusal to enter into political negotiations under fire. Accordingly, on Tuesday, March 19, Israel’s extended security cabinet endorsed the unilateral acceptance of the Tenet ceasefire blueprint and undertook to apply the Mitchell plan thereafter. This was deemed a fitting quid pro quo for the American stratagem that pushed Arafat into sharing a corner with Saddam Hussein.

Like Arafat, Syrian president Bashar Assad, was cold-shouldered by the US vice president, who skipped Damascus in his tour. Assad will not have missed the ultimatum dealt out to Arafat, and will understand that he too has been put on notice by Washington to abandon his ties with the Hizballah and Baghdad, or else.