by DEBKAfile 5 April 2002

"At the exact moment that Israel’s long-awaited counter-terror operation began to bear fruit and prime minister Ariel Sharon was girding up to deal with the Iranian-Syrian backed Hizballah threat on the northern frontier, US President George W. Bush stood up in the Rose Garden and waved a red light. Thursday, April 4, he demanded a halt to Israel incursions into Palestinian areas.

For Yasser Arafat, the president voiced his umpteenth demand for a curb on terrorists.

Israel carried on regardless.

The Palestinians smiled their acceptance over gritted teeth and issued counter-demands and accusations.
The Bush speech launched a fresh Middle East initiative based on a policy departure. Secretary of state Colin Powell is to be dispatched to the region next week to carry forward a ceasefire based on the Tenet plan and opening to the Mitchell peace proposals.

In their different ways, Palestinians and Israelis brushed off the new initiative, although the Europeans were happy.
The initial Palestinian response was that the White House had given Israel carte blanche to rid itself of Arafat. They noted that the president did not stipulate that Israel must lift its siege against Arafat or negotiate with him – only with 'the Palestinian people'.

A close Arafat aide, Hassan Asfour said Bush’s remarks would set off a massive explosion in the region.

As Arafat told US envoy Zinni, when they met Friday, April 5, if Powell wants to make progress towards a ceasefire, he must first force Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities including Ramallah, where he is caged. There is not the slightest chance of the Palestinian leader pulling the rug from under the suicide offensive he believes is giving him victory, just because the American president called them murderers.

Sharon, in his first off- the-cuff comment, said the Israeli operation would go on.

Political and military sources told DEBKAfile that it would be a shocking waste if, after fighting their way through bitter combat into seven Palestinian towns, the Israeli army was pulled up short before getting down to its principle missions: rounding up terrorists, collecting illegal weapons and breaking up suicide strongholds.

This operation was launched seven days ago, after a Palestinian suicide massacred 26 people at a Passover Seder held in a Netanya hotel. Until then, Israel held its fire for 11 days to give the Zinni mission a chance. The Palestinian cities from which Bush is demanding Israel’s withdrawal are, according to intelligence data, hothouses for breeding and sustaining terrorists. Sharon is hardly likely to bring the army out at this point and leave the job unfinished.
On the other hand, since Bush’s demand was not limited in time, Sharon has a week or more to play with. He is currently in the process of re-adjusting the internal checks and balances in his outsize national unity government. One right-wing group, the National Union, quit last month in disgust at Sharon’s tame responses to Palestinian terror assaults, leaving the pro-Oslo Labor wing strengthened. A second national grouping, the National Religious Party, is about to take its place. In a lightning switch, the NRP’s veteran leaders stepped aside and made way for a political tyro, the hawkish Res. Brigadier General Effi Eitam, former commander of the Israeli force in Lebanon. He is slated to be their ministerial representative in Sharon’s kitchen defense cabinet.

Sharon has also taken up former Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on his offer to help out with Israel’s overseas information campaign on a voluntary basis.

With dovish Labor ministers in his government, Sharon will now control the two extremes of mainstream Israeli opinion. This will give him enough flexibility to cope with coming challenges – military and diplomatic. As a clash brews up fast on the northern frontier, Eitam will provide Sharon with a tough and knowledgeable counterbalance to Labor defense and foreign ministers, Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Shimon Peres.

Whereas a crisis on Israel’s northern border would also involve Syria and Iran, as backers of the Hizballah, Saddam Hussein’s presence in the West Bank is both clandestine and demonstrative.

In his Rose Garden speech, Bush denigrated the stipends Saddam sent to the families of suicide bombers, calling them a payout to parents willing to sacrifice their children - and proof of Baghdad’s role in international terrorism.
What the US president omitted to mention was that Arafat sends emissaries to Baghdad to solicit such financial support for his martyrs. According to DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources, Abbas Zakhi, a member of the central committee of Arafat’s Fatah group who lives in Amman, was in the Iraqi capital on Monday, March 18. He handed Saddam Arafat’s last request with a personal commendation. Arafat told Saddam that by enabling the bombers’ families to live in dignity, he was performing a noble Arab act at the very moment when the 'martyrs' offensive was in full flight.

Saddam pledged $25,000 apiece for each “martyr’s” family.

The most intriguing aspect of the Bush U-turn is his motivation. A hint comes from the way his speech falls naturally into two parts – the first castigates Arafat and Palestinian terrorism; the second represents a classical diplomatic flip-flop. In his first sentence, Bush says: No nation can negotiate with terrorists; you can’t make peace with people whose only goal is death. Arafat’s situation is of his own making, therefore he has betrayed the hopes of his people. The suicide missions could blow up any hopes for a Palestinian state.

In the second half, Israel is called upon to curtail its military operation to purge Palestinian cities of suicides and terrorists.

Why the presidential two-step? One explanation is the pressure coming from Western Europe and the threat from Brussels, that the European allies would break up NATO if the United States deployed nuclear weapons in its war on terror. Perhaps Bush was aiming at mollifying Arafat’s many pro-Palestinian friends in the European Union, by echoing their demand for Israel to relieve the siege on the Palestinian leader and quit Palestinian cities.

Another consideration may have been the hope – unsuccessful as it turned out - of fending off the threat of an Arab oil boycott. Talk of this is enough to rattle the world’s financial markets.

The new initiative may also be the last desperate attempt by the Bush administration to keep the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the US Iraqi campaign in separate boxes.

Will Sharon stick to his guns, even at the price of his second confrontation with the White House in a quarter of a century?

Back in 1982, defense minister Sharon, spearheading Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, clashed frequently with the Reagan administration and the incumbent president’s father, vice president Bush. In the end, after sending Israeli troops into Beirut, Sharon was forced out of office and politics for many years. Arafat went into exile for twelve years and the Israeli army pulled out.

The force that entered stricken Beirut as peacekeepers was the American Marines - only to precipitate the most ghastly terrorist attack ever visited on American troops: the terror bombing of the Marines compound in Beirut, in which 241 US servicemen perished. Next came a wave of hostage-taking. Finally, the Reagan administration was rocked by the Irangate scandal, caught violating US law by selling arms to the Revolutionary government of Iran in order to buy the lives of American hostages in Lebanon.

An unknown 27-year old Lebanese Shiite extremist called Imad Mughniyeh was the key figure in the terror campaign against Americans in Lebanon, and eventually drove them out. Mughniyeh, who started out as a member of Arafat’s Force 17, is now back in Lebanon. He has also resumed his old ties with Arafat as his liaison with al Qaeda, of which he is a senior operative.

Twenty years later, by a bizarre quirk of history, the key players in the contemporary Middle East crisis have almost the same names as the 1982 cast: George Bush (son), Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat and Imad Mughniyeh.

Will the current President Bush cope better with the Middle East crisis than his father? And will Sharon butt heads with the son over the Israeli army’s presence – not in the Lebanese capital, but the Palestinian West Bank capital of Ramallah?"