by DEBKAfile 8 April 2002

"The Bush administration has always kept Yasser Arafat in play as a potential negotiating partner. He has been accused of not doing enough to curb terror, but never of the practice of terror himself. In an attempt to play by American rules, Israel produced the equivalent of 'smoking gun' documentary evidence linking Arafat’s hands to the suicide bombers – only to be told from Washington to back off.

Sharon then read the documents out one by one to the Knesset in his political address Monday, April 8. They were gathered from Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah in the course of Israel’s major military operation, launched on March 29, to purge the blight at source. Four times, as this campaign reached a crucial point, President George W. Bush and his top advisers called on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities without delay. This was clearly translated by the president’s national security adviser Condaleezza Rice Sunday, April 7, as meaning “now!”
Only then did the penny drop in Jerusalem. She added '…the end of the operation can’t be helter skelter and chaotic'. But this did not sweeten the pill.

Successful beyond the most optimistic expectations in its drive to clean out Palestinian terrorist strongholds, the military needs more time to wind it up in the orderly manner. Time is an essential element in surgical house-to-house tactics; massive aerial bludgeoning would be quicker, but also indiscriminate.

Bush issued his first call for an Israel withdrawal from Palestinian territory in his Rose Garden speech on April 4. The Sharon government understood it to mean an extra week or more before secretary of State Colin Powell landed in Israel on his ceasefire mission. He therefore kept going. Sunday, April 7, when White House pressure built up, the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem indicated that, as a gesture to the secretary, the IDF would withdraw from certain Palestinian areas where terrorist centers had been broken up. However, the main thrust of the operation would not be interrupted.

The tone of the diplomatic hair-splitting over timelines may be friendly, but, according to DEBKAfile ’s political circles, it does not detract from the fact that the Sharon-Bush yearlong honeymoon is abruptly coming to a close. If he fails to toe the new Bush line, the prime minister may find himself at the receiving end of the diplomatic version of Israel’s military isolation of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.

The US president’s switch in strategy caught many of Washington’s decision-makers and Sharon himself unawares. Bush’s inner circle of advisers decided on the shift nearly three weeks ago, when it became clear that Vice President Richard Cheney’s tour to drum up European and Arab support for the US offensive of Iraq had fallen flat.

Just about the time he rounded off his tour in Jerusalem on March 19 and 20, a decision was taken by the president’s inner circle, according to DEBKAfile ’s Washington sources, to abandon the vice president’s confrontational tactics and try a more accommodationist approach, such as that advocated by secretary of state Colin Powell.

The president’s 'inner circle' includes not only the White House team, but also advisers close to him outside Washington.

In West Europe and Arab capitals, Cheney followed the earlier presidential precept that backers-out from America’s war on terror, like France or Saudi Arabia, will find themselves counted out and may even find their interests jeopardized. The result was that he raised no support for the anti-Saddam offensive anywhere but Jerusalem. Even a close ally like Turkey held back.

Cheney’s 48-hour stay in Israel coincided with one of the bloodiest Palestinian suicide cycles, launched after Israel accepted a unilateral ceasefire to give US broker Anthony Zinni a chance. When Arafat refused to restrain the terrorists and accept the ceasefire, the vice president declined to meet him till he did. The next thing to happen was that Arab and Muslim leaders who gathered – first at the Arab League summit in Beirut in late March and then at the Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur in early April – refused to designate Arafat’s suicide bombers and killers terrorists – even though the campaign specifically targeted civilians to advance political and strategic objectives.

This refusal was part and parcel of the Muslim-Arab bloc’s mixed stance on the September 11 terrorist attacks on America. The specific act was condemned, but not Islamic terror per se. The bloc, led by Egypt, accordingly withheld its support from the US global war on terrorism, pending a precise definition of terrorism. In the absence of an agreed definition, Palestinian suicides could not be judged terrorists. This view has found broad support in the European Union, a front that Cheney was unable to crack.

The Bush government was therefore confronted with a major obstacle to going ahead with its offensive against Iraq and a dilemma. There was no question that the 19 Saudi and Egyptian suicide hijackers who blew themselves up at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing thousands of Americans were terrorists. Yet when Washington judged as terrorists the Palestinian suicides who blew up a Passover ceremony and killed 27 elderly Israelis and tourists, the Europeans and the Islamic-Arab bloc drew away from their support for America’s war on terror and its campaign against Iraq.

Still, in his Rose Garden speech launching the new Powell mission, the US president stood up and declared that those suicides should not be glorified; they were not martyrs but murderers. But even so, he stepped back from determining that the man who sent them, Yasser Arafat, was a terrorist himself. At most, Bush and Rice have called his performance disappointing and reverted to the same old tune of urging him to do more to fight terror.

According to DEBKAfile’s political analysts, Powell will be making a bid for the cooperation European and Arab rulers denied Cheney. Since both blocks insist on regarding Arafat as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Washington will have to meet their pre-conditions and go back to engaging him.

Before even setting out for Rabat - and meetings with King Muhammad VI and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, at the start of his mission - Powell showed initial willingness to meet this demand. A previous unambiguous statement that the secretary would not be calling on the Palestinian leader was replaced Sunday, April 7, by word that, unlike the vice president, he would be willing to see Arafat in the 'right circumstances'.

The circumstance Powell was referring to was evidently a halt in the suicide bombings. By those words he also acknowledged implicitly that Arafat was in fact responsible for their dispatch.

In any case, no human bombs have reached Israeli civilians for the past nine days – though not because of any goodwill on Arafat’s part, but owing to the extensive Israeli military operation launched against one terrorist stronghold after another as of March 29.
As it turns out, the Palestinian leader who orchestrated the suicide campaign may reap the benefit of the attainments of his enemy, the IDF, in choking the terror off at source.

The Israeli prime minister, on the other hand, is bracing himself for the pressure to come from Washington to relieve Arafat’s isolation. Convinced that the military operation’s abortion in mid-course would be a gross betrayal of his responsibilities, Sharon is bolstering his unity government to broaden national support for his decision to go ahead regardless and finish the job. The National Religious Party, in a lightning reshuffle, has named Res. Brig. Effi Eitam, former commander of Israeli forces in S. Lebanon, as party chairman and its candidate for a seat on the inner defense cabinet. David Levy, Gesher and foreign minister in the Labour-led Barak government, has been invited to join the government. The National Union, led by the ultra-hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, is on its way to back to office. Sharon has even roped in two former prime ministers and rivals, Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Labor’s Ehud Barak, as national information campaigners.

Going on the offensive against the Palestinian suicide bombers and their commanders boosted his popularity instantaneously by 20 percentage points, steeling him for the potential confrontation with Washington.

In advance of the Powell mission to Europe and the Middle East, Bush and British premier Tony Blair struck a deal at their weekend conference in the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas. The UK will back the US-led offensive against Iraq, while Bush will meet the EU-Arab block halfway on the Palestinian question. But, because of the rapid deterioration on the Israel-Palestinian warfront and the threat of an eruption on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier, Washington wants to move fast. Part of Powell’s mission will be to arrest the deterioration by cutting the Palestinians and the incendiary Hizballah out of the overall picture, and, if necessary, marginalize Sharon too. The assault on Iraq will be brought forward before the other regional flames get out of control.

Powell has been sent to accomplish this intricate exercise. According to DEBKAfile’s political sources, Sharon does not rate his chances of success much higher than those of Cheney. Armored in broad national support, the prime minister will therefore wait for the latest Bush strategy to play itself out. What appears to be inevitable at this moment is an early date for the US assault on Iraq." [Emphasis added]