The UK did not need a second invitation from George W. Bush to come roaring back to the Middle East to Yasser Arafat’s rescue – with Javier Solana’s European Union outfit riding in on its back.

The initial arrangement was cautious: The British would arrive in the innocuous, limited form of a joint Anglo-American guard to make sure that the six Palestinians, whose extradition Israel demanded as its condition for releasing Arafat, stayed in their Palestinian jail. Once they were handed over to their international custodians, the Israel siege tanks pinning them and Yasser Arafat down in his Ramallah headquarters would roll back, Arafat would be free to travel and the US would begin hauling itself out of the Palestinian-Israeli mire.

Its place would be filled by Europeans, led by the UK.

To get the ball rolling, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was first bulldozed Sunday, April 28, into driving through his government the initial formula of an American-British guard for the six wanted men: the four PLFP killers of Tourism Minister Rehavam, the PLFP Secretary Ahmad Saadat who dispatched them, and Arafat’s financial director Fuad Shobaki, who organized funds for the Karin-A arms smuggling venture and terrorist operations.

According to DEBKAfile’s sources in Washington and Israel, Sharon, by bowing to Bush’s insistence on this first step, has dug a deep pit at Israel’s feet and set the region on the path to seismic geo-strategic shifts. Nothing can now stop the Europeans, led by the eager British, from restoring Yasser Arafat’s standing as Palestinian leader and reconstructing Palestinian security bodies, the very infrastructure that Israel’s military painstakingly knocked down in its month-long counter-terror sweep through Palestinian West Bank towns.

This single decision goes a long way to reversing Israel’s military achievements in fighting off Arafat’s Intifada terror offensive. In some ways, it turns the clock back, rendering almost irrelevant the 774 Israeli victims who died – and ten times that number injured - in the years of Palestinian terror following the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords that brought Arafat into the country.
The Israeli prime minister and a majority of ministers were swayed by two arguments. One, the US president’s national security adviser Condoleeza Rice’s claim to the prime minister’s adviser Danny Ayalon, that Israel’s refusal would undercut the Bush administration’s entire Middle East strategy, and obstruct the US military offensive against Iraq, as well as its war on global terror as a whole. Israel would not escape blame for upsetting Washington’s plans.

The second argument came in the form of President Bush’s non-specific commitment to stand by Israel.
During his telephone assault on Sharon Saturday and Sunday, April 27 and 28, Bush made two things clear, which the prime minister refrained from sharing with his cabinet colleagues:

One , that the US would supervise the restoration of Arafat’s fortunes and reconstruction of Palestinian security services from afar: the British would be in charge of the fieldwork.

Two, the British were brought in to satisfy Arafat.

Sharon did disclose to the cabinet that the senior British staffer on the spot would be Alistair Crooke, a former high-ranking MI6 man and European Union’s Javier Solana’s representative in Jerusalem. Washington’s decision to move into a backstage supervisory role was not revealed. Bush could have retained a more active share in the project by sending retired general Anthony Zinni back to the region. This was not suggested by the United States or Israel.

Not letting the grass grow, the British advance party of “security experts” quietly arrived Monday night, 24 hours after the Israeli government decision. Their first job is to deal with the technicalities for the transfer of the six wanted men to a jail in Palestinian territory – presumably the British-built prison facility in Jericho. The four sentenced assassins are less of a problem than the Shobaki and Saadat who have not been tried for their crimes. Israel is demanding that they too be locked up in prison. A solution remains to be worked out.

The British trio signifies the onset of a complex gambit that furthers the Bush administration’s desire to throw off the Israel-Palestinian encumbrance and mute its Middle East involvement in favor of building up Central Asian assets. Washington is handing the Middle East standard over to its British surrogate.

This gambit seriously damages Israel.

Sharon was duly warned more than once from the Oval Office to hold his horses in Operation Defense Shield, to pull Israeli forces out of Palestinian towns and turn to diplomacy – or else Washington would go its own way. The Americans signaled their intentions to Sharon shortly after Israel launched its massive drive into Palestinian cities, in response to the Palestinian Passover suicide rampage against Israel civilians.

The signals sharpened before and during the Saudi crown prince Abdullah’s weekend stay at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The Israeli prime minister failed to heed the signals, too single-mindedly engrossed in waging war against Arafat’s terrorist infrastructure. As a result, he has been lurching in the last ten days from one diplomatic contretemps to the next, squandering hard-won strategic assets in the process, with the following consequences:

A. The grand US-Israeli plan for cutting Arafat down and consigning him to the Gaza Strip has been tossed aside, together with its companion blueprint for establishing self-rule on the West Bank under the auspices of the Kingdom of Jordan. The blow sustained by Israel – in no small measure under Saudi influence – has also hit Abdullah II of Amman, who based his fundamental policies on a strategic partnership with the United States and Israel. The Saudi crown prince achieved two strokes in Crawford: he got the Israeli army out of Ramallah and blocked Jordan’s reinstatement on the West Bank.

B. In contrast, The Palestinian authority will be reinstated - possibly on different lines with fresh faces, according to British and the European concepts. Arafat will be re-confirmed as top man.

C. The Palestinian security agencies, whose primary function was to mastermind terror, will be rebuilt too by the same hands. The Americans are prepared to admit off the record that the CIA failed abysmally in its efforts to create effectively functioning security agencies following the conclusion of the Oslo accords. The British will certainly pursue their own ideas and install their own agents in the restored bodies.

D. The British teams taking over in Palestinian-ruled territory will function on three levels:
The Foreign Office’s Arab-Palestinian experts, “security personnel” - who are actually officers of the British secret service, MI6, and former commandos trained in guerrilla and counter-terror tactics.

E. Those three groups will become the kernel of a larger international force made up mostly of European intelligence and military officers, to which American advisers will be attached as supervisors. This arrangement means the termination of the familiar trilateral US-Israeli-Palestinian security coordination commissions that were mostly moribund anyway. Their infrastructure will be handed over to the British.

F. Israel will eventually have to re-address its security and political concerns with the Palestinians to the British Foreign Office instead of the State Department in Washington. Many Israelis will rub their eyes in disbelief at the return of the Union Jack, the Foreign Office and MI6 to Palestine – and even more at the notion that Ariel Sharon let it happen.

It is not a happy prospect for Israelis, who are perfectly aware of the pro-Arab winds blowing consistently from London since 1948. Yasser Arafat’s installment as head of an independent Palestinian state has always been a key policy goal for the British government and its intelligence agencies.

What remains to be seen is how Arafat will use his fresh lease of life. Will he entrap the British in his toils as he did the Americans, making them the unwilling sponsors of his terrorist activities? Or will he reward Britain for standing by him by setting up an Anglo-Palestinian front against Israel?"