Arafat's New Cabinet Distinctly Pro-Iraqi

by DEBKAfile

9 June 2002

Yasser Arafat unveiled his new government with loud fanfare Sunday, June 9, in advance of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s talks with US president George W. Bush in the White House Monday. No one expected much more than cosmetic reforms as a sop to international pressure.

However, according to DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources, the new reforms are far from cosmetic. They are meant as a resounding slap in the eye for Bush – and a two-handed punch for Sharon.

Last week, two visitors Arafat received in Ramallah urged him to overhaul his bloated, corrupt and terrorist-ridden government – first Egyptian intelligence chief Genera Omar Suleiman, followed by the CIA director George Tenet. They warned him that if he did not mend his ways, he would be even more isolated internationally than he is already.

Fine, said the Palestinian leader, and proposed unearthing an old Palestinian legislative council act that he never signed into law limiting the number of Palestinian ministers to 19. Suleiman and Tenet eyed the proposal suspiciously; Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek enthusiastically. He went off to Camp David with Arafat’s plan to show Bush that the Palestinian leader deserves another chance.

The US president was not convinced – fortunately, as it turned out.

It took Arafat less than a week to show his hand. Instead of 19 ministers, he appointed 21 – simply to show the world who gives the orders – not Tenet, Suleiman or the reform faction in the Palestinian leadership – but Yasser Arafat.

Next, he stressed the new cabinet had been appointed by “presidential decree” – not as a prerogative of the legislative council. This distanced the Palestinian regime still further from the democratic norms demanded by the international community, further centralizing his sole control

But his most important action was the least conspicuous: the appointment of retired General Abdel-Razzaq al-Yahya as key interior minister and head of the newly-streamlined security force. The 73-year old retired army man is general depicted as a nonentity with no chance of exercising authority over such powerful security and intelligence figures as Tawfiq Tirawi and Muhamad Dahlan. However, DEBKAfile’s intelligence and military sources tell a different story. Al-Yahya who lives permanently in Amman is very close to the heads of Iraqi military intelligence in Baghdad and hobnobs frequently with Iraqi agents based in the Jordanian capital.

In view of his pro-Baghdad inclinations, DEBKAfile ’s intelligence sources in Tel Aviv and Amman see no obstacle to the new interior minister working in close harness with Tawfiq Tirawi, Arafat’s most trusted West Bank security chief and commander of the Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades - particularly when Tirawi maintains a strong working relationship with Iraqi military intelligence agents operating in the West Bank.

Al-Yahya’s appointment will therefore strengthen the pro-Baghdad faction in the Palestinian leadership, which consisted until now of only one minister, Azzam al Ahmad, who stays on as minister for public works. Al-Ahmad is in fact Arafat’s liaison man with Saddam Hussein and one of the few Palestinians whom the Iraqi ruler trusts implicitly.

Our sources also report that in the last few days, a new arrival has joined Arafat’s innermost circle, Samir Rochah, head of the Arabian Struggle Front, a stooge of Iraqi military intelligence. Nothing in the Palestinian leader’s milieu is ever fortuitous. Rocha’s turning up is another signpost to the Palestinian Authority’s pro-Baghdad tilt under Arafat’s lead. His reforms are therefore of deep significance for the Palestinian posture towards Israel and the internal balance of the Middle East, just as a pro-Iraqi departure by any government in the region would be.