Al-Ahram Weekly – 13 February 2003
After months of diplomatic inactivity, the phone lines between Jerusalem and Ramallah were again buzzing this week as meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials were hastily arranged.
The contacts began on Wednesday last week with a secret meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the chairman of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Qureia (Abu-Alaa). The talks, which came to light two days later, were reportedly held under intense American pressure and with the US ambassador, Dan Kurtzer, present. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said he had approved the meeting in advance.
Sharon and Qureia were reported to have discussed conditions for restarting negotiations, including the appointment of a prime minister and the ending of Arafat’s control of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces and finances.
The next day Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s bureau chief, held talks with the Palestinian interior minister, Hani Hassan, and finance minister Salam Fayyad, again under the gaze of Kurtzer.
Sharon was also reported to have proposed to Qureia a “ceasefire” in which Israel would agree to withdraw from one or two Palestinian cities and test the Palestinian Authority’s “determination to prevent terrorist attacks”. A similar Israeli pullout from Bethlehem was tried last summer but the soldiers returned after suicide attacks continued.
Weisglass and Hassan were due to meet again late on Tuesday, before this article went to press, with the Palestinian interior minister rumoured to be preparing a plan for PA security forces to take control of Nablus and then extend their remit to Tulkarm, Qalqilya and Jenin.
Ramallah had been the preferred choice but it was assumed Sharon would not agree to loosening his grip on Arafat’s Muqata compound, where the Palestinian leader is a virtual prisoner.
Hassan wants to deploy in Nablus some 2,000 policemen, recently trained by the CIA and Egyptian and Jordanian security forces. But there are huge obstacles to the PA stamping its authority on the northern West Bank, which is dominated by groups opposed to a ceasefire with Israel.
There is also a question over the extent to which Israel will allow the PA to retake the cities. “We cannot deploy armed policemen and then have the IDF shoot at them because they are armed,” a Palestinian source told the Jerusalem Post newspaper.
The dramatic change of tack by the Sharon government caught most observers off guard, provoking speculation about what Sharon was really up to. Few believe he has suddenly been convinced of the need to breathe life into the almost- cold cadaver of the Palestinian Authority.
In the Israeli press the general view was that Sharon was turning the screw on Labour, whose leader Amram Mitzna has demanded that the prime minister show a serious commitment to re- entering negotiations with the Palestinians before his party considers joining a coalition government.
“The real question is, with his huge election victory, what does Sharon have to lose by talking to the Palestinians,” said Ali Jerbawi, a politics professor at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah. “He pleases the Americans by showing that he is co-operating on their road map [to a Palestinian state by 2005], he sounds out the post-Arafat generation of potential Palestinian leaders, and he gives Labour a hard time without anything being demanded of him in return.”
Jerbawi and most other Palestinian observers see no more light at the end of this particular diplomatic tunnel than the dead-ends of the Zinni, Mitchell and Tenet plans. At a joint meeting of the Palestinian cabinet and PLO executive committee on Sunday, at which Arafat discussed the secret talks, several delegates called the meetings “useless and harmful”.
But both Sharon and Arafat have their eye fixed on the next phase of the conflict: the post- Saddam era.
Sharon is determined to stall on all fronts while he awaits the outcome of the American- led invasion of Iraq. He has up to 39 days to put together his coalition, well beyond the expected date of the attack. Then he knows the Labour Party, or a large faction of it, will be unable to refuse his call to join an emergency government.
In the meantime his officials are wearing down the resistance of senior figures, particularly Shimon Peres, who it was revealed had met Likud leaders two weeks ago. Sharon is also recruiting Labour’s traditional backers, the business community, to lobby on his behalf. Mitzna lashed out at the prime minister on Sunday for what he termed “gross interference” in the party’s affairs.
Mitzna is now desperately trying to secure his hold on the party. Despite a humiliating defeat at the polls, he has the moral high ground and wants to stage a leadership election before his rivals, especially the former leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, have a chance to undermine him.
Party sources said Mitzna would suggest a ballot in May or June at a meeting of the party’s central committee in a fortnight.
Sharon is also happy to buy time on dealing with the road map. After a war in Iraq, he is confident Washington will have a new set of priorities more in line with his own. On Sunday Israel’s daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported that Sharon and President George W Bush had agreed on a plan to get rid of Arafat after Saddam Hussein had been ousted.
“It was agreed that Israel could banish Yasser Arafat and his associates from the [occupied] territories if he refuses to appoint a prime minister endowed with the power to run the self-rule authority,” the paper said.
The consensus among Israel’s military and political leaders is that such an operation against Arafat should be carried out under the cover of an attack on Iraq. An elite squad has reportedly been training for the operation since early last year.
Arafat too is aware of the new climate of enforced “regime change”, one of the reasons why he agreed to the talks. Unlike Sharon, he cannot afford to waste time. He needs to rebuild his standing with the international community before the invasion in the hope — probably fruitless — that he can avoid Saddam’s fate.
The first and biggest test — assuming Sharon lets the PA retake some of its cities — is whether Arafat can stamp his authority on the increasingly chaotic structures he is nominally in charge of.
Hassan, who is responsible for reviving the security forces, understands the challenges ahead. He went to Nablus at the weekend in defiance of death threats against him from a faction of the city’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a military wing of his own Fatah Party, angry at his criticism of suicide attacks inside Israel.
He must prove he can unite Fatah’s warring factions before the PA attempts to assert its authority over rival groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
A PA memo published this week revealed the depth of the crisis. According to Palestinian security officials, Hamas now believes it is as strong as Fatah and is ready to oust it as the dominant political party. The memo says Hamas may be willing to commit to a ceasefire as a “temporary tactic” but only to help it to take over PLO institutions.