It was not just Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his colleagues in the Hamas leadership who escaped death yesterday. According to sources in the IDF, the whole peace process, which has been directly linked to the political future of Mahmoud Abbas, while injured by his resignation, is still not mortally wounded.
The General Staff expressed hope last night that the peace process will be renewed and head toward the implementation of President Bush's vision for the Middle East, delineated in the road map. This will be done through a Palestinian government headed by Abbas or a Palestinian leader like Abbas. The American and Israeli precondition for this process to take place is the uniting of all security services of the Palestinian Authority under the control of the Prime Minister.
Yesterday's events have created strategic chaos, the results of which will only become clear when the storm clears. Abbas resigned, the Hamas leadership was targeted, and the European Union foreign minister decided to declare Hamas a terrorist organization, all of which are important developments that feed on and counter each other.
The attempt on the lives of Yassin and his partners was a major intelligence coup, with authorization for the operation granted in principle more than two weeks ago following cabinet meetings after the suicide bombing that claimed 22 lives. The planning for the operation went through a number of changes, waiting for the right opportunity.
Last night the security services were precise in locating Yassin. The IDF justifies its failure by pointing to the attack against Salah Shehadeh, where a large bomb claimed the lives of 15 innocent people. As a result, a bomb a quarter the size of that aimed at Shahada was used, weighing less collateral damage with the possibility of missing the targets.
The argument is only partially convincing and suggests that the IDF has still not perfected a method of either air or naval attack combined with a special forces attack on the ground.
Abbas' resignation came as a surprise to Israeli intelligence. On Wednesday Abbas told American officials that he intended to resign and only then, at about the same time as The New York Times learned the news, did Israeli intelligence also receive the news. On Thursday everyone breathed a sigh of relief when he did not resign. Apparently the protests against Abbas were still not interpreted correctly by the defense analysts.
At the Defense Department they still hoped last night that Abbas may withdraw his resignation, if Arafat is pressured sufficiently by the Americans, the Europeans and the Arab states to allow the unification of the security services under the Prime Minister's control.
Arafat's latest move is to try to woo Abbas' finance minister, Salam Fayad, appoint him deputy prime minister and have him sit in a government headed by Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), with Jibril Rajoub as National Security Adviser. Fayad, who is well liked by Bush because of his Texas connection, is still not convinced by the offer.
A chance that Abbas may survive is for Arafat to feel that a success at this level, of replacing his prime minister with Abu Ala, will be too great and result in the undermining of his immunity from expulsion. President Bush cannot allow a regional fallout in Palestine and Iraq. Between the two, it is easier for the Americans to dictate developments in the Palestinian Authority. If Arafat is an "obstacle to peace," the standard term used by the President and his aides, his end is near.
The noose around the throat of the opponents of the alternative Palestinian leadership, the moderates, is tightening. Significant gains last week were achieved by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in talks with his European counterparts, particularly the Italian Franco Fratini, in convincing them to follow the American stance on delegitimizing Hamas. This will also have an effect on dozens of other countries who follow the signals from Europe.
This suggests that Israel's diplomatic capabilities are significant, which makes the criticism against the visit of the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, Dov Weissglass to the U.S. last week, strange. After all, in spite of the results, the impression that the U.S. and Israel are on the same page in ways of handling Arafat and Yassin is worth a visit to Washington. It reminds one of the meeting between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat a few days before Israel attacked the Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981.
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