By Mark Perry and Paul Woodward
On April 30, the Jordanian weekly newspaper Al-Majd published a story about a 16-page secret document, an "Action Plan for the Palestinian Presidency" that called for undermining and replacing the Palestinian national-unity government.
The document outlined steps that would strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, build up Palestinian security forces under his command, lead to the dissolution of the Palestinian Parliament, and strengthen US allies in Fatah in a lead-up to parliamentary elections that Abbas would call for early this autumn.
The Majd document is based on a Jordanian government translation of a reputed US intelligence document that was obtained by the newspaper from a Jordanian government official. The document, an official at the newspaper said, was drawn up by "Arab and American parties" and "presented to Palestinian President Abbas by the head of an Arab intelligence agency". The document is explosive.
Should Abbas give his agreement to the plan - which is not yet certain - he would be complicit in a program to undermine his own government.
Understanding the implications of the document, Jordanian government officials ordered that the publisher's printing house stop the presses while that edition's plates were confiscated. "The Jordanian security services, which censor newspapers in advance, intervened during the night to stop our print-run," confirmed Fahd Al Rimawi, an editor at Al-Majd.
On May 1, the Jordanian government explained its decision in a statement issued by the president of the Jordanian Press Association, Tareq al-Moumani. The statement claimed that Al-Majd had repeatedly published reports "based on information taken from intelligence sources and offends the country's security and interests".
Moumani explained that the printing house of the Jordanian Press Foundation had refused to print the April 30 edition because it included news reports that were harmful to Jordan "and offended a sisterly state". The "sisterly state" referred to is the Palestinian Authority (PA), according to published sources.
On May 2, the Jordanian government and Moumani gave further background on the Majd case. Moumani claimed that Al-Majd's report was "totally false" and not based on reliable sources. Nevertheless, two days later, Moumani was again being quoted in news reports, this time saying that the press association demanded "the lifting of the ban and insisted on abolishing any censorship".
(Al-Majd, which describes its editorial position as "Arab nationalist", has been in several scrapes with the Jordanian security services - including one incident when the newspaper was banned for two months over an editorial on Saudi Arabia.)
The Jordanian government's action brought swift condemnation from the international Committee to Protect Journalists. "This flagrant act of censorship is further evidence of the poor state of press freedom in Jordan," CPJ executive director Joel Simon said. "Officials should allow Al-Majd to be printed immediately."
The pressure seems to have worked. By the end of last week, Moumani announced that Jordanian authorities had lifted the ban and that the April 30 edition of Al-Majd would be reprinted.
Even so, Al-Majd's publication of the "Action Plan for the Palestinian Presidency" might have faded into obscurity were it not for a May 4 article by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz detailing a US-sponsored "Benchmarks for Agreement on Movement and Access". The "Acceleration Benchmarks" document detailed a series of deadlines for Israel to begin dismantling a large number of its security obstacles and checkpoints in the West Bank - allowing increased access in the occupied territories.
The appearance of the "Benchmarks" document within days of the disclosure of the Majd document suggests a connection, though despite appearances, the former may not in fact be a component of the latter. On the contrary, the disclosure of the two plans in quick succession may reflect competing agendas coming from the US State Department and the White House.
Not surprisingly, the US press has failed to pick up on either the Majd or Haaretz story and has ignored the existence of the White House program aimed at undermining the Hamas government (see No-goodniks and the Palestinian shootout, Asia Times Online, January 9). The Majd document came to the attention of a wider audience when the Amman incident was reported in the weblog Missing Links, which translated sections of the document from Arabic and provided analysis on the proposed plan.
The details of the Majd incident, the publication of the "Action Plan for the Palestinian Presidency", the commentary provided by Missing Links, and the subsequent publication of the additional US document in Haaretz have now made it possible to detail how the United States (or at least one faction of policymakers inside the administration) intends to implement its program to implement a "soft coup" against the Palestinian unity government.
America's 'action plan'
In the wake of the February Mecca Agreement, which called for the formation of a Palestinian unity government, White House officials scrambled to recast their anti-Hamas program. The resulting "action plan" relies heavily on the disbursement of US funds to build President Abbas' security forces at the same time that it escalates the delivery of money to specific development projects affiliated with his office.
The plan as delivered to Abbas, according to a Fatah official, is quite detailed - salaries would be provided to those parts of the Palestinian government closely affiliated with Fatah and supported by Abbas. The plan envisages delivering "a strong blow to Hamas by supplying the Palestinian people with their immediate economic needs through the presidency and Fatah". At the same time, the international boycott of Hamas would stay in place and Hamas-affiliated programs would be starved of funds.
Senior Fatah officials who oppose the program confirm the Majd claim that the action plan was drawn up between the White House and Arab intelligence officials. "You can see the hand of [Egyptian intelligence chief] Omar Sulieman in this," a Fatah official said. "It is no secret that he has been working with the Americans to strengthen Fatah."
But this Fatah official refused to implicate anyone in the Jordanian government, who he claimed "would be much more skeptical of this kind of thing - which may be why the document was leaked in the first place". And while this Fatah official could not say for certain who in the White House would author such a program, the document reflects the long-held views of White House Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams - known as the major impetus behind the rearming of Abbas' security force.
US worries over the increasingly weak position of Abbas are made clear in the action plan's language: "In the absence of strong efforts by Abbas to protect the position of the presidency as the center of gravity of the Palestinian leadership, it can be expected that international support for him will diminish and there won't be enthusiastic cooperation with him," the plan says.
"And a growing number of countries, including the European Union and the G8 [Group of Eight], will start to look for Palestinian partners that are more acceptable and more credible, and more able to make advances in security and governance. And this would strengthen the position of Hamas within Palestinian society, and would further weaken Fatah and the Palestinian presidency. And it would also diminish the chances for early elections."
The plan re-emphasizes the US commitment to building Abbas' security service, a program now funded by some US$59 million in direct congressionally approved security assistance. The money "will deter Hamas or any other faction from any attempt at
escalation, as long as the security control of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah is on a firm basis". The plan also counts on the support of the EU and World Bank.
"Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should propose, in consultation with the World Bank and the European Union, a plan that defines specific sectors and projects that are in need of financing, and that will show useful and tangible results on the
ground in the space of six to nine months, centering on the alleviation of poverty and unemployment," the plan notes. "And since some projects will take more than nine months, there should be a guarantee of adequate results within the nine months. This is so as to guarantee the usefulness of these projects before the elections."
Anticipating that Abbas' popularity would now be soaring - and money to his supporters flowing through his office - the plan proposes that Israel act to enhance Abbas' credibility further by removing roadblocks and barricades in the West Bank and easing Palestinian access to Gaza. "Abbas will need to be supplied with the means, both material and legal, to govern and to strengthen his credibility and legitimacy, so that he can comfortably call for parliamentary elections by the beginning of autumn 2007."
Perhaps the most interesting part of the action plan is in its authors' apparent need to cover up the fact that it is being proposed by the US and its Arab - Jordanian and Egyptian - allies. The plan states that it is designed to be presented to the Palestinians as something for them to support and to obtain the agreement of the United States and the Arab quartet, as a first step.
This would give Israel and the Europeans assurance that Abbas is taking the lead. The deception would be complete and US hands would be clean: the "action plan" would not be a US plan to undermine the Palestinian unity government - it would be Abbas' own plan.
On May 4, Haaretz published the US security plan for the West Bank and Gaza, which the newspaper had received from Israeli government officials on April 25. The document - authored by US General Keith Dayton, US Ambassador to Israel Dick Jones, and Consul-General in Jerusalem Jacob Walles - took more than a month to write, according to an American diplomat, and was begun in mid-March soon after the announcement of the formation of a Palestinian unity government.
The timing of the writing of the Haaretz document roughly coincides then with the "action plan" as written for the approval of Abbas, and indeed the two appear connected, either as interrelated plans or, perhaps more likely, reflecting an ongoing struggle inside Washington over who controls Middle East policymaking.
The goal of the US-sponsored "Benchmarks" document is to set a schedule for the removal of Israeli roadblocks and the opening of travel and trade passages in the occupied territories. But the document also contains a strong secondary component, which requires that Israel "approve requests for weapons, munitions and equipment required by defense forces" loyal to Abbas.
The plan's components envisage that Israelis and Palestinians will engage in a coordinated series of actions that will expand PA security control to all sectors of Gaza and the West Bank. Mohammad Dahlan, the newly named head of Abbas' National Security Council, will be charged with drawing up and implementing a security plan that will ensure this. Israel will then slowly ease travel restrictions in specific areas of the West Bank according to a detailed schedule.
But there are two key components of the program - first, that Israel will approve and support the transfer of "armaments, ammunition and equipment" to Dahlan's forces at Dayton's direction and at his specific request and that, in exchange, the PA security forces will implement a program that will suppress Qassam rocket fire into Israel.
According to the "Benchmarks" document, Dahlan would be required to develop a plan against Qassam rockets with the support of President Abbas by no later than June 21, and the forces under Dahlan must be deployed to problem areas no later than that date. The Palestinian forces would also be required to prevent arms smuggling in the Rafah area in coordination with Israel - a long-standing sore point with senior Israel Defense Forces officials since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Within 24 hours of the "Benchmarks" document's publication, Abbas endorsed it. But the plan was swiftly dismissed by Hamas. The organization's Damascus-based leader, Khalid Meshaal, declared that the proposal was "a farce", as it implied that Israeli checkpoints would only be removed as the Palestinians slowly ratcheted down their resistance to the occupation.
"The equation has now become dismantling the checkpoints in exchange for ending the Palestinian resistance," Meshaal said. The Israeli government also hesitated, saying that it would study the proposal. Israeli defense officials took a much harder line, saying that the adoption of the plan would harm Israeli security.
Washington moved quickly to reassure its ally. The plan merely promoted "suggestions and ideas that we have circulated", a State Department spokesman said. "It's not any kind of formal agreement nor is it something that is being enforced on anybody." Four days later, a US Embassy official in Tel Aviv said it was not a "take it or leave it" document, but "an informal draft" of "suggestions" that could "help facilitate discussion, engagement and action".
In the wake of the Majd incident and the publication of the "Benchmarks" document in Haaretz, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice abruptly canceled her trip to Israel, citing "political turmoil" in the Israeli government. In truth, the real turmoil is in Washington, where successive attempts to jump-start a peace process have in effect been short-circuited by Rice's diplomatic fecklessness ("We just don't think she has the president's mandate," an Israeli official notes), or by the White House's willful disregard of Rice's efforts to show America's allies that the US will move to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Condi is just not in charge of your Middle East policy," one Israeli official commented. "Every time she turns around, Elliott Abrams is slapping her down. It's embarrassing." The embarrassment has now become public.
In a breakfast meeting at the White House last Thursday, Abrams told a group of Jewish Republicans that they should not put too much stock in efforts to pressure Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. "He said that pressure on Israel was all for show," a congressional staffer familiar with the meeting said, "and that it was being done just to satisfy the Europeans and Arabs.
"He said, 'You know, we have to show that we're doing something. You really shouldn't worry about it.'"
Abrams, according to a report on the same meeting that appeared in Haaretz, said the talks among Rice, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on prospective negotiations was just "process for the sake of process". The Haaretz report noted that "some of the attendees understood Abrams' comments as an assurance that the peace initiative promoted by Rice doesn't have the full backing of President George W Bush".
Reports of Abrams' comments brought an immediate White House response: "It is inaccurate to suggest that the White House and State Department are at odds on this issue, for the entire administration - including Mr Abrams - is committed to pursuing it [Rice's peace initiative] and the rest of the president's agenda."
Despite this, it is difficult to come to the conclusion that Rice's program - enforcing Israeli compliance with dropping barriers in the West Bank and easing access to Gaza - will be implemented while on the other hand the US program to undermine Hamas seems destined to continue. And in the end, Washington observers note, it is likely that in the current Abrams-Rice tussle, Abrams will win - and the Palestinians will lose.
Mark Perry is the co-director of Conflicts Forum, a Beirut-based organization dedicated to providing an opening to political Islam. He is a political consultant in Washington, DC. Paul Woodward is the managing editor of the Conflicts Forum website and also creator and editor of the foreign affairs blog War in Context.
(Copyright 2007 Mark Perry and Paul Woodward. Used by permission.)