JERUSALEM – Yasser Arafat fears an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip could be his undoing: He suspects that Egypt, which is negotiating the terms of a pullback with Israel, is trying to strip him of much of his power in the process. Egypt has given the Palestinian leader a June 15 deadline to overhaul his security forces and fire corrupt commanders in preparation for the withdrawal.
Some of his associates say he is determined to stall.
“Arafat … feels uncomfortable with the Egyptian ideas,” said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Qadoura Fares.
Control over security services is the pillar of Arafat’s authority. He has successfully resisted reforms for years, ignoring international pressure and the pleas of two Palestinian prime ministers.
But the beleaguered Palestinian leader may not be able to turn down the Egyptians, perhaps the last buffer between him and Israeli-imposed exile.
Egyptian officials have told Arafat that by the deadline, they expect a written plan for melding 12 security services into three, with new commanders. Egypt has said it will supervise the reforms and send more than 150 military advisers to Gaza to train Palestinian officers.
Arafat fears the Palestinian security services will take their cues from the Egyptians, rather than from him, a Palestinian legislator and an official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He is also concerned the Palestinian Authority would come under unprecedented international scrutiny in Gaza, and that any failure to measure up would be seized on by Israel as an excuse to delay Israeli pullbacks in the West Bank.
Egypt has both threatened and cajoled Arafat to get him to cooperate.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman warned Arafat that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan is the only one on the table. He hinted that if the Palestinian leader doesn’t play along, Egypt will no longer intercede on his behalf with Israel.
Egypt also promised to coax Israel to lift its two-year siege on Arafat’s headquarters and allow him free movement in the Palestinian territories.
Suleiman told Sharon last week the Egyptians are not happy with Arafat, but that it is impossible to carry out the Gaza plan without his endorsement, an Israeli diplomatic official said.
For now, Arafat hopes the wrangling will buy him time.
Opposed by Cabinet hard-liners, Sharon has yet to get the Gaza plan approved, though he expressed confidence it would pass a planned Cabinet vote Sunday.
Arafat adviser Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said this week that “we are ready to deal with the Egyptian initiative immediately, but the problem is that there is stalling on the Israeli side.”
Egypt’s role in a Gaza withdrawal goes far beyond that of messenger between Sharon and the Palestinians. Egypt, which ruled Gaza until the 1967 Middle East war, has agreed to guarantee security there after the Israelis leave, which, according to Sharon’s plan, would be by the end of 2005.
Under the Egyptian proposal, Israel would promise to halt all military strikes, including raids and targeted killings, once the Egyptian advisers get to Gaza. Egypt, in turn, would guarantee that Palestinians halt attacks on Israelis from Gaza, according to officials close to the negotiations.
Suleiman, who has logged many hours trying to negotiate a cease-fire deal with Palestinian militants, feels confident he can deliver. The militants, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have told him they would observe a truce if Israel leaves all of Gaza.
Egypt would also guarantee that no weapons flow into Gaza by deploying forces along its border with the coastal strip and providing security for a Palestinian airport, at least initially.
The high-profile role is a marked change for Egypt, which in the past wanted little to do with Gaza. Fear of a takeover there by the Islamic militant group Hamas prodded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s secular government into action. “An Islamic regime on Egypt’s border is very risky for Egypt,” said Egyptian analyst Emad Gad.
Sharon has not committed to the entire package but is clearly interested. He publicly thanked Mubarak, and said Egyptian involvement is important.
Still, Egypt’s role is being watched with concern.
Suleiman “is becoming the effective ruler of the Palestinian Authority,” said Likud legislator Yuval Steinitz, an opponent of withdrawal and chairman of parliament’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee. “Egypt is taking over the Gaza Strip.”