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Everyone’s on Board for Gaza Plan, but Who is Able to Secure the Region?

The Egyptians are on board, the Jordanians are ready, Israel’s fractious government has gotten its act together, and the “Quartet” has signed on. For all concerned, it should be full speed ahead for a Palestinian takeover of the Gaza Strip. For all concerned, that is, except the Palestinians.

According to just about everybody involved but the Palestinians themselves, the Palestinian Authority is not ready to assume control once Israel leaves.

Silvan Shalom, Israel’s foreign minister, is meeting this week and next with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, to discuss the specifics of Egyptian plans to secure Gaza once Israel leaves.

Shalom’s is the first such visit since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon managed to plow approval of his Gaza withdrawal plan through his Cabinet early last month, effectively negating the setback in May when his Likud Party rejecte! d the plan.

Bush also has scored successes securing support for the plan — most notably, persuading the European Union to specifically mention Egyptian proposals in the joint June 26 U.S.-E.U. endorsement of the Gaza plan last week. This nudged the Europeans away from their prior support for P.A. President Yasser Arafat.

That’s because Arafat stands to lose from the Egyptian plan, which consolidates a myriad of security forces under one command, clearing the way for second-tier Palestinian leaders — a cadre that Israel and the United States believe shows promise for accommodation — to assume security control.

Two days prior to the E.U.-U.S. statement, William Burns, the top State Department envoy to the region, extracted similar support from the Quartet, the body driving the “road map” peace process, which brings together the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Around the same time, Jordanian King Abdullah II also signed o! n to the plan, key to replicating in the West Bank the commitment by E gypt to train Palestinians to enforce security in Gaza.

The problem is, despite such diplomatic and political victories, Arafat, considered by Israel and the United States as a pariah beyond repair, still exerts ironclad control over the Palestinian security services.

Egypt has given the Palestinians until summer’s end to get their act together, and Arafat has named a coordinator to get the job done, but Arab diplomats say they are not optimistic.

Neither is the United States.

“We have confidence in various members, individual members of the Palestinian Authority,” Richard Armitage, the U.S. undersecretary of state, told Hugh Hewitt this week on Hewitt’s syndicated radio show.

“But at the end of the day, come back to the question of how much authority that they’re granted by Mr. Arafat, and if he’s not going to let go, if he’s not going to let the Palestinian Authority take the responsibility for everything from security to economics, then, as a body, ! you can’t put much confidence in them.”

U.S. officials in recent months have shed their reluctance to deal with senior P.A. officials — a reluctance borne of the group’s failure last year to crack down on terrorism. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei has met Powell and Rice. and last week Powell met with Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator.

That led the Palestinians to hope that a page had been turned and that the Americans were ready to nudge Sharon into accepting them back at the negotiating table. But Erekat found that although Powell was ready to listen, the Americans were not ready to restore full negotiating status to the Palestinian Authority.

Powell rebuffed Erekat’s proposal for elections within six months and instead told him that the Palestinians first must clamp down on terrorists.

Erekat was visibly frustrated.

“We have been exerting every possible effort as the Palestinian Authority” to prevent suicide bomb attacks, he said at a news confer! ence in Washington on June 24.

Privately, Palestinian officials s ay elections are key to sidelining Arafat. His reputation as the father of the movement will keep him as president, they say, but Palestinian frustration with corruption and with the destruction wrought by the intifada will get opponents and dissenters into the legislature.

There, they say, they will be poised to denude Arafat of his powers.

For now, Americans and Israelis are doubtful.

“What you hear in meetings isn’t matched by what you see on the ground,” said one U.S. official who asked not to be identified.

It doesn’t help that Erekat, Qurei and others speak of bringing terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad on board to help run the Palestinian-populated areas after the withdrawal.

That brings Israel and the United States back to planning for a Gaza withdrawal by next year without a viable entity in place to assume control there. It’s a question made especially urgent by the killings this week in the Israeli town of Sderot, where a toddler and a ! man were struck dead in rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip.

Shalom is likely to talk up a greater Egyptian and Jordanian security presence to take the place of Israeli forces, but the Egyptians and the Jordanians have made it clear that that is out of the question.

The Palestinians, not surprisingly, agree.

“There will be Egyptian soldiers, there will be no Jordanian soldiers,” Erekat said at the news conference. “Their role will be restricted to training and re-equipping.”

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