CIA's New Mideast Role: Referee

Key security issues, which could make or break Friday's peace deal, fall to spy agency.

From its struggle to contain Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to its status as the world's preeminent power, the United States has enormous interests riding on the new interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

The US stakes are reflected in the long hours President Clinton himself spent hammering out the deal and, now, in his aggressive lobbying for its acceptance via speeches at home and telephone calls to leaders around the world.

But perhaps nothing underscores the importance to Washington of reaching a final peace accord than does the pivotal role it has assigned in the interim agreement to a government entity that shuns the limelight: the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA's high-profile involvement marks the deepest investment yet by the Clinton administration in its efforts to break down the most intractable barrier to overall Middle East peace. While it could help to redouble the fight against both Israeli and Palestinian extremists, it could also expose Americans to greater threats of terrorism.

"Our people may discover that the enemies of the Palestinian cause are not just the Israelis, but Americans, too," warns Sheikh Ismail Abu Shenab, a senior official in Hamas, the Palestinian group whose anti-Israel attacks helped stall the peace process for 18 months.

Under the deal reached Friday at Maryland's Wye River Conference Center, the CIA is to referee compliance by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who has pledged to arrest and punish Hamas members and other Palestinian radicals bent on wrecking the peace process. The CIA will also sit down with Israeli and Palestinian security officials every two weeks to share intelligence and identify terrorist threats.

Mr. Arafat's increased cooperation in cracking down on perpetrators of anti-Israel attacks was a reason Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assented to withdraw Israeli troops from 13 percent more of the West Bank.

On its face, the CIA's role seems almost bizarre, given its decades-long cooperation with Israel's secret services in ensuring the security of the Jewish state. For many Arabs, the CIA represents the darkest side of Washington's pro-Israel policies, a shadowy hand blamed not only for exacerbating Palestinians' plight, but also for fueling divisions in the Arab world.

Yet in recent years, the CIA has worked closely with Arafat's security services, striving to foster their cooperation in helping Israel run down Palestinian radicals. It has also been training Palestinians at a secret US facility, an effort to take recruits who know little of accountable government - and who have been infused with the idea of destroying Israel - and mold them into a professional security service for the Palestinian Authority.

CIA Director George Tenet, who helped hammer out Friday's deal, has directed these efforts. Since 1996, he has traveled to the region several times to try to resolve security disputes.

As a result, experts say, Israeli, Palestinian, and American security services have established strong working relationships - even as their negotiators have feuded and postured over 18 months of stalemate in the 1993 Oslo peace process.

"The truth of the matter is that the two sides can trust the CIA more than they trust each other - and trust the CIA more than they do other parts of the US government," says Robert Gates, a former CIA director. "These guys are going to be around after the [US presidential elections in] the year 2000. Both sides can count on having continuity in this thing."

Mr. Gates contends that over past decades the CIA has gained experience overseeing implementation of political accords. "There are ample precedents for CIA's involvement," he says, citing CIA verification of US-Soviet arms-control pacts and his own effort in May 1990 to ease tensions between India and Pakistan. Yet he acknowledges that the CIA's role in the new Israeli-Palestinian deal "carries more political risks for them in terms of being the meat in the sandwich between these two parties."

Many experts worry the CIA's involvement could encourage new acts of violence by Hamas and other radical groups, especially against Americans, whom they have not previously targeted. To them, Arafat's cooperation with the CIA reconfirms their view that his acceptance of the Oslo peace accords represents a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

Hamas leaders are already blaming recent deaths and arrests of activists on the CIA's cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and Israeli security services. "America has a big role in these incidents," charges Sheikh Abd el Khalef el Natsche, the Hamas spokesman in the West Bank town of Hebron.

The CIA's role also has doubters inside the US. They say the agency should focus on collecting intelligence and ending threats to US security, not policing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. "What is the role of the CIA? Is it to be an arbitrator? Is it to be bodyguards? I think not," Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama said on "Fox News Sunday."

Supporters counter that CIA involvement represents an evolution in the mission of an agency that has been struggling to find its footing since the end of the US-Soviet rivalry. "The role of US intelligence is evolving," says Gates. "It can't stay where it was."

* Ilene R. Prusher in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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