Ariel Sharon's most powerful weapon: George W. Bush

How did a Texas oilman end up being a fervent supporter of the hard-line Israeli prime minister?

By Aluf Benn

Published March 8, 2002 8:22PM (EST)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a very powerful weapon in his war against the Palestinians: George W. Bush. In recent months, the White House has surprised many observers by giving Sharon almost unlimited approval to use whatever military force he deems necessary against the Palestinian intifada. Bush has defended Israeli military actions as rightful acts of self-defense against terrorism -- even accepting practices previous administrations had condemned, such as targeted assassinations. Instead, he has put the blame for the current situation entirely on the Palestinians.

Nor has Bush tried to restart the peace process. Unlike the Clinton administration, which invested a huge amount of personal and political energy in promoting Arab-Israeli peace, he has taken a hands-off approach. He has offered no initiatives of his own and has remained lukewarm to the latest initiative, a Saudi proposal offering Arab peace in exchange for Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited the White House Tuesday and pleaded for deeper American intervention in resolving the conflict, Bush remained adamant that the onus was on the Palestinians. Achieving peace, said the president, "is only possible if there is a maximum effort to end violence throughout the region, starting with the Palestinian efforts to stop attacks against Israelis."

Under intense pressure to do something, with violence at unprecedented levels, Bush announced Thursday that he was sending his peace mediator, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, back to the region, and endorsed the Saudi plan. But, as usual, Bush explicitly criticized Yasser Arafat and refrained from criticizing Sharon.

Bush's remarks stood in sharp contrast to those of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who on Wednesday -- in a rare departure from the administration's line -- blasted Sharon's policies during congressional testimony. Responding to a blunt briefing given earlier this week by the prime minister, who said that success depended upon the Palestinians being "hit hard, with many casualties," Powell said, "Prime Minister Sharon has to take a hard look at his policies to see whether they will work. If you declare war against the Palestinians thinking that you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed, I don't think that leads us anywhere." Powell criticized Arafat as well, but the thrust of his remarks was clearly aimed at Sharon. State Department officials preceded his public words with private messages to Israel asking, "Where do you think you're going?"

Back at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Powell's speech was all but dismissed. Sharon knows where the real power lies in Washington, and sees the State Department as a bunch of peaceniks and Arabists. He feels more at home with the hawks of the Pentagon and with Vice President Dick Cheney, who told Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer last month that for all he cares, Yasser Arafat could be hanged. Bush, however, has not given Sharon a completely free hand to wage war against his old adversary. In their last meeting on Feb. 7, he rejected the Israeli leader's proposal to replace Arafat with "more pragmatic" Palestinian leadership. As for Powell and the State Department, Sharon knows he can't completely ignore them, even though the pro-Israel hawks hold sway over policy. Powell's speech on Wednesday was a warning to Israel not to go too far in its military strategy against the Palestinians. Sharon's room to maneuver lies between the Bush and Powell positions.

That Bush has been, to this point, so staunchly pro-Israel is something of a surprise. When he won the election, many Israelis feared he would tilt toward the Arab side. The Bushes were seen as Texas oilmen, heavily involved with the Saudis. There were memories of the elder Bush, who held up $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to force Israel toward the peace process in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991. Israelis were concerned that the son would follow in the footsteps of his father.

There was one Israeli, though, who knew George W., and held a totally different view of him. Tzion Evroni, Israel's consul general in Houston, cabled Jerusalem an analysis of the new president's approach toward the Jewish state. In his cable, Evroni emphasized that Bush's fervent Christianity was the basis for his deep support for Israel. This was further corroborated by W.'s pastor, who met Israeli diplomats. Telling them that Bush was a man of deep integrity, "a straight shooter," the pastor advised the Israelis to put on the table whatever differences they might have with Bush.

Evroni, who has served in Houston since the mid-1990s, received a distinguished service award from the foreign ministry for his success in identifying the Texas governor's potential rise and forging close ties with his inner circle. In 1998, Bush made a rare foreign trip to Israel, during which Sharon took him on a helicopter tour above the West Bank, flying low over military bases and Israeli settlements. Sharon -- who, man-to-man, is a politician of rare charm -- used the opportunity to explain the country's security concerns to Bush and win him over.

The Bush policies, however, are more than a simple reflection of his religion and Holy Land pilgrimage. Jewish support is vital to Bush's reelection hopes. American Jews are traditionally Democratic voters and contributors, but they are strong in the key state of Florida, where George W. almost lost the whole election, and where his brother Jeb is facing an electoral contest this November. A minor swing in Jewish support could mean a great deal to the Bush brothers.

Finally, Bush's Middle East policies were heavily influenced by President Clinton's failure to achieve peace. The current intifada had already been raging for four months when Bush took office, with no end in sight. The lesson Bush took from this was to emphasize conflict management rather than conflict resolution. This approach fits the general tendency of the Bush administration to unilaterally promote American interests and not involve itself in other people's troubles. The theorist of the new line was Richard Haass, currently heading the policy planning staff at the State Department. Haass, a neoconservative, is known for his theory of "ripening" as the basis for peacemaking. In his book "Conflicts Unending," published over a decade ago, he argued that the United States should refrain from trying to resolve prolonged conflicts unless both sides -- whether because they are strong enough to compromise, or so weak they feel they have no choice -- are ready to do so. Only then is the conflict "ripe" for outside intervention. Indeed, untimely American intervention, in Haass' view, can make things worse. (The Bush administration's acceptance of this doctrine, and its bitter hostility to Clinton, were displayed last week when Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer spoke out of turn and blamed Clinton for the deteriorating Mideast situation.) Visiting the region last month, Haass told his hosts in Israel that ways should be found to "reinvent" the peace process, with less ambitious goals than in the past.

Not surprisingly, considering his views and the failure of the Camp David talks, Bush also has a deep distrust of and antipathy toward Arafat. The Palestinian leader was a most welcomed guest in the previous White House; Bush decided to shut the door. He has refused to meet the Palestinian leader, while hosting Sharon four times in Washington in the course of one year.

This attitude has only been strengthened since Sept. 11, when Bush identified Arab terrorism as America's greatest threat. Some analysts both in Israel and the U.S. thought that the terror attacks might lead the U.S. to take a more aggressive role in the peace process in an attempt to address one of the root causes of Muslim rage. That has not happened: Instead, Bush has accepted Sharon's argument that harsh military responses to Palestinian suicide bombings in Israeli cities or in the occupied territories are as justified as America's military response to the Sept. 11 attacks. He has also accepted Sharon's view that Israel should not negotiate with the Palestinians before a cease-fire.

Bush continues to support the Mitchell Commission report and its security preamble, the Tenet plan, as a blueprint for getting out of the mess. Both plans maintain that truce comes before diplomacy, although they also call for Israel to stop building settlements in the occupied territories. He has also pledged to veto any U.N. resolution aimed at sending international peacekeepers to the occupied territories, an idea firmly opposed by Israel, which fears that an international body would be biased against it.

Strategically, Bush cares about one thing only, "regional stability" -- i.e. a continuation of the status quo, with no wars that would impede the flow of oil or otherwise threaten American interests. He regards Israeli-Palestinian violence as a mere nuisance that needs to be held in check, but no more, and doesn't see it as potentially destabilizing or as having acute negative strategic consequences. Tired of playing the referee, Washington is satisfied now with setting the rules of the game, leaving the contenders to bloody each other.

Still, Bush, urged on by the Saudis, has made some gestures toward the Arab side in the conflict. He declared that a Palestinian state was official American policy. Secretary Powell laid out the administration's road map for peace in a November speech. Anthony Zinni was appointed as the administration's special envoy, sent to mediate the cease-fire. But Zinni's visit coincided with a burst of Palestinian suicide attacks, and he withdrew, blaming Arafat. Then came the Karine A affair, in early January, when the Israelis intercepted an arms-laden ship en route from Iran to Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The president felt deceived, and while the United Stated vowed to keep Arafat in power, the Palestinian leader's credibility sank. All these attempts have failed to achieve even 48 hours of cease-fire.

The State Department, traditionally more concerned with America's relations with its Arab allies, has tried to promote a more activist approach. At one point it proposed sending American monitors to the field. Israeli officials regard Aaron Miller, a veteran diplomat and the last holdover from the Clinton-era "peace team," as the source of diplomatic creativity in Washington. The Sharon circle sees Miller as an old-time "Peace Now" softie, who has not adapted yet to Washington and Jerusalem's new hard-line mentality. Daniel Kurtzer, the American ambassador in Tel Aviv, has the same image, and enjoys limited access to the prime minister. Sharon's main contacts with Washington are made through his own phone conversations with Powell, or via Sharon's personal friend, New York businessman Arie Genger, who acts as the go-between, bypassing formal diplomatic channels.

The internal power game in Washington has played into Sharon's hands. The hawks, whose stronghold is the Pentagon, hold a black-and-white view of the world: They see Israel in the right and Arafat in the wrong. Their ascendancy is reflected in Bush's axis-of-evil rhetoric. The top echelons of the Defense Department include some ardent supporters of Israel, like Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith, formerly a right-wing pro-Israel activist in Washington. In January, following the Karine A incident, they tried unsuccessfully to persuade Bush to cut ties with Arafat. In the White House, there is currently no strong voice opposing the Defense hawks. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice echoes the hawk line: She opposes deeper American intervention in the conflict and has no trust in Arafat.

The administration's main concern in the Middle East is not Israel and the Palestinians but Iraq. Sharon will keep White House support as long as he contains the violence and prevents a spillover to neighboring countries that might threaten regional stability and thus harm American interests. But the Iraq and Palestine issues are linked. America's Arab allies have been telling Bush that Sharon, and not Saddam, is the biggest threat to the region -- arguing that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they blame on Sharon's intransigence, feeds radical discontent in their countries and thus poses a threat from below to their Washington-friendly regimes.

Sharon's biggest nightmare is a possible deal between Saudi Arabia and Washington, in which the Arabs would not oppose the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, in return for a renewed Arab-Israeli peace process backed by Washington. This is the background of the Saudi peace initiative, the most talked-about development in Mideast diplomacy, which calls for a full normalization between the Arab states and Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and Palestinian independence.

An Israeli source with good ties in Washington says that the president's father, former President George H.W. Bush, pushed the Saudis to come out with their peace initiative as a means to improve ties "between the families" of rulers in Washington and Riyadh. The Saudi royals needed to do something to defuse American pressure on them to reform their conservative and corrupt regime. But Bush junior has not jumped at the opportunity. He endorsed the Saudi initiative only after clearing it with Sharon, and after getting Saudi agreement that the Mitchell and Tenet plans must precede any grand vision of peacemaking.

But Sharon cannot rest assured that American and Saudi interests will not eventually merge at Israel's expense. Tensions between Israel and the U.S. flared briefly but bitterly last October, on the eve of the Afghanistan war. Angered by American pressure on Israel, which was part of an attempt to sign up Arab partners for the anti-terror war, Sharon accused America of "appeasing" the Arabs and of offering up Israel the way the European powers sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The speech angered Bush, but Sharon apologized and the president let it pass. When the Afghan campaign moved ahead without Arab support, as the Pentagon had wanted it to, Sharon was relieved. But the possibility of renewed peace talks, with American backing, still haunts him. Such talks, by exposing the fault lines in Israeli politics, would likely split Sharon's shaky coalition and lead to the victory of the even more hard-line former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to wall off the Palestinians.

The next stage in American Mideast diplomacy is the Cheney trip, beginning Sunday. The vice president's itinerary includes eight Arab states, Turkey and Israel. His discussion points will include Iraq and the Saudi initiative. Jerusalem is on the trip's final leg, and Israeli leaders are eager to hear Cheney's conclusions on both issues. The vice president will not meet with Arafat or a representative of the Palestinian Authority.

Sharon has taken America's Iraq policy into his policy considerations. His aim was apparently to try to keep the conflict relatively low-key until American bombers hit Baghdad. By doing so, he would achieve two goals: He would assist the U.S. effort by avoiding further escalation, and give himself future strategic opportunities -- either to smash the Palestinians when the world's attention was fixed on Iraq, or to enjoy the better balance of power in a region without Saddam.

But the schedule was hastened by the Saudi initiative, which moved the focus from Iraq back to the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Moreover, the Palestinians succeeded in killing Israeli soldiers, and the situation escalated further last weekend, with Israeli forces operating in West Bank refugee camps, and 21 Israelis killed in the course of 24 hours. Sharon vowed to retaliate with severe military measures. However, he never lost sight of Washington: He told his Cabinet last Sunday that the operation would last only two weeks, thus concluding before Cheney arrives.

The U.S. is not the only constraint on Sharon. The right-wing prime minister needs to keep the Labor Party in his "national unity" coalition, and therefore has to restrain military actions and leave a crack for negotiations. Sharon's recent escalation moved his Labor partners, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer, closer than ever to leaving the government. Peres told an "inner Cabinet" session: "Had I imagined the way things are, I wouldn't have joined the coalition." To this he added harsh criticism of Sharon's policies of using only force to achieve quiet. The prime minister got the message, and backed off from his plan to redeploy Israeli tanks around Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. On Wednesday, he invited Peres for a meeting and allowed him to call Arafat and discuss a cease-fire. A few hours before, Peres had told his confidants that he would remain in the Cabinet "as long as there is a chance for negotiations." Meanwhile, Ben-Eliezer worked hard to postpone a meeting of the Labor parliamentary caucus, meant to discuss leaving the coalition. The prevailing view in Israel is that Labor will eventually leave, but not yet.

The Israeli left is still disrupted from the peace process failure at Camp David, and has no clear agenda or leadership. The American "hands off" approach to the conflict has frustrated the left, which for many years has wished for an American intervention that would "save Israel from itself" by ending its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Yossi Sarid, the head of the Israeli opposition, reacted to the Powell speech by putting the responsibility for the recent escalation on Washington's hands: "Good morning, Colin Powell, suddenly you realized that Sharon's policy, with your encouragement, hurts both sides badly. If you only wanted, you could have stabilized the situation long ago."

Former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin of the Labor Party, Sarid's partner in the "peace coalition," lost his faith in American intervention long ago. And Peres, the elder statesman of the left, believes that the administration sees no basis for success, and is therefore refraining from repeating Clinton's mistakes. But Peres hopes that following Cheney's report on his Middle East trip, Washington will reassess the regional situation and might rethink its policy.

Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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George W. Bush Middle East