Did Sharon's U.S. visit change anything?

The Israeli prime minister cut short his stay after another suicide bombing. Christopher Hitchens, Malcolm Hoenlein and other experts debate whether his trip made a difference.

By Anthony York - Michelle Goldberg
May 9, 2002 4:33AM (UTC)
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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flew home late Tuesday, cutting short his U.S. visit after yet another Palestinian suicide bombing -- this time in Rishon Letzion, south of Tel Aviv -- that killed at least 16 and injured 60. The move provided a perfect microcosm of Sharon's controversial approach to peacemaking: While his boosters applauded the decision to back-burner peace talks in response to terror, his critics derided it, noting that peacemaking is never more crucial than at a time of bloody fighting.

Clearly Sharon's U.S. visit produced no breakthrough to the Middle East stalemate. As of late Tuesday, he had not succeeded in convincing the Bush administration to leave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat out of peace talks, nor had the administration managed to convince Sharon he must bargain with Arafat. Bush, who reaffirmed his support for an independent Palestinian state, could not even get Sharon to go that far. "I think it's premature to discuss" that issue until Arafat reforms his government, Sharon told the Associated Press.


If there was any news in the visit at all, it was that Bush, by all accounts, did not back down on the message that Sharon must deal with Arafat. Administration forces have been sending mixed signals to Sharon for at least a month -- every time Secretary of State Colin Powell tries to pressure the Israeli prime minister, administration hawks seem to undermine his tough stance -- but Bush appeared to stick to the script administration sources described to reporters before the meeting. Bush also said he would send CIA Director George Tenet, author of an earlier cease-fire proposal, back to the region to help build a Palestinian security force to fight terrorism.

In a hastily called, high-security press conference before he left for Israel, Sharon seemed to hint at plans for military retaliation in response to the Rishon Letzion bombing, but said he had not shared his plans with Bush. "Israel is an independent counry and we must exercise our right of self-defense," he told reporters. "Israel will not surrender to blackmail....Israel will triumph."

Next moves for the Bush administration remain unclear. Will the administration push Sharon to accelerate the peace process? Will the U.S. decide that Arafat isn't a genuine partner for peace? How will the peace proposal Sharon brought to the U.S. play? Salon asked experts to assess whether the Israeli prime minister's visit made any difference in the Middle East mess.


Christopher Hitchens, Nation columnist and Salon contributor:

Has anything changed since the last time Sharon met with Bush? Is Sharon's hand stronger or weaker?

The administration is obviously very split on how to deal with Sharon, as it is on the related question of Iraq. Obviously there's a short term gain to be had in saying that Israel is our friend, that it's under attack and should be able to defend itself as it sees fit. That translates as a free hand for Sharon, and it includes thing like the U.S. dropping the demand for a U.N. inquiry in Jenin. That's fine for now. It's easy to explain on a chat show and the president probably understands it when it's put to him.


I think he also understands that it's risky. How long do they expect Israelis to be able to dominate the Palestinians in an area dominated by millions and millions of Muslims? The people who are quickest to see that are the oil community. They don't need Prince Abdullah coming here -- they have enough Gulf friends already to know that the Arab world will never accept a greater Israel. The Arabs probably would, with bad grace, accept a '67-borders-size Jewish homeland, but they will never accept a Greater Israel and there's no way they can be made to. So the question becomes "Can we do Iraq if we're seen to be partners of Sharon?" Just as a practical matter, to say yes would be very rash.

Is Sharon offering anything new in his peace plan?


It's the same [as what he's been advocating all along]. The time which he's gaining is being used to create on the ground a situation where the occupation cannot be undone. It may possibly be it's already happened that there are so many towns, villages, settlements, roads and people [in the occupied territories] where it's beyond the power of the Israeli electorate to alter it. That's what Sharon's always wanted.

It has nothing to do with Jewish security. If Jewish security was your main concern, you would not want to put a small handful of Jews in the middle of the Gaza Strip. The only reason for doing that is colonization.

Do you think Sharon wants a two-state solution?


Of course he doesn't. When he says he's for a Palestinian state, he's in part lying, because what he means by that is the rebaptism of Jordan as a Palestinian state. The implication is that the Arabs of the West Bank would be not very politely invited to go move there. I don't think what he's doing makes any sense unless that's the endgame -- to kick the Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan or to make their lives so unlivable that they have to leave. He's invited into his Cabinet several people who openly advocate ethnic cleansing and I don't think the U.S. government has said one word, though it's forever denouncing extremism.

If you're not going to give them a state and you agree that the status quo is unlivable, that leaves one other option -- expulsion. I think we're getting nearer to it. Congress and the president should ask Sharon for an advance guarantee in unambiguous words that that will never happen. Why don't they ask it? Why doesn't the New York Times or the Washington Post demand it?

Is this issue even on the table? Is there any chance that Bush is going to call Sharon on it?


When have you ever seen an editorial that says what security guarantees the Palestinians would need to protect themselves from someone like Sharon? It's like Sharon being told he won't be invited to Washington until he renounces terror. It will never happen. The day he's asked by the United States to renounce terrorism will never come. It isn't in our idiom.

Sharon has been meeting with lots of American Jewish leaders. Do you think they understand his endgame?

I don't know. I hope not. The sad fact is that American Jews who could have been a civilizing force have been supporters of more obdurate forces in Israel. Until recently, many more Israelis than American Jews were pro-Palestinian. I remember thinking things were really changing when Rabin came to America and told the America Israel Public Affairs Committee to get lost, saying Israel wanted to be an independent state and didn't want to find that its rejectionists were being funded by America.

Does the Bush administration have a coherent plan, or it just improvising?


It's very clear that it's the latter. We know one thing about this White House -- it's the most disciplined White House there's ever been. They're fantastically good at staying on message and sticking to the line of the day. So for Bush to send Powell off to the Middle East and then torpedo him before he got there by saying Sharon was a man of peace and there wasn't anything to negotiate, that's incredible considering the way they all hung together in Afghanistan. Powell was made to look foolish in public. There's a big divide between State and Defense, and it's impossible to tell which side Bush is on. I think his instincts are all pro-Israeli. He thinks of Israel as an extension of the U.S., which of course in some ways it is. The only Arabs he's interested in talking to or knows anything about are oil Arabs, patrons of people like himself and Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney. The Palestinians don't count at all. They're an inconvenient population. Bush regards them basically as a nuisance.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations:

What's changed since Sharon's last White House visit?

Well, I think that the deaths of a couple hundred Israelis at the hands of terrorists, the recognition of what Israel was up against, the need to demand radical change in the Palestinian Authority and on the part of Arafat, if he's to play any role at all. And I think the recognition that Israel and the United States are engaged in the same battle against global terrorism.


How much of the verbal pressure from the U.S. to bring Sharon to the negotiating table is real? How much for show? Is it having any real impact?

I don't think the U.S. is pressuring. I think they're in agreement with Sharon that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have to set up a government that will be transparent, that before funds or security cooperation can be renewed, there has to accountability, where the funds can't continue to be siphoned into terrorist activities. The role of Arafat is yet to be determined, but the whole infrastructure for terrorism has to be restructured, cleaned up, the old people out, and that will provide hope for the future, that there can be meaningful negotiations. There are some people within who are talking about reform, but not many. All of them were involved in the corruption, and change will require removing all of them.

Did the documents seized by the Israelis during the incursion, and shown to U.S. officials by Sharon this week, change anybody's mind in Washington?

I think they confirm that what Israel has been saying is true, and gives further evidence of Saudi Arabia's direct involvement in providing funding to the homicide bombers, encouragement and funds to other terrorist operations, including Hamas and Hezbollah. The documents aren't necessarily to make the case, the case was very clear. All that Israel found in those documents was how the Palestinians violated the Geneva Convention by placing civilians in harm's way, by putting bomb factories and military equipment in the heart of densely populated civilian areas. The documents just give greater credence and substance to the charges.


Is this now the beginning of new negotiations, with the Saudi proposal on one hand, and the Sharon proposal on the other?

I don't know that you can juxtapose them. I don't know that they're part of one continuum. These are ideas that have been put forward, but the Saudis have put forward an idea, not a proposal, not a plan. These are ideas that have yet to be defined -- the idea that there is a role in the region for pushing Arafat, for cajoling him, and holding him accountable instead of letting him escape and justifying the terrorism. But the Saudis have their own track record to clarify, both in terms of their support for terrorism in the region and also, as we know, in the terrorism that occurred here. The fact that Saudi money is funding many of the terrorist organizations, and the fact that many of the terrorists emerge from their own infrastructure -- religious, political, etc. -- these are all things that they have to address also. The idea that you have an idea that's been put forward by them is something that's on the table and should be pursued.

What do you make of the mixed messages from Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell this weekend?

There's always been differences of opinion in the administration. As is natural, people have different points of view. The thing that counts is what the president believes. I think that's what you heard today. The president believes very strongly that Arafat has to be held to account for his actions. I don't think he wants to impose anything on Israel. He understands what Israel is up against. He understands Israel's right to defend itself, and he has stated these things very clearly. So I think you have to look at what the president says, and not other people.

Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago:

Does Sharon's peace plan offer anything new?

As far as we know it's not a peace plan. It's inconceivable that it will lead to peace. Sharon has said that he intends to keep most of the West Bank and all the settlements in place. It's a plan for more occupation and further war. Only the American press would even use the words "peace plan" without putting it in quotes.

In front of the cameras, Bush basically said he wasn't going to tell Sharon what to do. Do you think he might have tried to rein him in, in private?

One's expectations are very low when an Israeli politician who can probably get more votes in Congress than the president is in town. It's depressing, but one sometimes wonders if the United States even has a foreign policy on this issue, or whether it's all about campaign contributions and the president's political base among other Republicans.

Did the resolutions passed in the House and Senate strengthen Sharon's hand?

One of the interesting things is that there were so many congressmen and senators who either expressed reservations, held their noses while voting for the resolutions or actually courageously voted against them. Usually they all happily jump into the abyss that's pointed out to them by the American Israel Public Affairs committee. There's a deep sense in Washington, even in the more benighted corners of Congress, that Sharon doesn't have a plan that leads toward peace. But they're afraid, even if they know better.

Of course, some do not know better. You have a House Majority Leader who openly talked about ethnic cleansing. [On MSNBC's "Hardball," Dick Armey said that Palestinians should be removed from the West Bank and Gaza]. It seems to be that should open him up to an investigation for war crimes. The number four official in the United States called for war crimes, and it hardly made the New York Times. So some clearly do not know better.

Lewis Roth, Americans for Peace Now:

How is this trip different than the last time Sharon visited?

Well, one of the major things that's changed on the ground has been the nearly complete dismantling of the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure and recognition by the international community that the harsh military measures that Israel has unleashed against Palestinian civilians and population centers in response to terrorist acts, in the long run is not going to bring security for Israel, or bring the Palestinians closer to their political goal of having a viable state.

How much of the verbal pressure from the U.S. to bring Sharon to the negotiating table is real? How much for show? Is it having any real impact?

My sense is that the verbal pressure being applied behind closed doors is even greater than what's been made public. It's very unlikely that Yasser Arafat would be walking around outside of his compound in Ramallah today if not for pressure from the United States and others for Israel to let up on the siege on that compound. I think the United States has also been deeply involved in trying to end the stand-off in Bethlehem, as well as try to bring about a general withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian population centers. Having said that, we must realize of course that the United States is doing this in the context of a longstanding friendship with Israel, and is staking out positions in Mideast diplomacy that it realizes are in Israel's own best interest even if the current government of Israel may not always agree with that assessment. You have Sharon visiting the White House this week knowing that when he returns to Israel he's going to face a Likud central committee meeting at which they are anticipated to approve a proposal that just flat-out denies the possibility of creating a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, which flies in direct contradiction with the position that Sharon has at least publicly espoused about creating some kind of Palestinian state at some point in the future. This is part of the gamesmanship that is taking place within Israeli politics between the Netanyahu wing and the Sharon wing of Likud.

At the same time, there's a new opportunity created on the Palestinian side in the wake of Israel's incursion. Many of the political voices inside and outside of the Palestinian Authority have raised objection to the way the Palestinian Authority is being run by Yasser Arafat. Last week, one of the Cabinet members of the Palestinian Authority resigned over the lack of movement toward reform. We've seen nongovernmental organizations raise their voices more strongly in the past few days calling for changes. Even in Fatah, Arafat's own political party, there's clamoring for change, both with the structure and many of the individuals involved in governance.

Is there consensus on what that reform should be?

I think it's clearly important from America's point of view that the reforms increase a level of democracy, transparency and rule of law in the territories. But that needs to be done as part of a process of moving towards a Palestinian state, not as a prerequisite necessarily.

At this stage, would more democracy within the Palestinian Authority help or hurt the peace cause?

That's an interesting question. It would depend on how it's structured and the level of confidence people have in the changes and the overall circumstances in which reforms are carried out. If you have democratic changes taking place at a time that the economy is continuing to deteriorate, people are radicalized by the lack of employment, lack of social services, that's clearly going to help more divisive elements in society make gains in the context of democratic elections. However, if Palestinians see that there are real changes taking place on the ground, that corruption is being cleaned up, that economic needs and social needs are being met, then it makes it easier for the secular nationalists, pro-democratic forces, to make a good showing.

What about the American political calculation? Is this at all risky for Bush to get involved in trying to broker a deal?

Well, the right-wing base of the Republican Party certainly has been very vocal on these issues. The Democratic Party has been equally expressive about its support for Israel. I don't know that this is an issue that people who serve as a base for the White House are going to fall on their sword for. Where are they going to go? Do they really care about this more than the president delivering on issues like the budget, the environment, education, tax policy, things of that nature? They may or may not, I think that's still an open question.

Does Sharon's proposal signal the beginning of a real negotiation, with the starting points being the Sharon proposal and the Saudi proposal?

I don't think the Sharon proposal and the Saudi proposal can be compared to each other. The Saudi plan is not a detailed blueprint for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's an umbrella plan that offers the Israelis a broader political horizon should peace break out between them and the Palestinians. What Sharon is attempting to craft is an extremely slow approach to ever having to deal with very contentious political issues which he knows are land mines for him politically in Israel, and things that he personally probably doesn't want to have to deal with at the negotiating table: Jerusalem, the right of return, settlements -- all of those things. What's missing between the go-slow approach and the final horizon is a more detailed road map for bringing the parties from where they are today to addressing a whole range of security, political and economic issues that will bring both security and a Palestinian state sooner rather than later, and that's something that the Bush administration needs to do on its own.

Clearly the Israeli government and the Palestinians aren't going to do this without some prodding. It will probably require some reformulated version of the Clinton proposal from December 2000, or taking a look at the broad outline of the peace plan that was created at the Taba negotiations in 2001 -- building on those ideas. I'm not necessarily saying you need a super summit to achieve those things. I think there needs to be serious diplomatic engagement by the two sides, on a multilateral or perhaps a bilateral basis, to think about the core issues of the conflict rather that postponing them to another day and allowing them to fester and get worse.

Do you see a coherent message coming from the Bush administration about how they want to go about solving this conflict?

Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee:

Is there anything new about Sharon's peace proposal?

What we know about the proposal is that it's mainly about fencing off parts of the West Bank and creating more and deeper mechanisms of Israeli control over the occupied territories. In the guise of a peace plan, Sharon's put forward a proposal to enhance and entrench the occupation. Calling that a peace plan is the most Orwellian thing imaginable.

Sharon lives in a fantasy world where he thinks he has crushed the Palestinian will to resist. He has smashed up the West Bank, isolated Israel, infuriated the Palestinians, alienated the Europeans, and he surveys the wreckage with evident pride and declares that peace is at hand.

Does Sharon have more or less leverage with the American administration than he did the last time he met Bush?

I think he has less leverage than before because I think he's seen by the Bush administration as someone who is A) not cooperative and B) is a problem. The last couple of times he was here, a lot of people in the Bush administration believed the principal problem was Arafat. Now there are people who see the principal problem as Arafat and Sharon. We've seen a change of heart in some of the media that's close to the government, including leading editorials in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

But don't the recent pro-Israel House and Senate resolutions strengthen Sharon's hand?

Congress is a different story. Congress is in the grip of a coalition of extremely influential special interest groups, especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Christian right, who are a massive voting block. There are also defense contractors, and this is missed by a lot of people, who make billions of dollars each year off of defense sales to Israel.

Don't you believe the White House is beholden to these same interests?

The executive branch, unlike Congress, is responsible for foreign policy. No senator or representative is going to have to take the blame for a completely incoherent foreign policy. Congress pretty much has a free hand to criticize without bearing the responsibility that might moderate their behavior. In that sense members of the House and Senate are free to be as irresponsible as they want to be. It's a reflection of the extent to which powerful moneyed interest groups can completely dominate Congress when there's no pressure coming from the other side. Certainly the Bush administration has never bitten the bullet and decided to spend the political capital necessary to challenge the pro-Israel lobby, but at a certain point you'd have to expect that our national interest would become an issue.

So do you think Bush is putting pressure on Sharon?

No. There's no evidence that the Bush administration is willing to spend the political capital. It's less likely that you'll see Bush pressuring Sharon to agree to U.N. Security Council resolutions and to reenter negations to end the occupation, and more likely that you'll see Sharon trying to pressure Bush to cut off all ties to the Palestinians.

Sharon is demanding reforms in the Palestinian Authority. Are there useful changes that Bush could push for?

There are a number of reforms that would be useful, including greater democracy and greater transparency. But you can't have a normal government and a normal relationship between the people and their government under the conditions of military occupation. The Palestinian Authority only makes sense as a political entity in terms of a transition to autonomy. If the Palestinian Authority becomes semi-permanent, then it becomes a Vichy regime, a government that rules in occupied territory in cooperation with the occupying power. The Palestinian Authority only makes sense as a transitional structure. To apply to the Palestinian Authority the standards and norms that you'd apply to a sovereign state entity about transparency and democracy without it being the representative government of a sovereign state is ridiculous.

Does the Bush White House have a coherent plan for dealing with the conflict?

I think they're improvising. In every administration since the end of the Cold War, it's become very clear that policy matters relating to Israel operate at two distinct and contradictory registers in American social life. First is the diplomatic register, our interests as a great power, where it becomes clear that we have a real national interest in resolving this conflict. It's playing havoc with our diplomacy in the Middle East. The second register, the higher register, is that political parties and elected officials all have to face the reality of very powerful, rich, well- organized special interests. What you get therefore is this sort of schizophrenia, where one weekend Bush will say Israel has to stop [the incursions into Palestinian territory] now, and the next weekend, with Israel continuing its offensive, he will say that Israel is meeting its obligation.

The tension between those two impulses has essentially prevented the Bush administration from arriving at a coherent and constructive policy that would genuinely bring the conflict to an end. That would mean pressuring Israel as much as pressuring the Palestinians. Even though in its rhetoric the White House acknowledges a need for an end to the occupation, an end to the settlements and the need for a viable Palestinian state, in terms of policy, because of political interests, we still give uncritical and unconditional support to Israel and its colonial occupation.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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