Last Wednesday, members of the Israeli cabinet were flown to the Negev desert in southern Israel to attend an army training drill. Under the blazing sun of late summer, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his ministers and the country's top brass watched the ground forces "occupy" a mock Palestinian village and saw a bulldozer razing one of the "homes." Sharon used the stage to talk about the coming American attack on Iraq. "The clouds of war are darkening in our region, and I hope they will not reach us," he told the TV cameras, "but this should be known: If Israel is attacked, it will defend its citizens."
With this carefully worded statement, Sharon broke a self-imposed silence on the Iraq issue. Only days before, he had acquiesced to an American demand and ordered his fellow cabinet members to avoid discussing it. The timing of his warning was significant. On Wednesday, the Israeli leader will meet with President George W. Bush for the seventh time. One of Sharon's aides described it as a "critical" meeting: Sharon's leadership will be put to the test as the Middle East prepares for an earthquake that is likely to change its strategic landscape, perhaps for decades to come. Both Sharon and Bush want to use the meeting to clarify the rules of behavior, at least until the war is over, and to start discussing the realities of "the day after."
Two issues, Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will dominate the White House encounter. The American attitude on Iraq is clear and simple: Bush wants Israel to stay completely away from his campaign. Any overt Israeli dimension to the war will weaken America's shaky alliances throughout the Arab world and stir up more Muslim rage against the United States. Israel has been asked to lower its profile to prevent any impression that the U.S. is going to wage war against an Arab state on Israel's behalf.
At the same time, and for the same reasons, Washington needs Israel to restrain itself on the Palestinian front, both before and during the likely war. In recent weeks, the administration's attitude toward Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza has visibly hardened. While not offering a friendly hand to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the U.S. called off the Israeli siege of his Ramallah headquarters and has publicly criticized the Israeli military operations in Gaza that killed innocent Palestinian civilians. Moreover, the White House called on Israel to transfer frozen tax funds to the Palestinian Authority and sent angry messages to Jerusalem, blaming Israel for not keeping its promise to ease the humanitarian conditions of the Palestinian population in the territories. Moreover, the Americans asked Sharon to withdraw from one or two of the reoccupied West Bank cities. Those measures are aimed at convincing Europe and the Arab world that Washington is capable of more even-handed dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For all their evident closeness, Sharon and Bush are quite suspicious of each other. Yet paradoxically, it is precisely the areas where they distrust each other that draw them even closer and increase their need for constant consultation. For his part, Sharon fears that the administration will change course one day and push Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza forever, along with his beloved life's work, the settlements. So far, Bush has avoided any confrontation with Sharon. By and large, he has accepted the Israeli's view that Arafat must go before a peace deal can be struck. But Bush's position could change: Once he's done with Saddam, he could turn on Sharon, just as his father turned on Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1991. Having served in Shamir's cabinet, Sharon learned the lesson firsthand.
The blueprint for a renewed peace process already exists. The Bush plan, laid out in his June 24 speech, called for Arafat's replacement. But it also calls for the creation of a Palestinian state beside Israel by 2005, at first within temporary borders and then with final ones. More recently, the international "Quartet" (the U.S., the E.U., the U.N. and Russia) issued a more detailed version and ordered its Middle East case officers to prepare a "road map" for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Two American officials are working on it, David Sutterfield of the State Department and the National Security Council's Flynt Leverett. After the Sharon visit, both will join Assistant Secretary of State William Burns for an extensive Middle East trip to discuss the developing draft.
So far, all those efforts have been put on the back burner: The White House continues to be reluctant to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian mess. But Sharon can't relax. He knows that the American and European positions are closer than before. Like their American counterparts, senior E.U. officials have called on Arafat to step aside and allow political reforms. The next day, America and the Europeans might present the bill to the Israeli side.
Sharon objects to deadlines and timetables. He wants to base the political process on strict "performance benchmarks." Since the first steps in any plan call on the Palestinian side to improve security and undergo a thorough political reform, and since the Palestinians are very far from fulfilling Sharon's -- or the United States' - demands, there is only a slim chance that Israel will be asked to pay its dues, by withdrawing from Palestinian territories to pre-intifada positions and freezing settlements. The Bush plan avoided the problem by mixing both tentative deadlines and performance demands. But the new "road map" drafts, as reported to Israeli sources, include firmer deadlines and commitments from both sides.
Sharon's main goal is to extract promises of maximum "coordination" from Bush in order to avoid unpleasant surprises after the war. To achieve his goal, Sharon is playing on Washington's hopes and fears, offering both carrots and sticks. As a carrot, Israel announced its intention to withdraw its troops from the West Bank city of Hebron. More important, the prime minister and his aides have leaked vague stories about secret talks they have held with senior Palestinian leaders, at the tier right below Arafat. They hint that once Arafat is gone, and Sharon reelected, the peace process will move into higher gear. Their Palestinian interlocutors, according to these stories, are openly criticizing Arafat, hoping for his early retirement, and planning for the day after. As for longer-term goals, Sharon has proposed a modified version of Bush's plan with a longer timetable.
Along with a carrot -- hinting at future flexibility, repeating his "future painful concessions" mantra -- Sharon is also wielding a stick. A seasoned master of power politics, Sharon is playing on Bush's fears that Israel will get involved in the Iraqi war and is using that fear to extract concessions from the president. The administration could not afford to ignore Sharon's repeated warning to "use Israel's right to self-defense" if attacked by Iraq, considering his record. In 1991 the U.S. prevented Israel from retaliating for Iraqi missile attacks, but both sides were taken by surprise and the policy was shaped on the fly. This time around, the Americans were prepared. They tried to defuse the problem by promising Israel that the U.S. would make it a high priority to deploy troops and resources to prevent missile launches from western Iraq. An American military team visited Israel earlier this month to devise operational coordinating procedures. The same "stay out" message was given to a high-level Israeli defense team that came to Washington.
One sensitive point remains unresolved: how the two sides will react if Iraq uses a chemical or biological weapon against Israel. Senior Israeli officials expect some kind of "nonconventional umbrella" from Bush, but said that in the worst-case scenario "we have the means to respond." In any case, they promise to coordinate the Israeli plan with American forces, to avoid friendly-fire casualties.
Sharon knows he must stay out of Iraq. His problem lies closer to home, on the Palestinian front. Knowing all too well that the Americans want him to stay calm there as well, Sharon has been warning that the Palestinians or the Lebanese Hezbollah might seize the opportunity of an Iraq war to launch a new wave of suicide attacks, or even a "mega-terror" provocation: If Israel's hands are tied by Washington, they would fear no retaliation. Responding to American concerns, Israel has grudgingly allowed construction to proceed on a Lebanese water facility across the border, built to pump water from one of the Jordan River tributaries. The U.S. has begun a mediation effort and apparently persuaded the Lebanese to limit the pumping.
As if to justify Sharon's warnings, Palestinians launched a new wave of terror attacks. Last week, a suicide bomber exploded on a bus, but the driver caught him and only one passenger was killed. The next day, on Friday night, another bomber was intercepted on the Tel Aviv beach promenade, near the back gate of the American Embassy (and about 150 yards from this reporter's home). The cafe's security guard, a new immigrant from Turkmenistan, caught the bomber with help from the embassy guards.
Before he travels abroad, Sharon dispatches his intelligence chiefs to brief their counterparts and supply incriminating information against Arafat's Palestinian Authority. This time, Security Service (Shabak) chief Avi Dichter came to Washington and met National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and senior intelligence officials. He spoke harshly against the P.A., blaming it for letting the Islamic terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad dictate its future with their attacks. Sharon warned the administration that if the terror attacks continue, Israel would begin a massive reoccupation offensive in Gaza, just as it did in the West Bank. The Israeli propaganda machine released documents and other evidence purporting to show Iraqi involvement in Palestinian affairs, trying to tie Saddam to Arafat (just as Bush has tried to link Iraq with al-Qaida).
At the meeting with Bush, Sharon will likely try to get a free hand to counter any "provocation" or massive terror campaign. But negotiating is expected to be tough. Some officials in Washington suspect that Sharon merely wants to use the Iraq war to deliver a coup de grâce to the Palestinian Authority when the world's attention is focused elsewhere. By so doing, he would give Israel a stronger bargaining position on "the day after": He would be freed from dealing with Arafat and his "murderous gang," as Sharon calls the current Palestinian leadership. But such a move would incite even more Arab rage against the U.S.
As for Bush's possible reaction, there are two schools of thought in Israel. One holds that Bush needs Jewish support for his coming reelection campaign and will not risk it by alienating Israel. Bush knows that his father moved against Shamir and, while initiating the peace process, lost the election. In this view, the most important figure in Washington is Bush political advisor Karl Rove, and Sharon's visit, just before the midterm elections, is perfectly timed to extract concessions for Israel from the U.S.
The competing view sees the administration's larger foreign-policy agenda as trumping its worries about the Jewish vote. Its advocates argue that whatever happens in Iraq, the U.S. will have to tilt toward its Arab allies, both to reward cooperation and to ward off anti-American feelings. Therefore, Bush the younger will have no choice but to head straight to Jerusalem after conquering Baghdad.
The answer to the Bush riddle will be known only in the coming months, his promises to Sharon notwithstanding. Much depends on developments on the ground and the relevant players' behavior. Bush is also likely to take note of the November Jewish vote in critical states like Florida. If there is no massive Jewish defection to the Republican ticket, Bush might reconsider his belief that an alliance with Sharon will win him votes in 2004. That would be bad news for Sharon: The last thing he wants to hear is "Like father, like son."