Bush's Mideast test

With his much vaunted peace plan dead in the water, will the president push Israeli leader Ariel Sharon to take baby steps on removing settlements when the two meet next week?

Published May 15, 2003 7:22PM (EDT)

Next Tuesday, President George W. Bush will face a crucial test of his Middle East policy when he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It will be their eighth meeting but their first since the American triumph in Iraq and Bush's declaration that he intended to take a much more active role in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which he has left on the back burner since he took office.

Bush invited Sharon to the White House to find out what steps the Israeli leader would be willing to take toward ending the bloody confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, which has now been going on for 31 months, and toward opening negotiations with the new Palestinian cabinet headed by Mahmoud Abbas (known as Abu Mazen). The president will encounter the famous "Sharon riddle": Will the old warrior compromise for the first time in his controversial career or cling to his familiar delaying tactics and refuse to give any ground? Which Sharon is now in power: the inflexible hard-liner who wants to keep building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, or the newly minted moderate who has recently vowed to do everything for peace?

Always ambiguous, Sharon has put out contradictory messages in recent weeks, deepening the usual mystery surrounding his positions. On April 13, he broke a long media silence and gave an interview to the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in which he pledged to use the strategic opportunity presented by the Iraq victory to promote Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. The true political bombshell, however, was his first-ever statement that some settlements would have to be removed for peace. "All our [Jewish] history is connected to these places -- Bethlehem, Shiloh, Beit El. And I know that we would have to bid farewell to some of them," he said. Coming from Sharon, the so-called Bulldozer who has passionately supported settlement building for decades, those words triggered an intense public debate in Israel. But a month later, on May 13, the old Sharon reappeared. In an interview with the right-wing, English-language daily Jerusalem Post, Sharon said that his previous statements were "misinterpreted" and that the areas he mentioned were not "candidates" for withdrawal.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met Sharon last Sunday, came out no less confused from a prolonged working lunch at the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem. Explaining his policy, Sharon told Powell: "Don't pressure us. We know what we will have to give  Wherever we can make concessions that will not harm Israel's security, I'm ready, even if it's painful." But when the secretary raised the contentious issue of ongoing settlement construction and rejected Israel's demand to allow "natural growth" of the settlements, the prime minister balked. "We can't force woman settlers to have abortions," he said, repeating an old talking point.

The settlement issue is perhaps the sorest point in the otherwise glowing relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. It has been for years; time and again, U.S. administrations have repeated their total objection to building Jewish homes in the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Nevertheless, all Israeli governments since 1967 have found a way around the feeble American opposition (which has only once been accompanied by a threat to reduce aid) and kept expanding the settlements under various names, programs and excuses. Upon taking office in 2001, the Sharon government pledged not to build new settlements beyond the "current development needs of existing ones" (a synonym for "natural growth.") During that period, however, dozens of new "outposts" appeared on deserted hilltops, with the government's tacit support. The United States demands the removal of all these "outposts," while Sharon says he is ready to dismantle only the "illegal" ones and bides his time by engaging in endless discussions about what is "legal." So far, there have been only sporadic, unconvincing evacuations of "outposts."

Powell avoided confronting Sharon. Indeed, he publicly acknowledged the differences of opinion over the settlement issue, but kicked the problem upstairs, to the president. "There is a question in the minds of Palestinians and many people around the world as to whether or not one can actually bring into being a viable Palestinian state without doing something about the settlement activity and the outposts and the settlements that are there," Powell told Israel Television Channel 2. "This will be one of the most difficult issues we have to deal with. I think dealing with the outposts is easier than ending settlement activity and ending settlement activity is easier than what one might do about settlements in the future, as you try to create a [Palestinian] state. President Bush expects to speak to the prime minister in very open, straightforward, honest, candid terms about settlement activity and settlements in general."

Perhaps reflecting the belief that Powell does not really speak for Bush, Sharon completely ignored this not so veiled warning that Bush was going to get tough with him. The next day, he told the Jerusalem Post that the settlement issue "is not on the horizon right now" and denied any U.S. pressure over it. Furthermore, he told Justice Minister Yossef "Tommy" Lapid on Tuesday that he is not expecting any difficulties in his meeting with Bush, since Israel and the United States "have no basic differences regarding the peace process."

Judging by his past encounters with Bush, Sharon has no reason to worry about his coming trip. His previous encounters with Bush have not been marked by extraordinary personal chemistry, but the two leaders have forged a close political alliance, one driven by mutual interests and a shared worldview. Both believe that sheer power makes the world go round. Their beliefs, and the bond between them, were strengthened by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and through their mutual dislike of veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom they have vowed to dethrone. Last year, after much prodding and debating, Bush accepted Sharon's demand that Arafat be ousted and that all Palestinian terrorism end before Israel would renew peace talks with the Palestinians. In March, just before the Iraq war, Arafat surrendered to foreign and domestic pressure and appointed Abu Mazen to the newly created post of Palestinian prime minister. Abu Mazen's platform calls for eliminating terrorism, which he believes only hurts Palestinian interests and delays its statehood aspirations. Now, it seems, it is Israel's turn to reciprocate. But with Sharon balking at even the smallest steps, will Bush finally knock Israeli and Palestinian heads together or continue to stand on the sideline?

Two contradictory forces have shaped Bush's Mideast policy. On one hand, he has gone further than any other American president in his commitment to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Last Friday, in a commencement speech at the University of South Carolina, Bush pledged that if Palestinians crack down on terrorism, "they and all the world will see the flag of Palestine raised over a free and independent nation." By all accounts, the president takes his "two-state vision" very seriously. Bush's commitment has been further strengthened by his need to repay political debts to his British and Arab partners, who took part in kicking Saddam Hussein out of Baghdad and asked in return for a deeper American involvement in the Palestinian issue.

On the other hand, Bush is eager to get reelected in 2004, and to that end he craves Jewish voters and supporters. Unlike his father, who confronted Israel's right-wing government over the settlements, the younger Bush pays a great deal of attention to the American Jewish community, which by and large has been supportive of Sharon's hard-line policies. (In the midterm elections, Republicans made inroads into the traditionally Democratic Jewish vote -- sending shivers of dread through Democratic strategists, who know that further erosion could cost them key states like Florida.) Until now, Bush has avoided any open debate with the Israeli leader and has generally let Sharon have his way -- most notably when he demanded that Sharon pull Israeli troops out of Palestinian-controlled areas, then said nothing when the Israeli leader simply ignored him. It's a cost-free policy for Bush: The U.S. Congress is reliably pro-Sharon (so much so that the White House has on occasion had to tell it to tone down its rhetoric) and the public, weary of the Iraq war, doesn't want to think anymore about the Middle East.

The current negotiations are focused on the "road map," a three-stage, three-year plan to resolve the conflict and establish an independent Palestine, based on Bush's "visionary" speech of June 24, 2002. From its inception, Sharon has tried to delay the road map, which calls for an end to both terrorism and settlement construction in phase 1, the creation of a Palestinian state within interim borders in phase 2, and a final-status deal in phase 3. Sharon accepted the "Bush vision" in principle, but has refrained from endorsing the road map until Israel's reservations are included. His office prepared more than 100 corrections to the seven-page draft, under 14 "groupings." The most significant correction calls upon the Palestinians to waive their demand for the "right of return" of 1948 refugees to their homes in what is now Israel, as a quid pro quo for even a limited statehood. Given the centrality of the refugee problem in the Palestinian national ethos, this could prove the toughest negotiating point in the entire road-map process.

After these Israeli reservations were officially presented to the White House last month, U.S. officials responded positively. But in keeping with Bush's earlier promise to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the administration presented the draft road map without changes to Sharon and Abu Mazen on April 30.

On the same day, Sharon hosted two senior White House officials who arrived in Israel for a discreet fact-finding mission: Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security advisor, and Elliott Abrams, former Iran-Contra figure and National Security Council senior director, who is a staunch supporter of Israel. Sharon took them on his customary helicopter tour over the West Bank (Bush was taken on the same route during his gubernatorial visit to Jerusalem in late 1998). Not many details came out of the talks, which were meant to remain secret. Israeli officials gave a positive impression, however, and said that Washington accepts Sharon's insistence that the road map be implemented sequentially, not simultaneously -- that is, that Israel will not make any concessions until the Palestinians first act to stop terrorism.

The distinction is crucial: Disagreements about whether the Palestinians have to act first or whether the Israelis must act at the same time have led to the collapse of earlier peace plans. The road map itself declares, "In Phase I the Palestinians immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence according to the steps outlined below; such action should be accompanied by supportive measures undertaken by Israel."

The next visitor was Secretary Powell, who returned to the troubled region for the first time in more than a year. The main purpose of his trip was to affirm Bush's commitment to the postwar peace process and to show U.S. support for Abu Mazen and his two senior lieutenants, security chief Mohammed Dahlan and finance minister Salem Fayyad. Given his previous mediation failures in the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire -- and the unlikelihood that his boss would put any real pressure on Sharon -- Powell approached his trip with extreme caution. He decided not to allow his hosts to drown his mission with their typical blame game. Therefore, he deferred any discussion of the road-map provisions, including the explosive "right of return" issue, and encouraged both sides to begin implementation on the ground through small, mutual steps. He called on the Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and on Israel to reciprocate by easing the economic and humanitarian hardships of the Palestinians in the territories.

Both sides did as little as possible to comply. Abu Mazen pledged to uproot terrorism in gradual steps, and Sharon, after some hesitation, agreed to undertake some "confidence-building measures." The secretary, eager for any success, gave his public blessing to Sharon's gesture. Had he looked more closely, he would have found these measures to have been promised numerous times in the past, always to be taken away for security reasons.

Sharon views Powell's State Department as a bastion of "evenhandedness," which to him means a bunch of pro-Arab peaceniks. Indeed, a few days before the visit, some Sharon aides dropped some contemptuous hints about Powell. The New York Times responded with a harsh editorial about Sharon's delaying tactics. The message reverberated in Jerusalem, and Sharon decided to play nice, enveloping Powell with smiles and friendship.

For his part, Abu Mazen read a list of complaints against Israel, but agreed to meet Sharon before the Israeli leader's departure to Washington. The meeting will be useful to Sharon in burnishing his new dovish image before sitting down with Bush. It's not a new trick: He has met Palestinian leaders in the past two years without anything changing. This time he praised Abu Mazen as a "partner," unlike the detested Arafat; but Sharon made clear that he would discuss only security and not any political issues.

Despite his touted new energy and his big talk about peace, Powell did little to dispel the suspicion that Bush is merely paying diplomatic lip service to the peace process and has no intention of taking any risks. Powell's incremental, "step by step" approach and refusal even to put the road map on the table at this time indicates that the administration is still reluctant to take the plunge. "Bush will intervene only if he sees 80 percent chances for success or more," predicts a senior Israeli official. This caution serves the political needs of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, since it puts off any serious domestic debate over the inevitably controversial elements of any genuine move toward peace. Nevertheless, it carries a great risk of derailment, as its progress is so glacial that the public can hardly perceive it. The same caution or cowardice, hidden under the veneer of repeated declarations of "presidential engagement," has turned all previous mediation efforts -- like the Mitchell report, the Tenet work plan and Zinni's proposals -- into a pile of dead letters.

To be sure, Powell's room to maneuver is limited, not least by the fact that the whole new peacemaking endeavor hangs on Abu Mazen's narrow shoulders. The Palestinian prime minister has yet to prove his authority, while Arafat remains the accepted popular leader and has retained control over a considerable security force. Fearing Arafat's wrath, Abu Mazen could not even host America's top diplomat at the de facto Palestinian capital at Ramallah: The meeting had to be held in the isolated town of Jericho. With his limited powers, how could he fight terrorism?

Abu Mazen wants to start the security process with a "hudna," or agreed armistice between the different Palestinian factions, during which they will refrain from attacks on Israelis. Sharon rejects this approach outright, fearing that under cover of the armistice, the terrorists could regroup and gain weapons and strength for another round of violence. It's highly doubtful, however, whether Abu Mazen's new government has sufficient public support and legitimacy to crack down on deeply rooted forces like Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the perpetrators of suicide attacks in Israel's cities. Israel has proposed a gradual Palestinian takeover in areas now controlled by the Israel Defense Forces, pledging to withdraw from areas where Palestinian security chief Dahlan's forces will take responsibility. The list of security conditions and counter-conditions goes on, while Israel continues its forceful counter-terrorism operations and maintains its right to assassinate terrorist suspects -- a tactic that deeply frustrates and angers the Palestinians.

Which leaves the settlement problem, and especially its first chapter -- removing the "outposts" -- as the only serious test for Sharon's sincerity in his new peace campaign. No one, not even Sharon, claims that the outposts have any security importance. Therefore, their meaning is merely political. And Bush will have to decide in the next few days how far to press the issue with the prime minister during their working session and the following first-time White House dinner.

By 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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