'U.S. Gives Sharon, Arafat Political Cover'

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Ariel Sharon addresses the America-Israel Friendship League in New York

TIME.com: President Bush met Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today and Secretary of State Powell flies out to the Middle East next week. Clearly there's a sense that without Washington's very active attention, the current Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire will collapse. How does the U.S. hope to hold it together?

Jay Branegan: Bush praised Sharon for his patience, and that helps buy the Israeli leader some political cover. Because he's under pressure at home to not show any more patience. Certainly in public, the two sides maintained a solid front. What it means for peace in the region, however, is hard to say right now. We're going to have to see what happens when Powell comes back from his trip next week. In fact it's probably more important what happens between Powell and Sharon than between Bush and Sharon, because Powell is getting into the nuts and bolts of a timeline for implementing the Mitchell proposals.

Both sides are going to be complaining to the Americans that the other side isn't keeping their end of the deal, and Powell is going to empathize. But they're also going to put everybody's feet to the fire. It actually helps both sides if the U.S. is perceived to be piling on the pressure, because it gives them domestic political cover to do things that their supporters may not like.

Sharon told Bush he's paying a high cost politically, and if he doesn't see more stuff on the Palestinian side — such as arrests of terror suspects — he's not going to be able to sustain Israel's restraint. And now Powell will go to Arafat and say you've got to do more. Both sides will look to Powell to back up their claims of virtue, and of malfeasance on the part of their adversary. And he has to play it very carefully.

As much as anything, he'll be going there as a signal to the other actors on the sidelines of the conflict — the moderate Arab governments and the Europeans — that Washington is really serious about getting involved in this, and that they should each do their part to try and make the cease-fire hold. I don't think Powell has any major game plan except for pressing for a timetable for implementing the Mitchell Report recommendations. And of course the Palestinians believe the U.S. has a stricter interpretation of Mitchell than Sharon does. But Sharon is going around saying Washington agrees with his interpretation, and the Palestinians don't believe that, so they'll want Powell to clarify that.

Sharon's visit is the third by an Israeli leader to the Bush White House in five months. Senator George Mitchell, whose report is the centerpiece of the currenet U.S. cease-fire effort, publicly called on President Bush today to meet with Yasser Arafat. Will President Bush take his advice?

I was surprised that Mitchell chose to do that, even though there's a sense in which the Palestinians have felt long-aggrieved that they've been kept away from the Bush White House. It's remarkable how much the Palestinians looked forward to Bush coming in after all the attention they got from Clinton, because they believed Clinton was too biased towards Israel. So the Palestinians have been bitterly disappointed by the Bush administration. Perhaps Mitchell is saying it's time for the administration to put a little daylight between themselves and Sharon in order to maintain U.S. credibility in future negotiations.

The administration is unlikely to make any decisions on this score until Powell returns, and the fact that Mitchell has publicly called for it makes them less likely to do it in the near term. In the end, it will depend on the situation on the ground.

The Bush administration came into office intending to reduce Washington's role in Mideast peacemaking. Yet now you have a situation where the President and the Secretary of State are having to devote constant attention to keeping the Israelis and Palestinians on board for a cease-fire brokered, and pretty much imposed on them, by Washington. Is this where the administration wanted to be on the Middle East?

I don't think they wanted to be here. They would argue that this is not squandering political capital, as they accused President Clinton of doing, but a legitimate investment of political capital in sustaining a fragile truce, because if it fails the next one may be a long time coming. This is the next logical step after brokering the cease-fire. Still, they're leery of getting stuck, and they'll try to do as little as they can get away with. The fact that they're not plunging in is an improvement, in their view, over the previous administration. And it's worth remembering that part of their initial reluctance was a hard-eyed recognition that there wasn't much the U.S. could do.

Still, they believe the situation has changed somewhat since the disco bombing, and there have been a lot more actors involved in building this cease-fire — the Russians, the Europeans, Kofi Annan. The Bush administration has taken a more multilateral approach — their more humble goals make them less leery of involving others than the Clinton administration was. And if Powell can come back with a timetable for implementing the Mitchell recommendations, that would be a big step forward.