Sharon-Bush Meeting Lowers Expectations for Powell Trip

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TIM SLOAN/AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon talks to the press outside the White House

How significant are the differences between Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and the Bush administration over how to move forward on the cease-fire?

Matt Rees (Jerusalem): Sharon is trying to convey a sense that he's more at his wit's end with Arafat than he really is. And that's because he realizes that he's in a difficult position. After the Tel Aviv disco bombing, Arafat was hours away from suffering a very serious Israeli strike, and he wanted the cease-fire at that point to avoid retaliation. Three weeks later, he doesn't need the cease-fire as much. He's popular at home, and doesn't have to deal with an opposition as long as his interests are the same as those of the opposition. But Sharon needs the cease-fire now, because his election promise to the Israelis was that he would bring violence to an end.

The Tenet agreement and the Mitchell Report create pressure on Sharon to offer Arafat something in return for a cease-fire, and that's something to which he's very opposed, because he sees it as rewarding the violence of the last nine months. Also, that concession would involve a real settlement freeze, which is something Sharon will find politically difficult to implement — particularly in return for the Palestinians simply stopping violence.

So Sharon is trying to emphasize to the Americans that the problem is the violence, not the settlements. But both he and Arafat are going to have problems doing what Powell wants them to do.

Presumably the Palestinians will welcome signs of discord between Bush and Sharon, because they've been alarmed at Sharon's claims that Washington supports his interpretation of the requirements for renewed negotiations…

Jamil Hamad (Bethlehem): Secretary of State Powell's mission has certainly been put under a big question mark as a result of the differences between Sharon and Bush. The Israelis are not putting too much expectation on the visit, but the Palestinians may be misreading the differences between Sharon and Bush, falsely believing that these have arisen because Bush has taken the Palestinian interpretation. Sharon will stick to his position, and won't be particularly diplomatic with Powell. He'll insist that that the Palestinians stop all violence for ten days before he'll carry out the next step.

It's very doubtful that Powell is going to achieve any fruitful result. The cease-fire is still violated every day, and some Palestinians are determined to continue firing at Israelis. There is also a growing anti-American feeling on the Palestinian streets. Every day the American flag is burned in Gaza and Ramallah and Bethlehem, and we can expect to see demonstrations against Powell.

So why is Powell even bothering to go if his chances of success are so low?

Jay Branegan (Washington): The bar for success is being set a lot lower; he's not going there to try and restart the Camp David talks. If the cease-fire is still in place after three weeks, that's a success. But his higher goal of locking both sides into a timetable for implementing the Mitchell proposals and reopening talks may not be achievable on this trip. Clearly, there are differences of interpretation, such as whether ten days without violence precedes a "cooling off" period, or whether that in itself constitutes a "cooling off" period. Sharon has gotten some credit from the U.S. for staying his hand in the face of continued violence, but he's going to be hard-pressed to go forward with anything unless there's something pretty close to a 100 percent reduction in violence, even though the U.S. is sympathetic to the Arafat response that he can't control everything.

And, of course, it's important to remember that part of the success may simply be in showing up, because Powell is taking this trip in no small part to reassure U.S. allies in the Arab world that the Bush administration is seriously engaged with the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The administration is now finding itself having to choreograph two reluctant dancers in a cease-fire process for which neither has much enthusiasm. To what extent will Washington be prepared to lean on the players to move them forward?

Branegan: Often times, that's useful. U.S. pressure provides an excuse for leaders on both sides to do things that own public may be reluctant to accept.

Rees: But citing U.S. pressure is not particularly convincing to the extremists on either side, and it's important to recognize that the extremists are no longer so far out of the mainstream. The last ten months of violence have radicalized both Israelis and Palestinians, and they may not be convinced by the need to give ground because the Americans are pushing.

Branegan: Sure, this was never going to be easy. It's the art of the possible. Powell is going because Washington believes the current cease-fire process is the best chance of curbing the violence in the region. But the fact that it's the best chance doesn't mean it's a particularly good chance.