White House Puts a Smile on Sharon

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Ariel Sharon's fourth meeting with the President Bush in the past year was a reminder of how dramatically the diplomatic tides have shifted. The most frequent visitor to the Clinton White House had been Sharon's archenemy, Yasser Arafat — and the Palestinian leader has been nowhere near George Bush's Washington. But despite his absence, it was Arafat who dominated much of Thursday's discussion at the White House.

Following the meeting, President Bush repeated his longstanding contention that Arafat needs to do more to rein in gunmen and suicide bombers. But Bush appeared to have rejected Sharon's attempts to persuade Washington to sever ties with Arafat altogether. Despite their frustration with what they see as Arafat's refusal to act decisively against terrorism, Bush administration officials see no alternative but to keep channels open to the elected leader of the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, Sharon’s promotion of talks with "alternative" Palestinian leaders is something of a fig leaf — the Israeli prime minister has opened a channel of communication with three senior PA leaders, but even Sharon acknowledges that all three report to Arafat.

Rather than follow Sharon’s recommendations to ditch Arafat, U.S. officials reportedly advised the Israeli leader to reconsider his own tactics. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Thursday that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, making clear that she was speaking for the President, told Israeli defense minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer that by keeping Arafat under virtual house arrest in Ramallah, the Israelis may actually be actually be building rather than undermining Arafat's political standing.

Sharon has managed, over the past six months, to get the U.S. administration to effectively endorse his view that Arafat is the reason for the ongoing violence. Even more significant may have been Sharon's success, over the past five weeks, in drawing Washington closer to its own assessment of Iran. Israeli officials were crowing last week over the President’s citing of Tehran as part of his "axis of evil," having long identified Iran as the most dangerous of its long-term enemies.

Sharon's impressive diplomatic achievements haven't erased the basic fact haunting Israelis: His first year in office has failed to produce the security promised in his election campaign. A poll published by the newspaper Maariv a week ago showed that Sharon's domestic approval rating had fallen below 50 percent for the first time since his landslide victory. Clearly, Israel's grinding economic recession and the absence of any signs of progress towards resolving its conflict with the Palestinians are taking its toll on domestic politics.

So, despite Sharon's access to the White House — and Arafat's lackluster charm offensive in whatever column space and airtime he can commandeer in the U.S. media — the situation on ground continues to deteriorate. And there little reason to believe that the best efforts of Bush and Sharon to turn the screws on Arafat will change that reality.