Why Talk Will be Tough When Bush Meets Sharon

  • Share
  • Read Later

Donald Rumsfeld hosts Ariel Sharon at the Pentagon

President Bush's Middle East agenda requires that he get Ariel Sharon talking, when they meet today, about moving into fast-track negotiations over creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon's agenda is plainly quite different: He wants to talk about Yasser Arafat's links to violence and about remaking the Palestinian Authority to Israel's specifications, about a long-term armistice (rather than a fast-track peace) and about investing heavily in constructing Israeli military buffer zones in the West Bank and Gaza rather than preparing to withdraw, as Bush has urged, to "internationally recognized boundaries."

Despite their personal friendship, Sharon has not made life easy for Bush in recent weeks. First the Israeli leader defied the President's calls for an immediate end to the West Bank offensive, forcing Bush to revise his demands. Now Sharon's brought with him to Washington a PR campaign designed to convince Americans that their President's Middle East policy is misguided. The White House has insisted that Israel has no option but to deal with Arafat; Israeli officials currently in Washington are telling everyone who'll listen that they have proof that Arafat is an incorrigible terrorist — and even that Bush's good friends, the Saudis, are purportedly funding Palestinian suicide bombers.

Sharon and his aides appear to believe that appealing to the U.S. public over the heads of the administration will limit pressure from the White House, and the hawkish pro-Sharon mood on Capitol Hill certainly gives them cause for confidence. The very fact that the administration has waded reluctantly back into the Middle East conflict suggests the depth of the foreign policy crisis. The Arab moderates on whose support Washington must rely for the war against al-Qaeda and any campaign to oust Saddam Hussein are adamant that America's standing in the Arab world — and even the survival of their own pro-Western regimes — depends on a swift and final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by using the 1967 borders as a basis to create two states. The Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians are offering to help deliver Palestinian compliance and build a stable and peaceful state alongside Israel, on the terms laid out in proposals touted by the Clinton administration. But that's contingent on President Bush delivering the Israelis — and Sharon is not about to accept Washington's tutelage.

The Israeli leader's own idea of a peace plan consists largely of ending violence and agreeing on a long-term truce, postponing the question of disentangling and demarcating Israel from Palestine for up to a decade. Sharon's own domestic concerns may be a factor. The governing body of his own Likud Party is due to vote in a little over a week to reject the principle of any Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, which would preclude the two-state solution being pursued by Washington. And while Secretary of State Colin Powell is calling for an end to settlement activities in the West Bank and Gaza, Sharon continues to insist that the settlements are sacrosanct. A little over a week ago, he proclaimed that the fate of Netzarim (a remote settlement in Gaza where hundreds of soldiers guard a few dozen families) is the fate of Tel Aviv.

A peace plan is not really what Sharon wants to talk about. He wants to persuade the Bush administration that it has erred in insisting he deal with Arafat, and that the Palestinian Authority needs to be reconstituted in a form more palatable to Israel and the U.S. But while the Bush administration is sympathetic to Sharon's loathing of Arafat, it is also aware that there are no alternative interlocutors with whom the fate of the Palestinians can be credibly negotiated.

Many Palestinians share Washington's disdain for the corruption, cynicism and authoritarianism of Arafat's administration, and are stridently demanding reform, democratization and accountability of the Palestinian Authority. But one of their demands is for a leadership that will more effectively challenge the Israeli occupation than Arafat has done. One of the major Palestinian criticisms of the PA has been that it failed to protect them from the Israeli onslaught, and that its security chiefs abandoned their men. Those pushing hardest for reform in the PA are also, in many instances, among the most strongly resistant to the idea that its security forces should be rounding up the Islamists and other radicals at the forefront of the intifada. Palestinian democracy is no more a guarantor of peace with Israel than Egyptian or Jordanian democracy would be.

Unlike the Israelis, Arafat's Palestinian and Arab critics are not calling for his ouster, but instead for an overhaul of the institutions of his governance to make him more accountable. As the siege of Ramallah showed, any attempt by the Israelis to sideline Arafat actually has the opposite effect, forcing even his staunchest Palestinian and Arab critics to rally behind him. Moreover, the Bush administration is keenly aware that the political-military crisis that drew the U.S. reluctantly back into Mideast mediation is in no sense reducible to one man, and Washington remains convinced, for now, that Arafat's ouster is more likely to exacerbate than to resolve the conflict.

President Bush and his aides will join with Sharon in berating Arafat. But at the end of the day they'll also insist that the Palestinian leader's failings don't excuse the Israelis from the increasingly urgent need to negotiate a workable political solution.