Why Bush Can't Give Sharon What He Wants

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MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Since the U.S. war on terrorism began a year ago, Ariel Sharon has not made life easy for George W. Bush. The Israeli leader's determination to retaliate for Palestinian suicide attacks with overwhelming, at times indiscriminate, force has infuriated Arab allies and fueled anti-American hatred among Muslims around the world. In spite of that, Bush has largely given Sharon a free pass — equating Israel's war against Palestinian terror with the U.S. struggle to defeat al-Qaeda. After the two leaders meet today in Washington, you'll likely see them shake hands and slap backs and hear renewed admiration for the other's resolve and grit. But behind the scenes, there's good reason to believe that Bush will attempt to strike a hard bargain with Sharon — before the Israeli Prime Minister's policies derail the Administration's effort to build support for a war against Iraq.

Ideally, the U.S. would like to exact two concessions from Sharon: a commitment to ease the Israeli army's occupation of the West Bank, and a tacit assurance that Israel will not retaliate against Iraq should Saddam Hussein, faced with imminent military defeat, lob Scuds into Israeli cities — as he did 39 times during the Gulf War. In so doing, the U.S. hopes to allay the prewar jitters of Arab leaders, who fear that an Israeli attack on Iraq could inflame their own populations, destabilize their regimes and perhaps draw them into a wider war.

Administration officials issued a preview of the agenda for today's meeting through a series of public and private communications with the Israelis over the last few weeks. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, one of Sharon's most ardent defenders in the Administration, has said it would be in "Israel's overwhelming best interests" not to launch any retaliatory strikes against Iraq. Through his aides, Bush also demanded last month that Israeli forces lift their siege of Yasser Arafat's compound and hold back in the West Bank and Gaza. It's working: Israeli officials now say they may withdraw the army from Hebron by the end of this week.

And yet, while Sharon may listen to the Administration's two requests, he's unlikely to agree to both, especially when much of the Israeli public agrees that the military should strike back — against either Iraqi missiles or Palestinian bombers. It would be politically difficult, and also morally inconsistent, for Bush to push Sharon to hold his fire in the face of attacks on Israeli civilians. That's why the White House may try to make Sharon a deal: If Israel will restrain itself in dealing with one of its adversaries — either Iraq or the Palestinians — then it can do what it wants with the other. The guess here is that the Administration's top priority is to prevent Israeli intervention in the campaign against Iraq, in part because any Israeli strikes could also endanger U.S. forces in the region. In exchange, Sharon may insist that the Administration ease up on its recent criticism of Israeli policies toward Arafat and the PA.

That may be the compromise the U.S. and Israel ultimately reach. But it's the wrong one. First and foremost, asking Israel to forswear any response to an unprovoked Iraqi attack is a policy without any strategic or moral foundation, as even Arab leaders would agree. While Israeli intervention would have a short-term, inflammatory effect on Arab opinion, the rage would fade if (and it's still a big if) the U.S. removes Saddam quickly and convinces the world that its interest is to stabilize Iraq, not colonize it. The risks to Iraqi civilians — and to U.S. troops — posed by an Israeli air-strike would likely be lower than they were during the Gulf War, thanks to advances in precision-guided munitions and surveillance technology. And while Israel remains the object of unremitting hostility throughout the Arab world, it won't make its image much worse by retaliating against Saddam.

The Palestinian issue, on the other hand, has become an open sore that continues to erode the long-term strength of Washington's war on terror. The Palestinian plight has become the fulcrum on which the Muslim world's attitudes toward the West turn — and despite the hopes of some Administration hawks, that's unlikely to change even if the U.S. pulls off regime change in Baghdad. As much as the U.S. — and many Palestinians too — would like to see regime change in Palestine, it won't happen so long as Israeli tanks keep the West Bank in lockdown and allow Arafat to portray himself as a martyr. And without a new Palestinian leadership, a Palestinian state and a lasting settlement in Israel will remain a mirage. That, of course, may be in Sharon's interests. But isn't it time to say that it's not in ours?