LONDON - The international political seesaw tilted Ariel Sharon's way this week. Only four months ago, on their way to the war in Iraq, Tony Blair and George Bush were treating him like a wayward pupil they could reprimand. Blair convinced Bush to impose the road map on Sharon, and British ministers were comparing Israel to Iraq.
This week the picture changed. Blair and Bush are in political crises over mounting claims that they dispersed false intelligence information to drag their countries into a military adventure in Baghdad. In that kind of atmosphere, Sharon was welcomed to London as a desirable guest. The more complicated the situation in Iraq, the more the road map looks like a positive outcome of the war, and the British wanted to embrace the Israeli prime minister to at least protect that accomplishment.
As far as Sharon is concerned, the trip to London symbolized his breakout from the international isolation he has experienced since coming to power. A friendly Britain is his
gateway to Europe, and the prime minister knows how to pay back a favor. Loyal to his call to "set the past aside" in relations between the two countries, Sharon came to Blair's rescue and announced that Israeli intelligence, through its own sources, reached the same worrisome assessments about Iraq as did its parallel intelligence services in Britain and the United States. In conversations with British reporters, a "senior Israeli source" said the findings about weapons of mass destruction were confirmed and real. "Iraq is a big country, and the weapons are hidden," said the "senior source."
Blair decided that the visit would be successful and honored Sharon with a friendly gesture of a dinner while moving all obstacles out of the way. The relative quiet on the security front and IDF activity in the territories took the usual complaints about the occupation and treatment of the Palestinians off the agenda and made it easier for Sharon to finally enjoy a trip overseas. How nice it was for him to leave the single mothers to Benjamin Netanyahu and even go to the theater instead of cutting short his trip because of a terrorist attack.
Sharon spent three hours at 10 Downing, and Blair did everything he could to make those hours pleasant. He listed to lengthy explanations delivered by Sharon and Dov Weisglass, and signaled that his attitude to Israel is friendlier that the Arabists at the British foreign office. According to the Israeli report on the meetings, even the outposts weren't mentioned, and neither were abatements for the Palestinians. The separation fence came up in preparatory conversation, mostly for the protocol, to make sure that the British could demonstrate they were balanced. And if that wasn't enough, the British ambassadors in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut were sent to deliver official protests against Arab anti-Semitism.
Sharon waxed nostalgic with Blair about studying in Britain in the 1950s, but behind the warm exchanges there were some tough positions: there will be no progress without dismantling the terror organizations and getting rid of Arafat. The trust he has for Abu Mazen and Mohammed Dahlan is very fragile. Sharon finds it difficult to believe they will disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad if there is no heavy international pressure on them. He doubts that the meeting with the Palestinian prime minister, planned for the beginning of next week, will actually take place. He also is not convinced that Europe will change its "unbalanced" positions.
The Sharon-Blair talks focused on the Palestinians. Perhaps it's a shame that they didn't talk more about Iraq in order to draw some lessons from what appears to be American amateurishness on the way to the war and management of the occupation. The Americans are also investing a lot of effort and baby-sitting time in the territories. John Wolf, the chief road map monitor, wants to increase the size of his team and is busy fortifying his position in Washington; he speaks at least once a week with Condoleezza Rice, and the success of his mission largely depends on Dahlan's goodwill. In Jerusalem they know very well that as in the case of Iraq, when it comes to management of the road map, the Americans don't have a back-up plan in case of failure. And that's the greatest risk of all to the process.
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