Convinced that Ariel Sharon will win the elections, the American administration is openly helping his campaign and ignoring his rivals. While the prime minister and his aides maintain intensive contacts with the highest levels in Washington, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to make do with polite formal conversations by phone. He didn't even rate a working meeting with Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, who did find time to meet with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Amram Mitzna did meet for the first time with Kurtzer, who toured Haifa this week. But the venue for the meeting, at Haifa city hall and not the Labor Party headquarters, perpetuates the gap between municipal Mitzna and the state's Sharon.
The White House has provided two buttresses for Sharon's campaign. Its agreement to postpone discussions of the "road map" and forgo an official Israeli response until after the elections, frees Sharon from the need to detail his political positions. Thus, he can cloak himself in his beloved ambiguity, and avoid making clear statements that would expose him to criticism about the road map, such as the establishment of a Palestinian state next year and a total freeze on the settlements.
The State Department pressured Israel to respond to the road map so it could reach agreement on it with the Quartet by December 20. American diplomats even took part in drafting the latest version of the document, which puts Israel on the same moral plane as the Palestinians. But the White House made clear that the draft is only a working paper, still unapproved by the administration's senior levels, and hinted that the next draft will be more convenient for Israel.
Sharon's emissary, Dov Weisglass, explained this week in Washington to Condoleezza Rice that it's impossible to seriously deal with the road map before the elections, and until then, the contacts will continue. "The Americans accept that," a senior government source said.
The second prize Uncle Sam gave Sharon is much more important. The administration's readiness to discuss the Israeli aid package, and to host Weisglass in the White House three days before the Likud primaries, looks just like a call to vote Sharon. The administration is playing the innocent, explaining that Weisglass asked for the meeting and Rice's schedule had the free time. The prime minister is now working on getting an American declaration that the money is on the way. That kind of announcement would rebuff critics of his economic failure.
Sharon is taking a risk by leaning so heavily on the U.S. He's mortgaged his political future for the sake of President Bush and exposed himself to pressure in the future. But it doesn't look like he has a reason to worry. The current assessment in the administration says that some time in May or June, the picture after the war on Iraq will become clear. Bush will then have six months until the start of the 2004 campaign, and he will focus on the economy, which is what determines the outcome of the vote in America.
After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the operations in Yemen, the Philippines and Indonesia, the president will have plenty of proof of his war on terror. The last thing he'll want to do in the short time remaining to him until the elections is open a third front. Therefore, he won't try to restart the political peace process between the Israelis and Arabs; But to the dismay of the Israeli defense establishment, he also won't turn on Iran, Syria or the Hezbollah.
According to this assessment, it's up to Israel to initiate a peace deal. The Palestinians are perceived in Washington as troublemakers, who insist on continuing to use terror. Yasser Arafat feels strengthened and is blocking the reforms. If Sharon wants to devote his second term to achieving a peace deal and asks for help from the president, he'll find a partner in the White House. Bush does want to see his vision implemented through the road map. But unlike Bill Clinton, he doesn't wake up every morning thinking about his peace legacy in the Middle East. Therefore, he won't start suddenly pressuring Israel to get out of the territories. He needs the support of American Jewry much more.
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