WASHINGTON - It is difficult to describe a pair more different from one another than George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. The physical differences are obvious. One is from a tiny village in mandate-era Palestine, the other the son of patrician Americans. One is an eternal opposition figure who barely made it to the top, and the other is a president son of a president. One is a warrior and general and the other a rear guard pilot whose national service is a matter of controversy. At least their farms are about the same size.
The invitation to Sharon to visit Bush's estate was meant to appear to be the peak of their closeness and intimacy, the grand prize won by the prime minister for his readiness to evacuate settlements: a trip beside the president in the pickup truck, the visit to the flower beds so carefully tended by Laura Bush, crossing the creek on the way to lunch; and most important, the world seeing Sharon as a partner in the shaping of Bush's new, democratic and peace-seeking Middle East. But despite the good intentions, the results only emphasized and highlighted the basic difference between the two leaders. Bush is from Mars and Sharon is from Venus.
Their worldviews are different. Bush is interested in building the ruling institutions of the Palestinian Authority, so it can serve as the functioning core of an independent state. He regards the Palestinians as peace-loving people who want to live normally beside Israel. Sharon explains to him that the main problem is Arab refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own in "the cradle of their birth." Bush speaks about the road map and Sharon responds it hasn't even begun, that we are in a pre-map stage.
Bush wants to know what will happen on the day after the disengagement and Sharon answers: nothing. First the Palestinians will dismantle the terror infrastructure, and only then we will go into a political process. Bush insists the settlements are not to be expanded, and Sharon seeks territorial contiguity between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem. It's good that Condoleezza Rice persuaded the prime minister not to waste the president's time with complaints against the mortar fire in Gaza.
Sharon warned about a real problem. The American efforts for the sake of quick democratization in the Middle East could perpetuate Arab hostility toward Israel even if the regimes are changed from within. The problem is that his arguments sound like excuses to delay the political process. The discussions at the Bush farm highlighted the gap between Israel, where there is still a debate over the withdrawal from Gaza, and the rest of the world, which is already anticipating the next withdrawal. The talk about terrorist infrastructures on the Palestinian side is barely heard, if at all. Bush hopes a coordinated and successful withdrawal will bring about a change in the stubborn Sharon.
That gap is worrisome. Either Sharon does not plan to reach "the day after," or he expects the world to wait on the sidelines "until the Palestinians become Finns," without any demands of Israel to progress. That trick worked in the days of Yasser Arafat. It is difficult to repeat with Mahmoud Abbas, an American favorite. They regard him as the last Palestinian with whom they can work, and therefore it is important he succeed. Sharon found it difficult to say what he could do to help strengthen the Palestinian chairman.
It raises the question of why Sharon even bothered to make the trip all the way to Crawford. What did he expect to achieve there? He did not resolve the dispute with the administration over the construction in the settlement blocs, he only sharpened it. He did strengthen the Bush promise from last year, about the blocs being annexed to Israel in the future. His demand that the road map be postponed until terror is uprooted was not accepted. Nonetheless, maybe it was good he went to Texas, just to hear from the horse's mouth where Bush wants to go, and thus learn how deep the differences run between them. Bush is from Mars, Sharon is from Venus.
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