Less than eight months before the U.S. presidential elections, it must be assumed that the mind of George W. Bush is concentrating, almost to the exclusion of everything else, on matters connected with the need to win another term in office. It is clear by now that Democratic candidate John Kerry is going to be a formidable opponent. Support for Bush has been fading; and at this point in time, Kerry has a slender lead in the polls. It is going to take a concerted effort for Bush to win this election.
But Bush is not alone; his entire team - Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and everyone else down the line - is looking at everything from the perspective of how it is going to affect the president's chances in the election. Almost nothing else matters. Although there is no sign on the doors to their offices saying "Please come back to see me after the elections", they must be hoping that visitors wishing to discuss matters not relevant to the issue occupying their minds at this time are smart enough to see the unwritten message.
The election is going to turn on two issues - Iraq and the economy:
Will there be clear signs in the remaining eight months that the U.S. military operation in Iraq is beginning to achieve the goals that Bush has set for it; that a democratic Iraq is taking shape; that violence against the U.S. armed forces there is on the decline; and, most importantly, that the presence of U.S. forces there can be substantially reduced without putting the entire enterprise at risk? Or will it look like the United States has got stuck in a quagmire and is finding it difficult to disentangle itself from there?
Israelis, with long and painful experience in the Middle East, know just how difficult it is going to be to achieve the goals that President Bush has set.
As for the economy, it looks like the United States has started to emerge from the recession that hit it when the high-tech bubble burst; but it still has a way to go before the evidence for a real upturn is all there. At this point, job-creation is the name of the game, and the results in this sphere have been meager so far.
For now, it does not look like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be one of the prominent issues in the election.
So what does all this have to do with Sharon's plans for unilateral disengagement in Gaza and the uprooting of Israeli settlements? Not much really, unless the execution of this plan ends up in an escalation of violence in the area that blows up in Bush's face, highlighting another problem that his rival can accuse him of having created. Bush probably prefers to leave the issue well enough alone.
But that's not the way the Prime Minister's Office sees it. Every day, a new Israeli visitor - Weisglass, Mofaz, an entourage of Israeli civil servants - appears to show up in Washington, trying to explain the intricacies of Sharon's disengagement plan to his hapless American hosts. And who's next? Maybe Sharon himself. The Americans are courteous and polite, but this disengagement plan is really not anywhere near the top of their agenda. Come back after the elections is what they would like to say to their Israeli visitors.
But the Israeli visitors don't seem to be able to take the hint. They want an American endorsement of the Sharon plan; and, what's more, they want to be compensated by the Americans for the plan, which has been conceived in Jerusalem. They insist that the plan for unilateral disengagement is part of the president's road map. From Washington, and for that matter from anywhere else, it does not look that way. This foolhardy plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal in the middle of the war against Palestinian terrorism is more likely to encourage an upsurge in Palestinian terror rather than bring peace and quiet to the area.
As summer approaches and the American election campaign heats up, it is not likely that the U.S. administration will endorse Sharon's plan. Everything is going to have to be put on hold until after November. And by then, everything may look different - in Israel, in the United States, and maybe even among the Palestinians. In the meantime, pursue the war against terrorism and don't bother the president.
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