There has been some worrisome creaking coming from the wood of the framework holding the relationship between Israel and the U.S. together. Prime Minister Sharon's public criticism of the Bush administration in his "Czechoslovakia speech" was the expression of a dangerous lack of communication between Jerusalem and Washington. Sharon has not created a channel for quiet diplomacy with the administration and the result is mutual suspicion. The Americans are worried about violent Israeli steps in the territories that will upset the stability in the region. Sharon is afraid of being surprised by a new peace plan America is coordinating with its Arab friends.
Sharon speaks often with Secretary of State Colin Powell, sometimes several times a day, but he speaks much less with President Bush. But telephone diplomacy can't replace an orderly, working relationship. A transatlantic call can deliver a message or a reaction to the day's event. But it's not the way to raise diplomatic ideas or to fly discretely a "test balloon" at a level beneath the uppermost echelons of the governments. The result of such failure is public diplomacy, which by nature reveals problems rather than solves them.
The prime minister does not trust ambassadors David Ivry and Daniel Kurtzer, who function at a technical level. He has nobody in his inner circle who is an "Americanologist" in charge of the delicate relationship with Washington. Instead, private advisors feed him advice, like businessman Arye Genger, who whisper in his ear what they think is going on in the U.S. capital. From the Prime Minister's Office, therefore, it looks like the State Department has become the pro-Arab lobby in Washington, orchestrated by Middle East affairs undersecretary William Burns and policy planner Richard Haas. Israel has no one there who can bypass the official bureaucracy to reach Colin Powell's ear, like in the days of Dennis Ross. Israeli supporters are mostly concentrated on the right-wing side of the administration, in the upper levels of the Pentagon, White House and a few departments in the State Department. But Washington has not appointed someone to be in charge of "the Israel portfolio," and the differences of opinion between the various factions in Washington create confusion in Jerusalem.
The terror attacks on the U.S. only exacerbated the problem. Since September 11, Sharon has gone through three stages in his approach to the U.S. At first, there was euphoria in the hope that he could use the opportunity to get rid of Yasser Arafat. Then came panic and the fear that the administration would collect payment from Israel in the form of a new peace initiative as the price of a coalition with the Arabs. In the background were the memories of the Gulf War and the Bush family's ties to the Saudi Arabians, as well as a spate of critical press reports against Sharon because of the delays he imposed on a Peres-Arafat meeting. In recent days there's been some sobering up on both sides. Sharon listened to Bush and ordered the withdrawal from Abu Sneina and the continuation of Shimon Peres' "staged cease-fire," which meant a political risk to Sharon's right flank. There was a wave of press reports that both declared Israel innocent of the terror attacks and were harshly critical of the Saudis and Egyptians, allies who turned out to be slender reeds. Israel was returned to its place as the partner for stability in the Middle East.
That's the deal Sharon seems to be offering the Americans - restrained behavior in the territories in exchange for coordination on any political initiatives. In other words, take quiet in Hebron and drop dividing Jerusalem in the upcoming Powell speech on the Middle East. The administration promised not to surprise Sharon, adding there's no peace plan on the way. But the suspicions have not faded. The resumption of the assassination policy is making Washington nervous.
Next week, a convoy of emissaries from Israel heads to Washington to try resuming political coordination between the two countries. The multiplicity of channels could also turn into a problem, no less than the lack of current channels. The administration will try to figure out who really represents Sharon - Peres? Dan Meridor? Natan Sharansky? Or maybe it's Zalman Shoval or Uzi Dayan? The prime minister needs to appoint a contact person for the administration - and demand that Bush and Powell to do the same.
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