Analysis: Instead of friendship - disagreements
Bush-Sharon meeting is overshadowed by arguments regarding settlement construction and peace with PA.
CRAWFORD, Texas - The news conference George Bush and Ariel Sharon held at the U.S. president's ranch felt like there was something a little off. Instead of conveying friendship and partnership, the two leaders exposed their disagreements. The tremendous effort invested in flying the prime minister here, in staging a fabulous photo op, and in tedious preparatory talks by aides, was overshadowed by arguments over construction in the settlements and the way to get the peace process moving after the withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria.
Bush's message was clear: He wants to establish a democratic, territorially contiguous Palestinian state headed by Mahmoud Abbas. The Americans are fed up with the mutual complaining and foot-dragging.
Sharon insists that nothing will happen after the pullout, and the peace process will await the dismantlement of all Palestinian terrorism infrastructures. Bush thinks that attitude is misguided; that a successful withdrawal will change Sharon's view. After Gaza proves to the world the Palestinians are capable of self-government.
Bush's ranch is an amazing backdrop on a sunny spring day. Rolling green plains, herds of cattle and sheep, endless wild flowers and birds of prey circling above. No wonder Bush complains about the Middle East as a complicated region: his private property is twice the size of the disputed area between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem that Sharon wants to fill with thousands of new apartments.
Bush's aides, the experts in staging political speeches, moved the meeting with Sharon at the last minute from the president's private residence to the office complex he built on the property. They wanted the purple floral carpets to be visible on television. They set up two microphones on a small muddy plateau, and the leaders read their prepared messages.
In the days preceding the visit, Sharon's aides said there was nothing to worry about. That the public dispute over construction between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem would not cast a pall on the meeting, whose purpose was to praise Sharon for the disengagement. Bush congratulated the prime minister for his courage and determination, and lauded his brave initiative to leave Gaza. He reiterated last year's promise that the permanent borders would take into account "the existing civilian population centers" in the territories. Sharon reiterated his promises to support a Palestinian state territorially contiguous with the West Bank. The problem was that both of them looked as though they had swallowed a broomstick.
Despite the buddy jokes he exchanged with Bush, it felt on Monday like the Sharon charm had lost some of its luster.
On his way to the ranch Sharon complained harshly about Abbas, and said that the renewal of fire in the Gaza Strip would take pride of place in his talk with Bush. It looked on Monday like the Americans had not been keen about that message, steadfastly affirming that each side must focus on its own commitments. Sharon changed tacks at the press conference, refraining from criticizing Abbas except to say he must "do more against terrorism."
It seems neither Sharon nor Bush had much to lose by displaying their disagreement. Sharon can show his rivals in the Likud that he isn't the Americans' yes-man; Bush can show his European and Arab friends that he isn't in Sharon's pocket.
From Sharon's standpoint, Bush's most important message perhaps was his expectation "to work with the prime minister in the years to come." That's an intriguing signal ahead of the Likud primaries and elections expected in Israel.
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